Christina Ryan is the General Manager of Advocacy for Inclusion, which provides individual and systemic advocacy for people with disabilities. She has worked in the community sector in many capacities, including as Deputy Director of the ACT Council of Social Service, and has particular expertise around small business, management, governance, and organisational structure.
Christina undertakes human rights work nationally and internationally on women and disability issues and monitors rights advances on an ongoing basis. She is the Women with Disabilities Australia representative on CEDAW, including on the National CEDAW Working Group which coordinated the recent Shadow CEDAW Report to the United Nations.
She advocates systemically on public housing issues, disability rights, and gender equity. Her particular passion is the gendered nature of disability and the relationship between the disability movement and the international women's rights movement. Christina also works on poverty alleviation, particularly the gendered nature of poverty and disadvantage.
Christina has assisted in writing political policy and was the first woman who uses a wheelchair to run for any Australian parliament when she ran for the ACT Assembly in 2001.
Christina has sat on many community boards including as President and Vice-President, and is currently Chair of the Canberra Rape Crisis Centre. She has also chaired working groups and reference groups. She holds a diploma in corporate governance from the Australian Institute of Company Directors, has delivered governance training to community organisations in the ACT and nationally, and is noted as a key resource on non-profit governance.
Commentaries by Christina Ryan:
18 August 2010
Voting for the rights of women with disabilities
Australia has just been to the United Nations (UN) to report on our progress in implementing the Convention on the Eliminations of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). This process is undertaken every four years and provides a guide to where challenges still lie.
While the final Concluding Observations are yet to be released by the CEDAW Committee at the UN there were many messages for a potential government about what is needed for women with disabilities. The central theme is the need for a strong human rights framework to underpin all other mechanisms. While at the UN our NGO delegation received news that the Coalition had committed to dismantling Labor’s newly promised human rights framework. Clearly this is regressive policy and will disadvantage many people in our community, including women with disabilities.
So, who to turn to if you are voting with the rights of women with disabilities in mind?
The Greens: have several supportive policies, including a strong commitment to human rights frameworks, but they have also clearly expressed support for increased funding for institutional care for people with disabilities. This is unacceptable policy and directly contradicts the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). Until this clause is removed from Greens policy their broader disability policies cannot be unequivocally supported.
The Coalition: have committed to dismantling the human rights framework. This is extremely concerning and implies a general disregard for international obligations. Strangely though, the Coalition is the only party which has done any real work on banning non-therapeutic sterilisation of women with disabilities having developed national legislation just before losing office. Members of the Coalition also continue to support the work to achieve a ban, despite the general lack of Coalition support for human rights frameworks.
Labor: has announced a new human rights framework and ratified both the Optional Protocols to CEDAW and the CRPD. They have also announced further measures for the disability community including a leadership and mentoring scheme. Disappointingly the Labor Government has discontinued work on banning non-therapeutic sterilisation and reported to the CEDAW Committee that it would not ban it, but rather rely on state based guardianship tribunals and courts. Encouragingly, Labor specifically identified women with disabilities as a target group in its response to the Draft National Violence Plan released this week; however, it has not clarified the role of gender analysis in the current development of major disability policy. The Labor message is very mixed message on the rights of women with disabilities and needs clarification.
Ultimately we seem to have a choice between those who support human rights broadly, and those that would dismantle human rights frameworks. No major party seems to understand the connection between the key issues relevant to women with disabilities and Australia’s international obligations.
Women with disabilities are looking for a government, and a Senate, which understands this crucial link and will develop policies and legislation that acknowledge Australia’s human rights obligations towards women with disabilities.
Christina Ryan represented Women with Disabilities Australia on the NGO Delegation to the UN’s CEDAW session in July 2010.
4 July 2010
A Woman Prime Minister Working for Women with Disabilities?
Finally Australia has a woman Prime Minister! This is a great time for all Australian women and gives us hope that the processes and mechanisms of politics and policy may become less patriarchal.
