Natalie Wade: The Disabled Lawyer, Fighting For Disabled People.
Natalie Wade is a prominent disabled human rights lawyer based in Adelaide, South Australia. Peta and Natalie discuss the legal challenges faced by disabled people highlighting the too common discrimination. Natalie is determined to improve the current state of disability rights in Australia.
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Peta [00:00:03] Hello and welcome to the I Can't Stand podcast. The podcast answering your questions on what life is like when you have a disability. My name's Peta. I have cerebral palsy and I'm your host this week. I have the amazing Natalie Wade. Natalie Wade is a human rights lawyer with her own practice and she herself has a disability made for a very fascinating chat and I can't wait to get into it. So without any further ado, let's hand over to Natalie.
Natalie [00:00:47] Hi, my name is Natalie Wade and I'm a disability rights and advocate here in Adelaide, South Australia.
[00:00:56] I'm really interested to hear what the common issues you see coming across your desk are that are most often faced by people with disabilities. Is there a discrepancy between types of disabilities? What sort of issues are being faced by people in that community?
Natalie [00:01:16] It's interesting the type of legal issues faced by the disability community can be described, in my view, as sort of two levels. The first level is the sort of static, regrettably reliable issues that face people with disability and their families. And they are typically matters of discrimination on the basis of a person's disability. So whether that is in work, in education, in goods and services, airlines across the board, that seems to be an area of legal need that canvasses the life course of a person, you know, whether they're a baby. And toddler that needs to access health care, whether they're a student in primary school, whether they're an adolescent trying to access university right through to an adult, trying to navigate housing and airlines. This is a really standard and significant experience for disabled people all of the time. And then in the second level of legal need we see that people with disability are disproportionately impacted by government policy. Predominantly I'm referring to the NDIS or the National Disability Insurance Scheme. Decisions that are made about the funding and support through people with disability to be able to live their everyday lives. And where that is not working well then a person can take review of decisions but that the initial part of where it's not working well what causes it to work or not is driven by policy. When policy decisions are made by the National Disability Insurance Agency that don't accord with what the disability community said to be a good life or a life they're able to work within. Then we see a rise of those sorts of cases. Sort of the work that that we know that the disability community needs constantly all the time. And then the work did peaks and troughs for government policy making
Peta [00:03:53] All the things that you said. I'm just like, Yup, that makes total sense. That's that's, you know, often been my lived experience or that's what I've seen people in the community experience. And I don't think people would understand how widespread many of these issues are Like these aren't one off issues obviously have a level of understanding of having a disability yourself. Natalie I like I really admire you to take these sort of issues on because they're never ending. Like even though I might see them on Instagram or speaking to a friend for me, I can sort of take myself away from it and have a break. But how do you manage your mental health knowing that these issues are so constant?
Natalie [00:04:39] The ABC released an episode of Four Corners last night, which was an investigation into alleged abuse and in practice by providers against disabled people and the episode is called careless . And it makes for horrifying viewing. I don't know if you saw it, Peta, but it's just it is completely horrific. And many senior leaders from the disability rights movement have said throughout the course of today publicly that some people have not been able watch all of it. Some people say it is working despite all the time left in tears. So it's an interesting day to ask me, how do you how do you start off every day and do this work? You're I think mostly Peta, I am. I really feel as though there is nothing else I could possibly be doing. I just it's it's almost involuntary for me. I just. I have to be doing this work. I don't want to be doing other work. Doesn't seem to matter how tired I get or how exhausted I get it's almost a bit of a calling. I have the privilege of having been able to realise just enough of my own human rights to be able to secure a really incredible tertiary education, which is obviously on the back of a mainstream primary and secondary education. And and I've been able to be a part of the very small percent of women with disability who live free from violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation. I am an NDIS participant. And with that I feel a deep sense of honour and gratitude to be able to contribute it to my community and to advance disability rights in this nation.
Peta [00:07:00] I was speaking to a past guest and they really wanted to be a lawyer. They were born with a disability and they were highly discouraged to practice into law and they ended up changing their career based on that advice. Does that surprise you that people with disabilities are being encouraged not to participate in your industry?
Natalie [00:07:25] No, no, no. Right. You know, we've only had women in the profession for not very long, say 50 years. But someone should fact check that. It might be longer. But it's not a diverse profession in and of itself. And so it has been built without diversity in mind full stop. And whether that is women, people of culturally diverse backgrounds, people with different sexual orientation and different ages even. Having said that, there is a surprising amount of disabled lawyers out there. They are diverse in their experience, of course, but I think the rest of the profession is probably more men then women. When I opened Equality Lawyers it was surprising to me that Equality Lawyers became a real icon for people like your previous guest that wanted to practice but didn't know it was possible, was told it wasn't possible and it is that you can't be can't see. So I never really meant for equality lawyers to be a visual of what a disabled lawyer could look like, but awesome if that's what people are getting out of it. I acknowledge and absolutely call out that there are certain structures and systems that exclude certain people from legal practice either by way of the way in which we run our workplaces, the way in which our courts are set up, and those sorts of institutional practice. Some of my biggest supporters were very excited about the change that might be initiated as a result of my participation in the in the professions so really around accessibility, courts and tribunals, and generally educating the broader profession on what practice could look like.
