Even after many successful decades of work and study, Chief Accessibility Advocate to the Department of Transport (DoT) Tricia Malowney says she is still treated with pity.
Developing Australian Communities is proud to have caught up with Tricia, and to hear her story and views on the disability sector within Australia.
Tricia contracted polio at the age of four months. Her left leg is completely paralysed and she uses callipers and crutches to walk.
Yet, despite success across a variety of roles and careers, people STILL just can’t seem to see past her disability.
“So, in effect, I have always had a disability,” Tricia says.
“I am 68 and cannot walk. I left school at 16 because I was unable to attend university."
“I completed my degree in anthropology/criminology while working for Victoria Police in my mid 40’s."
“I have been married for over 40 years to a very nice person that I imported from overseas."
“He doesn’t care that I can’t walk – we still have people wonder why he married me - Did he do it just to get into Australia?"
“Immigration is not looking at him – but because I have a disability people assume I am a burden."
“I am one of 10 children and my parents had the same expectations of me as they had from my siblings. – get an education, get a job, and leave home."
“I have worked in banking, as a radio operator in a remote Northern Territory town, I have worked in a factory, in the public service and run a successful business for the past 20+ years – and yet I am treated with pity because I couldn’t possibly be happy as I am, and have many people offering to pray for me."
“I probably have much better lives than they have."
“I work locally, nationally and internationally – I ran training programs in Myanmar and Malaysia, I regularly work in New York and London and in Africa – yet my disability is all people see.”
As well as her Department of Transport role, Tricia is also a strong gender and disability advocate.
She says the intersection of gender and disability speaks to the compounding nature of disadvantage.
“I look at women with disabilities who have been sterilised without their consent,” Tricia says.
“The number of women who have had their children removed … The fact that only 38% participants in the NDIS are female."
“Women with disabilities are less likely to have a decent education, be employed or live independently."
“Women with disabilities experience violence at rates higher than any other community.”
Being independent, it was not until Tricia started to notice that others were not as empowered as her that she took up the challenge to become more involved in disability advocacy and the sector as a whole.
“I was working for Victoria Police as a researcher/policy writer and a senior police officer asked would I be the disability liaison officer,” Tricia says.
“I said I knew nothing about that, and he said, but you have one – and so I thought okay let’s have a look, and that was when I found out that others did not have access to the same things I had access to."
“I have always worked, travelled, lived a good life – others have not.”
Being a person with a disability, Tricia has her finger on the sector’s pulse and has strong views about the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) and the disability sector/community.
“The NDIS is the best thing to happen to the disability community – it might not work as well as it should – but it is certainly better than it was before,” she says.
“We keep hearing about financial sustainability, but we are not looking at the economic benefits of employing people with disabilities – which was to be one of the key initiatives of the introduction of the NDIS."
“Most of the discussion has gone to how many people are in the scheme – no one wants to have to use the NDIS – it is not a choice for many of us.”
Tricia says the government must start looking at their obligation to support all the people of Australia, not just the easy ones, but so should society as a whole.
“We need to have the rest of society pick up their responsibilities – we are all users of services, and the sector could support us to get that message out there,” she says.
“This is not just a government issue - this is a whole of society issue."
“There could be a better explanation of the idea of the insurance component."
“We know that anyone could have a child with a disability, have an uninsured accident, develop a chronic illness – this is who the NDIS is for."
However, Tricia says the tide is turning and the sector today is in a far better position than it was years ago.
“The sector generally is learning – they are starting to understand that we know what we need and are starting to talk to us before they make their business decisions,” she said.
“We still have reliance on SIL (Supported Independent Living) funding, even though we know that the younger people with disabilities are looking to Individualised Living Options – It is certainly better than it was years ago when we were institutionalised to “protect” us".
“Recognising the “dignity of risk” is improving the lives of so many people.”
While there are many strengths and weaknesses in the disability sector and industry in general, Tricia says the primary objective of the sector should be to empower.
"The biggest weakness is the sector - considering the disability community as receivers of services only,” she said.
“The primary role of the sector should be to empower – looking to make people as independent as possible, ensuring that we are employed to provide our expertise, to develop programs.”
And, has been highlighted many times recently, Tricia adds her voice to the call to improve the employment numbers of people with disabilities in the Australian workforce.
“The disability sector is notoriously bad at employing people with disabilities – do as we say, not as we do,” she said.
However, the biggest strength is the building of the disability community (as opposed to the disability sector) to be recognised as the experts in the field.
“The development of the Disability Leadership Institute (DLI) started five years ago in Canberra and is now in over 20 countries – this is a place for us.”
The DLI is an Australian initiative that offers leadership development and support for disability leaders, including coaching, training, networking, and a range of resources.
It was established by disability leader Christina Ryan for disability leaders to change the way leadership is understood.
The organisation does things differently by looking at leadership through a disability perspective, and by acknowledging the specific attributes of disability leaders.
This perspective is then used to develop programs, short courses and webcasts so its members have access to the latest in leadership development without encountering ableism and discrimination, while also using their disability to enhance leadership styles.
The DLI is also the home of the Australian National Register of Disability Leaders which offers a single portal for companies or agencies wishing to engage C suite expertise, find a new board member, engage a conference speaker, or locate a media expert.
The register is open to all disabled people, and open to all companies and agencies wishing to improve their diversity. All members are listed on the National Register.
Tricia says she’s lucky her role as Chief Accessibility Advocate to the (DoT) has importance and influence as she is able to speak to “anyone I want to speak to” to draw attention to the disability sector, industry and community.
“I am very lucky – I have a role of some importance, I get to speak to anyone I want to speak to – to look at what is happening, to influence change on the development of plans and programs, policies and procedures, the employment of people with disabilities at all levels,” she said.
“I get to speak to those who need to be spoken to, not just those who want to speak to me.”
Her role, that she has held since November 1 last year, involves:
“My career has taken off after many false starts – just as I was thinking of retirement!” Tricia says.
“My success is about empowering others so whenever I see someone else shining – that is it."
“I have also been able to get legislative changes to ensure that people with disabilities are included in key pieces of legislation – like the Victorian Family Violence Protection act, where paid and unpaid carers can be included as perpetrators and all of the places we live can be considered as homes.”
Tricia talks about seeing other people shine - but her advocacy, hard work and vision tells us she is one of the brightest stars.
Developing Australian Communities can’t wait to collaborate with Tricia in our bid to help make Australia a world leader in disability services.