So, what’s in it for women with disabilities as we head off towards the CEDAW session at the United Nations, and to a Federal election later in 2010? Well at this stage there isn’t much and there needs to be a lot. Women with disabilities have been largely excluded from policy development, from leadership roles, and from political processes.
The Labor Government has had almost 3 years to act on several critical areas, which have been raised by women with disabilities for many years. The UN CEDAW Committee of 2006 made 2 specific recommendations which are yet to be acted on, and there are other serious issues to be addressed where we have fought hard to even be at the table.
In 2006 the CEDAW Committee recommended that the Australian Government ensure the collection of data across all government programs which is disaggregated by gender and disability. This has not happened. We are still not able to gain an accurate picture of the effectiveness of programs and policies in advancing the status of women with disabilities. It is particularly important to understand how mainstream government services and funding programs are used by women with disabilities. The Howard government abandoned such data collection, and the Rudd/Gillard government has not restored it in any useful way.
The CEDAW Committee also recommended that the Australian Government “develop the necessary infrastructure to ensure that disabled women have access to all health services”. There has been some small progress to date, with new draft general practice standards which include provision for height adjustable examination tables, but this is fragile and the government hasn’t incorporated accessibility or gender analysis into its health reform agenda.
Another critical issue is the continuing practice of non-therapeutic sterilisation of girls and women with disabilities, which was highlighted earlier this year when the government refused to act after a court case in Queensland. Uniform national legislation banning the practice of non-therapeutic sterilisation has stalled under the Labor government, after reaching draft form under the Howard government.
Women with Disabilities Australia (WWDA) fought hard to finally get a seat on the National Violence Prevention Council after initially being overlooked. This was despite the very high level of violence against women with disabilities and the lack of accessible refuge services.
So, women with disabilities hope that having a woman Prime Minister might at least allow some of these difficult issues to be discussed and acted on. It is always a challenge to get men to understand why sterilisation and violence are so critical, but perhaps a woman will get it.
WWDA will be asking the United Nations CEDAW Committee to recommend that Australia address these areas so that the rights of women with disabilities can start improving. Perhaps our time is finally coming, but don’t hold your breath.
18 June 2010
Australia's Agenda for Women
This year marks an opportune convergence for Australian women. Australia must report to the United Nations (UN) on its progress against the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), and there will also be a federal election. This gives us an opportunity to clearly outline an agenda for women and to gain the UN’s endorsement for that agenda.
Women with disabilities have been part of the CEDAW non-government organisation (NGO) process for some years. Women with disabilities will form part of the NGO delegation to CEDAW next month and are also a part of the work being done on developing an NGO report against the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD).
Naturally many of the issues against both treaties are the same, but for women with disabilities there is an added dimension: many of the issues raised in the recent NGO report to the CEDAW Committee are the same as those raised in the previous NGO report 4 years earlier. This is of great concern as it begins to look like nothing is progressing. The federal election is an opportunity for the major parties to commit to progressing these issues and ensuring the status of women with disabilities is raised in line with Australia’s international obligations.
Some progress has been made by the Rudd government on key areas like improving universal housing design, access to affordable housing, and ensuring that women with disabilities are part of work being done to address domestic violence. There has also been substantial work done on ensuring that women with disabilities benefit from Australia’s overseas aid program, although there remains a need for gender sensitive reporting on these gains to be confident they are working for our sisters in other countries.
Despite these gains there are some key areas which must be addressed by the major parties if they are to gain the confidence of women with disabilities:
All programs of government must have good data collection, disaggregated by gender and disability, to ensure programs are effective for all potential beneficiaries.
Leadership, development and mentoring programs must be developed specifically targeting women with disabilities.
Formal reviews of the gender based impact of the Fair Work Act must be undertaken with particular attention to the casual and part time work undertaken by women with disabilities.
Accessible and inclusive health care, including bulk billing, must form part of any health system reform process.
Programs which support parents with disabilities must be developed nationally to reduce the level of women with disabilities in the Care and Protection system.
