Why Catherine Deveny should not be a disability ambassador
Every once in a while, a government does something that is so unbelievably stupid or offensive that, for a moment, the cynics are justified in their ambivalence to elected representatives.
I believe that such an occurrence has recently happened, although it has gone largely unnoticed.
Late last year, the Government appointed comedian Catherine Deveny as a Disability Ambassador for International Day for People with Disability.
Catherine Deveny is a controversial figure to say the least. She has – to put it politely – an interesting turn of phrase. She was fired from her job as a columnist with The Age newspaper for her comments on Twitter in which she hoped that 12-year-old Bindi Irwin “gets laid,” amongst other things.
She is also well known for her comments that deride ANZAC Day as a “glorification of war” and blame the deaths of Australian soldiers on their own “testosterone fuelled… pack mentality.”
However, she is perhaps less well known for her comments that use disability-related language, which blogger Tim Blair uncovered last year.
Ms Deveny once wrote, referring to people who live in outer-suburbs:
“The reality is that it is impossible to watch these brainless retards belt the crap out of each other without enjoying it just a little.”
She also wrote, in a column called Carols by Candlelight:
“Twas the night before Christmas and all through the house, not a creature was stirring, because Mum was chucking her annual Christmas spastic.”
I understand that Ms Deveny has dyslexia, and that she also has children with dyslexia. But I would have thought that the kind of deeply offensive words which Ms Deveny has written would have made her completely unfit to be appointed as a Disability Ambassador, let alone considered for the position.
The Oxford Dictionary defines ‘ambassador’ as:
“a representative or promoter of a specified thing.”
My question is this: How can someone who engages in what is effectively denigration of people with disability represent or promote their interests?
Ms Deveny’s comments are without excuse or justification. But the problem goes deeper than just Ms Deveny’s record of offensive and tasteless comments. At the crux of the issue is the Government’s decision to appoint her as an Ambassador.
As a result of questioning during Senate Estimates, we know that the decision was made by the then Parliamentary Secretary for Disabilities and Carers, Bill Shorten.
In fact, thanks to an order for production of documents I made in the Senate for all information relating to Ms Deveny’s appointment, we know that Mr Shorten personally suggested her as an Ambassador.
We also know that Department staff were extremely concerned about the appointment of Ms Deveny as an ambassador, and in email correspondence between the staff they discussed an “exit strategy” for her.
Yet Mr Shorten has had remarkably little to say on the issue. He claims to have not known about Ms Deveny’s comments regarding disability, and has refused to apologise for the appointment and the offence it has caused.
The whole sorry saga of Ms Deveny’s appointment took a bizarre twist earlier this year when I raised my concerns during Senate Estimates hearings.
Current Parliamentary Secretary for Disabilities, Senator Jan McLucas, responded to my concerns about Ms Deveny’s comments by saying:
“As a person with disability, she works within a paradigm – a frame – where she can say things that you and I can’t.”
You could have knocked me over with a feather right then and there. Senator McLucas was suggesting that because Ms Deveny has a disability, she therefore has a leave pass to use offensive terms such as “retards” and to talk about mothers “chucking Christmas spastics”.
This was particularly galling given Senator McLucas is on the record saying that it is important to “encourage the message that vilification against people with disability is unacceptable.”
Unlike Senator McLucas, I strongly believe that having a disability doesn’t provide an excuse for offensive comments, bad behavior, insults or vilification.
Although Senator McLucas admitted to being “troubled”, she too has declined to apologise on behalf of the Government for the appointment or admit that it was inappropriate.
The thing that continues to alarm me is that no one from the Government has come out to say, unequivocally, that it was wrong to appoint Ms Deveny.
That it is wrong to refer to people as “brainless retards.” That it is wrong to talk about a mum “chucking her annual Christmas spastic.”
As a society, we cannot outlaw bad manners, stupidity, insensitivity and thoughtlessness. We cannot legislate away offensive words and behaviour.
But we can expect that our elected representatives will not tolerate the denigration or vilification of people with disability, let alone encourage and reward people who do so.
The Government’s appointment of Ms Deveny as Disability Ambassador and refusal to apologise is emblematic of a failure to truly understand the situation of Australians with disability.
People with disability deserve so much better.