19 October 2015

I rise to recognise the dignity and resolve of all people living with deafblindness in Australia and to renew our nation's promise of equality and opportunity for all our citizens.

According to the Australian Deafblind Council, deafblindness is defined as 'a unique and isolating sensory disability resulting from the combination of both hearing and vision loss or impairment which significantly affects communication, socialisation, mobility and daily living'. It is estimated that there are currently over 330,000 Australians with deafblindness, of whom 98 per cent are 65 years or older, and it is projected that by 2050 over one million Australians will be deafblind. They are our sons and daughters, our parents and grandparents, and our friends and neighbours, and we must do all we can to empower them in all aspects of their lives.

I recently met with a deafblind constituent of mine, Mr Carleeta Manser, and was struck by her courage and determination to obtain her fundamental right to full inclusion and participation in our society. The day that she came to see me in my electorate in Seven Hills was very hot, and she explained to me through interpreter that she would love just to be able to go to the pool, but to be able to go to a public pool she needs not only an assistant but also an interpreter just to be with her, as well as how debilitating it is for her to feel trapped. Her husband passed away some years ago, and her situation with regard to being able to get out into the community has simply deteriorated

I share her frustration at our nation's failure to recognise the specific needs of her condition. This has resulted in the continued marginalisation of deafblind people. Indeed, although the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities gives recognition to deafblindness as a unique and isolating disability in its own right, for far too long in Australia it has been poorly understood and viewed as simply the combination of vision and hearing loss. What makes it even worse, as Carleeta explained to me, is that, because she cannot talk, people assume that she has a mental disability rather than deafblindness. This just compounds the frustration.

Consequently, Australians who are deafblind have been largely supported by generic or single-sensory disability services which are ineffective in meeting their complex needs. It is worth noting that, in other developed nations such as the United Kingdom, governments provide support to develop specialised and structured advocacy systems to assist with and address the barriers affecting deafblind people in order to maintain their independence and enable community engagement. In contract, here in Australia, despite the enormous promise and potential of the NDIS, the Australian Deafblind Council was moved to note earlier this year:

The Australian Government has not engaged with … the deafblind community … to have access to advocacy services and enable quality standards of service delivery within the NDIS.

If we reflect on these realities, I ask: can we honestly say that as a nation we are meeting our obligation? Can we claim that we are all doing everything we can to give Australians a fair go?