Non-therapeutic sterilisation must be banned through national legislation.
The over representation of women with disabilities in the criminal justice system must be addressed.
These are just some of the issues raised by women with disabilities in the Australian NGO report to the United Nations on CEDAW. Women with disabilities will be watching policy announcements diligently over coming months with interest to gauge whether the major parties will respond to these critical issues.
4 June 2010
Getting people with disabilities elected
Australia’s parliaments have traditionally been white and male. In the last few decades women have increased our representation, but other groups in the community still lag far behind. For people with disabilities equitable representation remains a long way off.
Major headway has only recently been achieved with the election of Kelly Vincent on 20 March 2010 to the South Australian Legislative Council.
The significance of Ms Vincent’s election is that she is clearly a woman with disability. Women with disabilities are seriously behind the eight ball when it comes to leadership and representation in Australia. Somehow our community still doubts the capacity of people with disabilities to act as decision makers, particularly to make decisions about others. For women with disabilities the situation is even starker as we are seen as asexual and pathetic creatures who are unable to determine what is best for ourselves, much less make decisions affecting others.
In this Federal election year how many candidates with disabilities will be running for Federal parliament? It will be particularly interesting to see how many candidates with disabilities will be representing the major parties? Even more concerning: how many will be women?
There have been several single interest disability parties over the last decade, including Ms Vincent’s own Dignity for Disability, but the participation rate of people with disabilities in major parties remains almost non-existent. Federal opposition leader Tony Abbott made a point of congratulating Ms Vincent when he met her at a recent function, but how many people with disabilities is the Liberal Party putting forward in safe seats for the Federal election, or any seats for that matter?
To be fair, the Greens and the Labor Party also have a dearth of candidates with disabilities and this doesn’t look like changing anytime soon. In the extremely tough environment of major party preselection people with disabilities struggle to be seen as credible resilient candidates. This is despite many having enormous strength and capacity due to living every day with what most of the community would be unlucky to come across once within a whole lifetime.
Many of us will be keeping an eye on Kelly Vincent. She must be tough as she has survived as a woman with disability and got this far. She can’t be expected to achieve too much politically as she is sitting on the cross benches, but she will be raising substantial awareness about disability everywhere she goes.
Most significantly it will be very hard to discount the impact of government policy on people with disabilities when there is one sitting in the same room participating. That will be one of Ms Vincent’s real contributions. Now all we need is someone in the Federal parliament to start participating too.
Christina Ryan recently ran for Federal preselection for the Labor Party in the seat of Fraser.
18 May 2010
Supporting independence – not pushing into work
Disability funding is at crisis point. Bill Shorten, Parliamentary Secretary for Disability, recently said “The current system is not working - and is not cheap” (Opening of the National Disability Summit, Melbourne 29 April 2010). We urgently need to find another way of looking at this complex policy area to support people to the level they need, and to remove the current gender disparity.
Most people with disabilities can’t get the support they need and many barely subsist on what they can get. Yet governments (Labor and Liberal) continually endeavour to reduce the numbers of people on the Disability Support Pension (DSP) using various measures to push people into the workforce. Some measures are harsher than others; some are well intentioned but have harsh consequences. Very few measures seem to actually work. More new measures were announced in this week’s Federal Budget, but there is uncertainty about how effective they will be in achieving an equitable outcome.
About half of all women with disabilities rely on the DSP so these measures will impact on women, and they will impact differently to men because of the nature of disabilities in women. Many women have chronic and episodic conditions that are less predictable.
In February the Australian Federation of Disability Organisations said “there are complex reasons for people with disability remaining unemployed. Employers are simply not hiring people with disability; even within the Australian Public Service the rate of employment of people with disability sits at 3 per cent of the total workforce, falling from 3.8 per cent in 2005.”
Inclusive and accessible workplaces are a crucial part of the equation. More importantly, though, people with disabilities cannot sustain employment without appropriate reliable supports. It is impossible to turn up for work or school if you cannot rely on personal care support to get you there. Support is not only needed at the workplace, but outside it. Yet most employment schemes only fund supports that will be used while at work.
