We need to keep diversity and inclusion in mind whenever we plan activities and events. This isn’t difficult and the rewards are great – a Labor Party that truly reflects the lived experience of some 20% of Australians who have some form of disability.
Accessibility will make our party better, stronger, more diverse and representative. Please feel free to share this article, quote from it and make further suggestions. Most of all, please implement these suggestions and ask all members with disability to have a say about what affects them.
Insert “ableism” into Vic Labor’s Values Statement
The Victorian ALP has a Values Statement that someone reads out at the start of every meeting. The Values Statement says “Prejudice and discrimination - including sexism, racism and homophobia - have no place in our party.”
We should be treating ableism (disability discrimination) on a par with racism, sexism and homophobia. Including ableism in the values statement will help keep disability rights in the forefront of party members’ minds. We need to endorse this change at State Conference.
Online participation with full voting rights
Most of us are glad to get back to face to face meetings, but some people still need to meet online. Covid is still a threat, so meetings are too risky for many immunocompromised members and supporters. This includes many people with disability and chronic health issues.
Some party members and supporters, including people with limited mobility and people living in remote locations, have transport problems. Carers, many of whom are women, can also have difficulties accessing face to face meetings, while some Autistics are unable to participate face to face due to social differences and sensory overwhelm.
To make our in-person meetings and events inclusive and accessible, we should allow some members to participate remotely through zoom, whenever possible. Remote participants should be able to speak, vote and record their attendance just like anybody else at the meeting.
Online - allow Autistics to keep cameras off and speak through chat
At online meetings, you should ask people to keep their cameras on, so that deaf members can lipread. But not all disabled people have the same needs. Some Autistics need the option of turning off their cameras during meetings because of their sensory and social differences.
Will online participation without cameras encourage branch-stacking? Autistics make up only 2-3% of the population and only a few prefer to keep cameras off. Meeting organisers should ask members and supporters, who RSVP for events, about their communication preferences, similar to the way you ask guests about their dietary requirements.
Some Autistics experience situational mutism (selective mutism), which makes it difficult to speak in meetings. These members need the option of speaking at an online meeting through chat. A comment posted through chat should be treated with as much respect as a spoken comment. Meeting organisers could invite non-speakers to type “READ ALOUD” when they want to contribute to discussion. An organiser could then read the comment aloud, so that deaf people can lipread and everyone else can hear it.
Establish branches that meet during the day
Connecting face to face is an important part of networking and wellbeing, especially coming out of the pandemic. People with disability are often at their optimal functioning during the day, have better access to public transport and feel safer travelling. We need daytime events and branch meetings to allow members with disability, health conditions, transport issues, parents and carers to connect face to face.
The new Victorian branch structure should allow inclusive daytime meetings. In fact, party leaders should actively encourage the establishment of daytime branches to promote diversity and equity. A vote cast at a Labor Party meeting during the day should be of equal value to a vote cast at night. There should be no requirement for daytime branch members to attend night time face to face meetings.
We must make our party accessible to people with Complex Communication Needs (who prefer to be called “non-speakers” rather than “non-verbal”). This includes people who use Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC).
The Facebook group “Ask Me, I’m an AAC user! (24 hour rule!)” describes AAC users:
“People might use apps where they push buttons that say what they want to say, or build sentences. People might gesture. People might handwrite, or type. All of this is AAC. Whether being prompting and responding on a high-tech system, or pulling someone to what you are interested in, or stimming to show emotions and interests, or writing on a board, or typing independently. All of these are AAC. AAC varies dramatically.”
Some disabled people can speak, but have limited speech, unclear speech or situational mutism. The most important thing we can give a person with any kind of speech disability is respect. We need to accept communication differences, eg the use of objects, pictures or technology to communicate, and accept that this takes time and may involve the use of a facilitator. Presume competence and always address the disabled person, not their support person.
Non-speakers need a voice in the political process just like the rest of us. We must open up forums so they can have a say. It is not good enough to assume their parents and carers speak for them. “Nothing about us without us” applies to every disability.
Policy consultations should include an online written forum where non-speakers can type their input. A sub-branch, which meets solely online, should also be established so that AAC users, who are dependent upon technology for day-to-day communication, can participate in our party and in our democracy.
As an example, Reframing Autism’s Board includes non-speaking Autistic advocate Tim Chan. RA’s Board holds asynchronous online meetings. An asynchronous online meeting is one where not everyone is present at the same time.
At this asynchronous meeting, Board members submit written reports online and leave them open for comment. RA’s Board meeting runs for a week to allow people with communication disability adequate time to respond to all agenda items at a time that suits them. There is also an optional zoom meeting, during that week, which is added into the minutes. Towards the end of the week, Board members adopt the reports through written comment and conclude the meeting’s business.
