“Progress” without real accessibility and inclusion is just a buzzword to nowhere at #Progress2019.

Asher Wolf
Jun 20, 2019 · 6 min read
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Visability93, Icon Fonts by McCann London.

As you and I and the rest of the kombucha-swilling quinoa-munching brigade would know, progressives love to call themselves “progressive” until someone points out they’re actually very not — and then they suddenly get very quiet and wander off for drinks with their PR person.

#Progress2019 opened Day One of their shiny feel-good-fest in style, with throngs of familar faces from corporate NGOs cramming into Town Hall for a great, big funtastic get-together. But for those of us with lived experience of disability it was a ferking shirtful experience.

A little run-down of just a few of the many inclusion and accessibility issues at #Progress2019:

  • The elevators weren’t actually accessible. Elevators aren’t accessible if people without disability jam themselves in first, forcing people with disability (PWD) to wait until the crowds have cleared. Elevators aren’t accessible if people without disability sardine-pack themselves into elevators, jamming people with disability-related-injuries (like my fractured shoulder) into the wall of the lift, forcing PWD to get out of the elevators early to avoid further injury.
  • Intersectionality means it ain’t my party if we all can’t take a gender-neutral disability-accessible bathroom break. Simply having gender neutral bathrooms doesn’t support accessibility for non-binary people with disability if the facilities are only on one floor and aren’t accessible through a crowd without PWD risking injury.
  • Where’s the mic? There was a lack of microphones for questions asked from the audience.
  • Nothing about us without us. Out of the many panels and panelists, only two panelists with lived experience of disability could be identified and none of the panels are specifically disability-focused — despite the current Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability. The levels of representation of PWD at #Progress2019 included in the agenda were nowhere near representative of the level of disability in the community. Hosting panels where people with disability are talked about in the abstract without any actual people with lived experience of disability speaking does not provide true inclusion and creates the potential to perpetuate stigma, exclusion and misrepresentation. Eg. a panelist without disability talked about the importance of access for wheelchairs — something approximately 6% of people with disability use — without discussing other forms of accessibility needs (particularly for people with invisible disabilities) when questioned by a PWD about disability and intersectionality. Sure, ramps are fecking important, but it’s not all about wheels, hey folks?
  • Accessibility means giving adequate notice if terms of entry change. Hoisting access requirements upon people with disability without prior notice exposes them to risks. eg. Demanding a PWD removes their bag from under their arm which is in sling due to a fracture, so security can bag search them without prior warning. Conditions of entry should be explicit.
  • Crowd management is an accessibility issue. Poor crowd control puts people with disability at risk of exclusion and injuries. And generally, poor crowd control is a health and safety risk. Having volunteers as guides at corners of the building isn’t an accessibility support if crowds inside the building are so poorly managed that PWD have to wait until last to move because able-bodied crowds are given priority by the status quo to exit conference rooms first. Forcing people with disability to wait until the crowd clears is not a policy that provides equity of access to people with disability.

But this criticism isn’t just about #Progress2019’s organisers: it’s also about everyone else who contributed to making it an unsafe space for PWD, including not only Melbourne Town Hall’s security contractors — who demanded to bag search everyone regardless of previously explicitly stated issues of disability upon registration — but also the supposedly ever-so-woke attendees themselves.

Aaaawwwww shucks, you all know the types I’m talking about at these kind of events — the wonk-panel-circuit cottage-industry cash-for-comment talking-head side-businesses and the “anarcho-syndicalist/libertarian communist cum so-called marxist-Christian” columnist-types who keep posting pictures of their squillionty-billion dollar bathroom renovations — the scene driven by sales of ghost-written books and conference-attending middle-management of the community services sector and aid development and social support hires; the sorts who self-proclaim themselves as “leading activists” and “allies” but go very quiet when any marginalised person actually starts speaking about outrages involving — but not limited to — unions; leftist publishers of favour; organisations that data-farm for donations off the back of social change movements; the Labor party and the Greens; and coporate cash-cow NGOs whose practices entrench poverty and disadvantage.

Of the 1700+ people who attended #Progress2019, you can count on one hand the number of people without disability who spoke up about the ableist frookery. Forced to choose between bubbly drinks at The George on Collins on Thursday night versus acting like allies by speaking up for PWD, the able-bodied prog-sprog in-crowd chose drinks over acting like decent human beings.

After the conference when these so-called “allies” — the self-titled “leaders” who walked over PWD to get to their lunches first; the “mentors” who pushed past PWD to get to elevators a little quicker; those inspirational-types who full-frontal body-slammed PWD to rush past to get somewhere somehow more important than someone else’s bodily sanctity and safety; when these attendees who contributed to making #Progress2019 an unsafe space for PWD — go back to their own workplaces they still won’t give a toadstool’s shirt-tails about PWD accessibility and inclusion.

According to #Progress2019’s website, the conference agenda was months in the making and crafted by 21 co-chairs who supposedly represent a cross-section of the non-profit sector. The agenda allegedly represents their “top-60 ideas.” Evidently, none of the top 60 ideas that actually made it to the event included issues of disability, access and inclusion.

#Progress2019 responded publicly to me after I tweeted my concerns, requesting I consider coming back to the conference to have a chat with organisers about the issues — at this point I’d wandered off with @bluntshovels for lunch — but as I pointed out, I wasn’t willing to return to a space so clearly unsafe for PWD without the issues being addressed first. I asked that #Progress2019 message me directly or contact me by phone to discuss the issues — but they then ceased responding to me, tweeting instead about their evening drinks event. More important issues at stake, obviously?

Sadly, similar issues about accessibility failures were previously raised with the conference organisers by other PWD in 2017. #Progress2019’s ongoing refusal to engage in good faith with PWD is evident and reinforced by today’s incidents.

And let’s not forget, there were so many other voices missing at #Progress2019 too: people with lived experience of poverty; sole parents; refugees (no, not the one excellent refugee whose name is the only name of a refugee you probably know, yes that very awesome refugee who you Skype in from Manus for every blasted useless progressive event in the country — there are other refugees you know, try platforming them too?); older women living in poverty; youth activists; people with lived experience of torture and trauma; and anyone who isn’t so “nice”, who isn’t “easy”, who is angry and doesn’t have the money to make their disability or their marginalisation and differences look fun and cute and attractive and packagable and saleable; who doesn’t present a happy, lovely message that massages and jerks clean the huge egos of people making a buck off social justice by data-churning.

How is it that #Progress2019 had no-one at their supposedly nation-leading conference talking about the rise of the Australian Unemployed Workers Union; the work of grassroots organiser Ella Buckland who forced the punitive DHS ParentsNext program before a Senate inquiry; and the ongoing effort of the #NotMyDebt campaign, which has lead a grassroots movement against robodebts from humble beginnings to Senate inquiries, ongoing court cases and U.N. submissions?

The thing that unites the national grassroots campaigns and powerhouse activists excluded from #Progress2019 is that they aren’t making any money off their activism. Perhaps it’s because it’s these same activists who aren’t bound by money to refrain from criticising institutions and organisations? You really have to wonder about #Progress2019’s values based on who they choose to exclude from the stage.

But it’s not like these criticisms haven’t been raised before. What comes to mind is that oft-repeated phrase: “sorry means not doing it again.” It seems #Progress2019 doesn’t have the internal capability to change without outside assistance: the organisation needs professional retraining on issues around accessibility and inclusion from people with lived experience of disability and marginalisation. And without real accessibility and inclusion, “progress” is just an empty buzzword to nowhere.

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