For many people with disabilities moving into the workforce means losing their pension card, which provides means tested access to vital services. Reducing the work test to 15 hours has exacerbated this jump into the unknown for many people, who simply cannot afford to lose their pension card entitlements – including transport, medication, and support service concessions.
These services are not discretionary, they are basic, and few find them reliably. The “lucky” few are usually people with high needs and most of these are men. Others can’t afford them, or only find them sporadically, so they are seen as unreliable and therefore unable to work. Many of these are women.
Rather than force people into the wider world and hope that it works, government must turn around its thinking and support people with disabilities to be independent. Independent people will make their own decisions including the decision to work or study. Supporting independence requires recognition of the different experiences of disability, and the gendered differences in disability. There can be no generic solution.
4 May 2010
Gendered analysis needed to ensure disability support is equitable
On 14 April 2010 the Federal Government announced the Productivity Commission consultation for a new national disability insurance scheme. The structure of this scheme has evolved and it is now called a “national disability care and support scheme”.
Support for people with disabilities has been woeful for many years. People with high level needs rarely have their needs fully met, and people with moderate needs often miss out entirely. (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare 2009 Disability in Australia: multiple disabilities and need for assistance. Disability series. Cat. no. DIS 55. Canberra: AIHW.)
Under the Howard Government people with disabilities were directly targeted through the Welfare to Work reforms and many found themselves under pressure to find jobs. Such attempts to reduce the number of people relying on the disability support pension will always fail until people with disabilities are provided with appropriate support. The Rudd Government has taken a more positive approach towards people with disabilities, but the system remains focussed on reacting to critical need, rather than on strong forward planning in collaboration with the States. The current system is an ambulance at the bottom of the cliff.
Women with disabilities are substantially disadvantaged by this current system. Unfortunately all indications are that this disadvantage will continue under the new national disability insurance scheme, as it is increasingly being branded for those with “severe or profound” disability rather than for everyone. This is where the use of gendered analysis is critical to developing an equitable scheme which can meet all needs and provide a mechanism to develop independence.
Severe or profound disability is much more likely to occur in men (for example: AIHW: Norton L 2010. Spinal cord injury, Australia 2007–08. Injury research and statistics series no. 52. Cat. no. INJCAT 128. Canberra: AIHW.), so targeting people with severe or profound disabilities means that programs will be developed which will support men more than women. The current reactive system across Australia, funded through the National Disability Agreement, supports men more than women because most State and Territory governments focus on the desperate unmet need at the severe and profound end of the spectrum. In some States men are favoured over women at a rate of 2:1, yet the incidence of disability is equal.
There is no suggestion that current recipients of support should not be getting what they are getting, but to structure a brave new system on a similar model risks entrenching current gender inequities well into the future. This means women with disabilities will continue to miss out on the medium level supports needed to provide independence and dignity, and therefore employment and education opportunities.
Recognition of the different disability experiences of men and women, by undertaking a gendered analysis development process, will work towards alleviating current discrepancies and the risk of perpetuating them in any new scheme. Accepting that all program development should incorporate gendered analysis will ensure that women with disabilities move closer to equal participation in the community to men with disabilities.
18 April 2010
The importance of government mechanisms to support women
As part of Australia’s obligations under the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), and the related Beijing Platform for Action (BPFA), governments are required to have mechanisms in place to advance the status of women.
Under the Howard government the Office for Women was downgraded to a line department. This directly compromised its capacity to influence cabinet submissions across all areas of government policy development. The Rudd government has not restored the Office for Women to the Prime Minister’s Department, which perpetuates the barrier to equitable program development.
For women with disabilities, who are significantly more disadvantaged than either men with disabilities or their able bodied sisters, these mechanisms are crucial.
Women with disabilities are less likely to be in paid work than other women, men with disabilities or the population as a whole. Women with disabilities are less likely than their male counterparts to receive a senior secondary and/or tertiary education.