For more information about asynchronous meetings please visit https://fellow.app/blog/meetings/asynchronous-meetings-everything-you-need-to-know/
Accessible meeting venues
Everybody should be able to physically access all of Labor’s meetings, socials and events. We need to keep accessibility in mind when we choose our venues. Accessibility means that we also provide accessible toilets, ideally with hoisting and adult changing places.
If there is no fully accessible toilet at our venue, with hoisting and adult changing places available, we need to find out where the nearest one is located and let people know in our publicity. We also need to tell people how to get to our venue using accessible public transport.
We need to announce accessibility features beforehand, in all publicity, instead of expecting people with disability to inquire. If the venue is inaccessible, we need to issue a statement of regret in all publicity.
Limit use of licensed venues
Some Autistics experience sensory overwhelm in pubs and other crowded noisy venues with strange lighting effects.
Many migrants experience cultural or religious barriers to attending licensed venues. Additionally, there are mistaken assumptions that people should drink at social occasions.
It is never OK to goad people into drinking or to dry-shame or wowser-shame people who refuse alcohol. Some people cannot drink alcohol because they are recovering alcoholics or take medications that clash with alcohol.
Nobody should be forced to divulge their religious convictions or medical history to avoid dry-shaming.
Pub nights often finish late and create transport and childcare problems. We need to allow everyone to speak up and form political networks in a venue that feels comfortable for them. No more than 50% of Labor decision making meetings or 50% of our face to face forums or social functions, in any part of Australia, should be held in licensed venues. Similarly, conferences should be held in non-gambling venues and should allow remote participation and voting.
Control sensory triggers and distractions
To protect the health and comfort of people with multiple chemical sensitivities, our members and supporters should not wear strong perfumes to our events.
Loud fans and flickering neon lights trigger some Autistics. Speakers should not stand against a brightly lit window. Flashing lights, flash photography, boldly striped patterns and flashing gifs can trigger some epileptics and should be avoided.
Online meeting participants should mute their microphones, unless it is their turn to speak, to reduce background noise.
Long meetings must also give breaks every 60-90 minutes to enable rest or for people who need medications.
To be more welcoming of some LGBTIQ people, members can specify their pronouns, when they introduce themselves, in bios or on name tags etc.
This should be optional. Forcing people to name their pronouns can be uncomfortable for trans people in the early stages of transitioning.
It is more difficult for disabled people, and other marginalised people, to participate in our party. We need a buddy system to help new members fit in. Buddies can help people feel accepted, understand what to expect, provide sighted guidance, lifts to and from venues, social introductions and other assistance. Some Women of Colour or traditionally dressed migrants, for instance, may feel more comfortable entering an Anglo-dominated venue with a friend.
As some people have cultural needs or food intolerances, hosts should ask guests to specify dietary needs. We should provide food alternatives which are of similar quality to what everybody else is eating. Similarly, we should offer all guests quality non-alcoholic drinks, rather than expecting non-drinkers to choose between coke and lemonade all night.
Cups and glasses with handles and drinking straws should be available for people with disability. The anti-straws movement is an example of a non-inclusive campaign, where a section of the community was forgotten about, and their needs were not accommodated.
All disabilities are not the same. While some visually impaired people need more contrast, many Autistics need the option to lessen the contrast on the page and see less clutter, to reduce sensory overwhelm. Also, we need to use plain unambiguous English. Please see the AASPIRE Guidelines for Autistic Web users: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32292887/
Educating party members about Autism
Empower Neurodiverse Labor to educate party members about accepting neurodivergence, especially Autism. Autism is regularly misrepresented and wrongly associated with vaccines, which contributes to vaccine hesitancy during the pandemic. Autism advocacy is one of the newest rights movements and needs a hearing. We need the party to make ongoing member education a priority and we need the resources to fulfil this role. Handing out a flier is a start, but it is not enough. Party education about neurodiversity should be delivered by neurodivergent party members.
The party should embed the Neurodiversity Paradigm in its state and national platforms. The Neurodiversity Paradigm frames neurological diversity as being similar to gender or ethnic diversity. A central premise is that variations in neurological development and functioning are a natural and valuable part of human variation and therefore not necessarily pathological.
Most Neurodivergent people identify with both disability and strengths. Our policies and practices need to cater to both and accept our inborn differences.
Helen Said is the founder of Neurodiverse Labor and a former National Policy Forum Rep. For more information about Neurodiverse Labor, please contact Helen Said or Neurodiverse Labor through facebook.