Tonight, on the eve of International Day of People with Disability, I wonder what that dream would have looked like had King been Australian, and disabled.
He might have talked about Australia signing the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, six years ago. He might have said that this came as a ‘great beacon light of hope’ to thousands of Australians who had been ‘seared in the flames of withering injustice’. That it came as a 'joyous daybreak to end the long night of our captivity'.
He almost certainly would have agreed that in 2014, people with disability, like African American people in 1963, are not free. He might have agreed that we are still sadly crippled not by our physical, neurological, or intellectual condition, but by the ‘manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination’. Like the African American people of 1963, people with disability ‘live on a lonely island of poverty in the middle of a vast ocean of prosperity’ – that we ‘languish in the corners of (Australian) society and find ourselves exiles in our own land’.
King talked about going to the nation’s capital to cash a check. He said that when the architects of the American republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promise that black men, as well as white men, would be guaranteed the ‘unalienable rights’ of ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’. King might well have looked at the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and declared another sacred obligation defaulted upon – the Australian government, in those six years, has given Australians with disability a bad cheque, a cheque that has come back marked ‘insufficient funds’.
We can count our winnings, which seem enormous when judged against the imbalance of our struggle, miniscule when judged against the magnitude of the work that is left undone. The National Disability Insurance Scheme, trialled in almost every state. A voice that is becoming steadily louder, and growing with confidence. We can count that which has come to pass and celebrate our successes. We can revel in our achievements to date, and take a moment to reflect on how they came about.
But like King, we should also be reminding our people of the ‘fierce urgency of Now’.
‘This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism,’ he said in 1963. ‘Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of…justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of…injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality.’
The fierce urgency of Now. Now, whilst we have momentum, we must demand that the wrongs of the past are redressed, that we move into the future as equal citizens before the law and the community. The eyes of the nation are upon us, so we must demand our rights, not ask for them. King said, back then – ‘There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, ‘When will you be satisfied?’
Our answer might be that we can never be satisfied as long as people with disability are the victims of unspeakable horrors in residential settings.
We can never be satisfied whilst our brothers and sisters remain unemployed, or are paid wages far below the wages of others, despite working as hard or harder than their non-disabled peers.
We can never be satisfied as long as we are stripped of our self-hood and treated as pitiable objects of welfare and charity, or isolated and segregated due to people’s attitudes.
We can never be satisfied whilst we are shut out, shut in or shut up.
No, no – we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until ‘justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream’.
On one day every year, the world joins to recognise the rights of people with disability and celebrate their achievements, and that day is December 3. Like King, I have a dream. A dream that is deeply rooted in Australian values – equality of opportunity, respect, freedom and a spirit of egalitarianism that embraces mutual respect, tolerance, fair play, compassion and pursuit of the public good.
I have a dream that disability apartheid will become a thing of the past – that no longer will we be segregated in schools and at work, shut into institutions and shut out from the freedoms and responsibilities of everyday Australian life.
I have a dream that mothers will no longer murder their children because the fear of institutionalisation, a fear worse than death. I dream that people with disability will be safe from rape, violence and abuse in residential settings.
I have a dream that one day people with disability will no longer be living in poverty, disadvantaged, discriminated against – that we will work, study and live on equal terms alongside our non-disabled peers.
I have a dream that we will one day live in a nation where we will not be judged by the way we walk, talk, think or move but by the content of our characters.
That is my hope, and the hope of thousands of other people with disability living in Australia. That we cease to be invisible and take our rightful place beside our fellow Australians.
If we are to become a great nation, that must happen. We must elevate people with disability into positions of power to address power imbalances and involve them in decisions at every level of government. We must address and redress the injustices of the past, including carrying out a national inquiry into violence, abuse and neglect of people with disability in residential settings. We must make sure the words written in the CRPD have meaning, that they are not consigned to being meaningless marks on a piece of paper.
For people with disability, we must retain hope and confidence in equal measure, and speak up for ourselves. We pass through this life but once, and we have enormous potential to make changes that will resonate for people with disability far into the future. It is time.
The fierce urgency of Now is upon us. And we have a dream.
Let’s make it happen.