Women with disabilities are substantially over-represented in public housing, comprising over 40% of all persons in Australia aged 15-64 in this form of tenure. Women with disabilities are less likely to own their own houses than their male counterparts.
Women with disabilities pay the highest level of their gross income on housing, yet are in the lowest income earning bracket. Some women with disabilities pay almost 50 per cent of their gross income on housing and housing related costs.
Women with disabilities spend more of their income on medical care and health related expenses than men with disabilities.
Women with disabilities have a consistently higher level of unmet need than their male counterparts across all disability levels and types. Sixty per cent of recipients of disability support services, funded under the National Disability Agreement, are men with disabilities.
While many of these figures are much older than they should be, they paint a clear picture of disadvantage. Yet it is impossible to address the systemic discrimination which has caused this without meaningful statistical input or gendered program analysis across all areas of government.
In addition to relegating the Office for Women, the Howard government made significant cut backs at the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS). While some ground has been made up in recent years, there is still a significant incapacity by the ABS to collect data across a broad range of population areas that is disaggregated by both gender and disability. This failing has been recognised by the United Nations when it asked Australia in 2006 to “include adequate statistical data and analysis, disaggregated by sex, ethnicity and disability, in its next report so as to provide a full picture of the implementation of all the provisions of the Convention.”
With current major program rollouts and program developments across many areas of social policy, including disability, housing, and welfare, the capacity of government to undertake gendered analysis of all programs and policies must be restored. There is no current indication by either major party that this will happen.
2 April 2010
Sterilising the Disabled
Recently Family Court Justice Cronin allowed a young woman with disability to be sterilised – a decision which dismayed disability rights advocates.
The United Nations has repeatedly encouraged Australia to: ‘prohibit the sterilisation of children, with or without disabilities…’ (For example: Committee on the Rights of the Child, Concluding Observations: Australia, UN Doc CRC/C/15/Add.268 (2005) [ 46(e)). Yet the Australian Government has failed to act on this recommendation. The UN is concerned about the continuing practice of using radical hysterectomy as a solution for the menstrual complications of girls with disabilities.
Successive Australian Governments have, to date, failed consistently in their obligations to respect, protect, and fulfil the rights of girls with disabilities - who still face a serious threat of forced sterilisation. The Federal Attorney General has declined calls to appeal the recent decision, and has also failed to progress the Model Sterilisation Bill, released for consultation in September 2006, to ban non-therapeutic sterilisation. In failing to develop universal legislation which prohibits sterilisation of any child unless there is a serious threat to health or life, the Australian Government is continuing to deny girls with disabilities their human rights and fundamental freedoms.
The reason used to justify forced sterilisation is that it will be in the ‘best interest’ of the girl involved, but we must be clear about whose best interests are really at stake, and about whether ‘best interest’ is judged according to human rights principles or about the ‘best compromise between the competing interests’ of parents, carers, service providers and policy makers. In determining ‘best interest’ for girls with disabilities we must understand that they will be subjected to an irreversible medical procedure with lifelong consequences without their informed consent.
There can be little debate that parents of children with disabilities may be acting in good faith in seeking a sterilisation for their child, but parents can only make decisions on the basis of the information and support available to them. The lack of research into the long term effects of sterilisation, coupled with the lack of viable support for families and people with disabilities, mean that parents could be making a crucial and irreversible decision without knowing all the facts. In the daily struggle to care for their child, and without adequate support services, it is often assumed that the best interests of a child will coincide with the wishes of her parents. This may not always be the case. When parents make decisions in a vacuum of information and services, it is the human rights of the person with disability that will be violated.
It is questionable whether this decision could have been made in Victoria or the ACT where Human Rights Acts influence judicial outcomes. It is unclear how Australia’s obligations under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, or the Convention on the Rights of the Child, have been affected by the decision of Justice Cronin. Certainly the decision seems in conflict with those obligations.