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Avoiding ‘Othering’: How should disability policy be established with Indigenous people?

Introduction by Croakey: There has long been concern and evidence that the NDIS, which promised so much for people with disability, is not meeting the needs of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

The National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (NACCHO) highlighted many of the reasons why in its 2018 submission to the Parliamentary Inquiry into NDIS Readiness.

They included the barriers many Aboriginal people face in accessing NDIS services – “not fitting the assumed client model, limited NDIS service providers in rural and remote areas and not catering for the specific needs of Aboriginal culture”, as well as barriers for Aboriginal community controlled health services becoming providers of the NDIS.

In the article below, Associate Professor John Gilroy, a Koori man from the New South Wales South Coast with a doctorate in sociology in Indigenous health, calls for an end to the long history of “othering” of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in disability policy making.


John Gilroy writes:

The National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) is the largest reform of Australia’s disability policy since the introduction of the Disability Services Act (DSA) 1986 and the Home and Community Care (HACC) Act 1985.

The introduction of the NDIS Act 2013 came with promises of empowering people with disability by giving them choice and control over the service and supports to enable them to live a socially inclusive and independent life.

Evidence, including an independent analysis of the NDIS by the National Institute of Labour Studies at Flinders University, South Australia that was funded by the Department of Social Service,  shows that the NDIS is not working well for many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people with disability and people living in remote and very remote regions. In particular, the market-based ideology does not fit comfortably with many Aboriginal people with a disability, as it is situated on the culture of individualism.

The Federal  Government has initiated a review of the NDIS to try to  make the NDIS process simpler and more straightforward. The government promises the review will improve people’s experiences of the NDIS with the development of the NDIS Service Participant Guarantee.

It reminds us that we Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander disability human rights advocates need to be consciously aware about how we are positioned and represented in disability policies when we engage with government agencies.

The discussion paper to inform the review of the NDIS Act and its rules culturally ‘Others’ us three times, along with “people from Culturally and Linguistically Diverse (CALD) backgrounds, LGBTQIA+ and other individuals”, listed as one category. The review positions abled-bodied, Caucasian heterosexual people as normative. Hence, it is positioning Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as socially and culturally subaltern, in the subordinate ‘other’ category.

For me, critiquing the practice of ‘Othering’ does not involve dismissing the need for affirmative action policies to address the diversity of inequity and inequality in the population of people with a disability.

This is because ‘Othering’ is a form of racism-ablism that is oppressive: discriminatory behaviour arising from the belief that people with a disability are inferior to abled-bodied people, entwined with cultural discrimination.

I have discussed this in a recent article on the need to ensure the diversity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voices is heard in the Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability.

The practice of ‘Othering’ positions and represents Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as another homogenous ‘cultural minority’ with no acknowledgement of being the First Nations of this Land.

In effect, the focus of policy discussion surrounds deficit differences between the ‘Othered’ group and the abled-bodied people heterosexual Caucasian group; in effect, policy is formulated to benefit the majority classes, the abled-bodied Caucasian elites, with limited inclusion of the diversity of needs among minority and/or disempowered social groups in Australia.

‘Othering’ since colonisation

My historical research has found that policies have framed Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people with disability as a cultural ‘Other’ since the mid-1800s.

Before Australian Federation in 1901, the British colonial government authorities reported, within their Eurocentric ideology, that disability in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Isladner communities was a consequence of ‘traditional’ Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and Lores, treating the First Peoples as inferior-class people within the British invasion.

During this period, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people with disability could only receive disability supports and services from the charity sector if the colonial government authority for ‘protecting’ Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people provided the financial support. For example, the Blind and Deaf and Dumb Institution would only accept Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people if the Aborigines Protection Board would allocate funding for “education and maintenance”.

The cultural ‘Othering’ of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people with disability continued throughout the 1900s. During the mid-1900s, government funded/administered mental health and psychiatric services were focused on designing screening tools for screening/assessing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people for psychiatric or mental health conditions.

The government funded ethno-psychiatrists to help understand the cultural and ideological differences in mental health and psychiatric conditions in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. As such, research about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people with a disability was undertaken by non-Indigenous people within Western scientific frameworks of privilege and normative functioning.

My analysis of the government/non-government documents during the first major reform of disability policy over the 1980s shows that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people with disability became represented as the vulnerable cultural “Other” in law.

Australia’s major report on the first reform of disability policies, New Directions, merged Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people with disability in the chapter titled “particular groups”, which included people from ‘ethnic’ backgrounds. In response to the report, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people with disability were described under Section Five of DSA as “double disadvantaged” together with sex/gender and ethnicity.

Following the development of the DSA, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people became compartmentalised as the cultural vulnerable ‘Other’ in government/non-government disability policy.

Focus on strengths, not deficits

Government departments in state/territory and Australian governments created teams that focused on developing and implementing disability policies in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. The staff of these units were, assumingly, unaware that they were operating in the discourse of cultural ‘Othering’.

The discourse of ‘Othering’ is not working well for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people with a disability. Discussions about disability is relatively new in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families primarily focus on a person’s personality, strengths and skills and not their deficits.

After combing thousands of disability specific policy documents spanning two centuries, I could not find any mention of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people being positioned or represented as a warrior, empowered, culturally embedded person. Even though I know, or know of, such people all around Australia.

Policy development practice must derail itself from the discourse of ‘Othering’ to focus on our experiences and what we would like as the First Nations people of this Land.

The questions should not be “How are the needs of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people different?”. The question should be “How should disability policy be established with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people?”.


John Gilroy is a Koori man from the NSW South Coast and is an Associate Professor of sociology in Indigenous health, specialising primarily in disability studies. John has worked in disability and ageing research and community development with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, government and non-government staekholders for most of his life. John is passionate about Aboriginal owned and driven research as means to influence policy. John has led many research projects in urban and rural/remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. ​

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News about Croakey
PIJ Commissions 2021
Public health and population health
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air pollution
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Croakey Conference News Service 2013 – 2019
2013 conferences
Australian Centre for Health Services Innovation Forum 2013
Australian Health Promotion Association Conference 2013
Closing the Credibility Gap 2013
CRANAplus Conference 2013
FASD Conference 2013
Health Workforce Australia 2013
International Health Literacy Network Conference 2013
NACCHO Summit 2013
National Rural Health Conference 2013
Oceania EcoHealth Symposium 2013
PHAA conference 2013
2014 conferences
#IPCHIV14
AIDA Conference 2014
Congress Lowitja 2014
CRANAplus conference 2014
Cultural Solutions - Healing Foundation forum 2014
Lowitja Institute Continuous Quality Improvement conference 2014
National Suicide Prevention Conference 2014
Racism and children/youth health symposium 2014
Rural & Remote Health Scientific Symposium 2014
2015 conferences
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