The Minus People

And now for the most offensive media quote of the year - are you ready?

“We have profoundly disabled people at Stockton; some are blind, some are deaf and blind and some can’t move at all,” she said.

“If you’re in that situation, you’re pretty much stuffed at making a decision.” - Newcastle Herald


I have to admit, I found it a little delicious sharing this quote with my fellow people with disability. Some are blind. Some are deaf and blind. And some can't move at all.

The outrage was pretty much unanimous.

Said Sean: '...I am "so paralysed" that I should be on life support 24 hours a day. The doctors can't explain why I breathe for myself… Really it's because I made a decision to do it for myself!

In the 13 years and nine months that I've been paralysed I've had to fight against people taking my decision making capacity away from me. Smart politicians and bureaucrats invite me to events not to speak out about issues like this but, just to make it bloody obvious that people with significant disabilities can be self determining.'

Said Tanya: 'As most of you are aware l am woman who was born with Profoundly Intellectual Disability & MR word too l am married with 3 kids & l can make decisions for myself at most times on my bloody own who said they can't make a decision on there own who ever did has rocks in there head & they are bloody short sighted with 50s & 60s era in there bloody heads still...'

And on it went, while I wondered about the reporting in the newspaper, which is largely sympathetic to the view that Stockton should remain open, the views of parents and nurses and other 'stakeholders'. Where are the voices of the people at Stockton? Or the people who have escaped institutionalisation and who are now living their lives outside, in the community? Where are the voices of people with disability?

They're harder to hear. But good journalism used to be about listening to the voices that are hardest to hear, right?

It's a year since Newcastle Herald reporter Joanne McCarthy was crowned Australia's journalist of the year. McCarthy won the 2012 Graham Perkin Australian Journalist of the Year Award at Melbourne's Crown Casino for her campaign to uncover the truth about child sex abuse in the Catholic Church, and it sounds like it was a well deserved award. But would Perkin have approved of the way the Newcastle Herald is reporting the issues around Stockton?

You might not know about Perkin, who died in 1975. If you had read his writing, you would almost certainly remember it - it is filled with depth and brutality and warmth and imbued with the tone and colour and smell of every circumstance the man ever found himself in. And this man, this compassionate human being, found himself inside an institution - an institution for children called Kew Cottages.

They called them the Minus Children, the children who lived in that institution. Not because they were lesser human beings, but because they were behind, in everything from esteem to opportunity. Perkin's approach was to throw open the doors to the public and bring the light into darkness through his reporting in the Age - it created real change, raising money to create more opportunities for disabled children, highlighting injustices which led to major legislation, Victoria's Intellectually Disabled Persons' Services Act 1986.

Like Kew Cottages and other institutions, Stockton has a confronting history of violence and abuse, as well as the other limitations that come from living in an environment designed to suit staff rather than people. It's unsurprising that the perception of people with disability as helpless objects of pity and charity - unable to make a single decision - is being perpetrated. In a culture of learned helplessness and institutionalisation, people are rarely given the opportunities that people on the outside have. Minus People indeed.

I spent some time looking at the coverage around Stockton Centre in the local papers. Whilst the rest of the country is focused on being outraged about breaches of human rights at Manus and Nauru, papers like the Newcastle Herald are focusing almost exclusively on those loud voices, the voices of frightened parents and self interested unions. Where is the investigative journalism about the real issues? Who is talking to those who have been abused, or those who have broken out? Who is talking to people with disability, the Others, the Minus People?

Hard questions, a hard task. I used to edit a community newspaper, and the stories that come knocking on your door are always the easiest to cover. Good investigative journalism is about knocking on the other doors, and if necessary, kicking them down.

Governments often get it wrong when it comes to disability. But when it comes to devolution, they haven't. And I mourn for the Graham Perkins of the media world, those aggressive and brave and bolshy newspaper people who peddle truth instead of popularity.

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