Peta [00:09:49] When I had Jordan Steel John on the podcast, he was speaking about how much how inaccessible the Parliament was when he first arrived. And it really just illustrates the low expectations that people have for people with disabilities that I hope is changing. And you're probably more informed on that topic than I am. But to me, inaccessibility to law courts just illustrates that nobody ever thought that disabled people were becoming lawyers.
Natalie [00:10:24] No. Never thought that I would becoming lawyers or would be witnesses or would be jurors or would be defendants, for that matter. Nor would they be judges. You know, I say there is there is a complete absence of thought that disabled people would be actors within the justice system. And yet we are disproportionately represented, particularly throughout the criminal justice system and as systems like the NDIS and Social Security. So Centrelink and other government driven policies become more and more legalistic. There is an emphasis on the need for courts and tribunals to be not only accessible but also inclusive.
Peta [00:11:22] I know from doing my research that you use support workers at home, but I'm actually more interested of whether you use support at work, because I found it really difficult to know when I could advocate for my own needs. When I was in a workplace. I would just sort of get on with it. And even if I was, I was struggling, I would just think, Oh, it's fine. But in reflection, I probably should have had more help. So as a professional person, do you utilise those sort of supports in your workplace?
Natalie [00:11:59] No, I don't. And it's interesting. I think I think there's an internalised ableism in this. Right. So I think probably I don't know about you, Peta, when you were at school, but I was very anti help when I was at school, "no I don't need anyone to help me get my books. I need anyone to help me on the toilet" because I don't want to look different was My child version of that. I require support at home. So I have also about 5 hours care every day. I can't achieve any of my daily living activities in the words of the OTs. You know, I don't dress myself, I don't put myself on the toilet I don't shower myself I don't do any of that. I don't transfer. So I had paid support to do all of that. I became quite good at structuring my colleagues any useful way. So be able to have them assist me much, much easier when you're the boss. I must say. That? Yeah, I actually do rely on my team. I work to fill in those gaps. It's good for getting a cup of coffee made in in our inaccessible kitchen or getting some help getting my lunch out the fridge, when I am in a rush and that would take me 10 minutes and it takes the walking people 2 minutes. But it doesn't mean that I go to the toilet during work the day. It doesn't mean that I take my jumper off if I'm too hot, you know, these sorts of things. So I you know, I'm really I'm really proud of any part of inclusivity that we achevie in my workplace. I think that's really awesome. But I don't want to make it sound like I'm achieving the same experience as my non physically disabled colleagues insofar as if I wear a jumper and it turns hot I'm just hot, or if I drink too much coffee and I need to go to toilet I'm not going to the toilet.
Peta [00:14:39] I really admire you to think that you're doing some really important work, really thinking intellectually, making sure you're saying the right thing, and possibly at the same time thinking, Oh my goodness, I really need the loo, like credit to you.
Natalie [00:14:56] Yeah. 100% that is totally my lived experience day in, day out. I and I often think exactly that. Oh I should have had that coffee half an hour later because I don't care for the 2 hours and I've already slightly misjudged the the schedule, or nothing worse when colleagues that are not in your team drop by the office in the afternoon. They're like hey Nat, let's go out for a coffee, and I think oh let's maybe not.
Peta [00:15:30] I understand that part of your disability is undiagnosed. Is that correct?
Natalie [00:15:36] Yeah, All of it is all undiagnosed. Yeah. So I was born with well, what they call undiagnosed, congenital, muscular myopathy. Not having a diagnosis means I don't have a prognosis so I don't know if I'll die or not because of it. I don't have access to any sort of treatment. So any sort of stabilising treatment or treatment that might relieve symptoms, I don't have anything. I'm the only person in my whole family that has this sort of immediate extended family. But then no one knows I'm a total odd case. No one has any idea.
Peta [00:16:32] And do you think that unknown has really fostered that need in you to work really hard and help other disabled people because you don't know what your future necessarily holds?
Natalie [00:16:45] Oh, no, I don't think so. I think that I am so determined to advance disability rights in Australia. Because the current state of play is so shocking like is it is so unacceptable Peta, that disabled people are treated like this that there is not a moment to lose. And so I think it's more the the scale of the appalling human rights abuses that happen in every day Australia is what makes me feel like I don't need time off I don't need to pursue other career goals or other other interests in my work life that this deserves the number of hours I work every week. And that's and that's that. I think that certainly building a legacy as a leader is really interesting. I that we could do a whole podcast on that itself. I don't I don't feel a sense of you know I might be dead next week so I better get on with it. Not really no.
Peta [00:18:13] I'm very pleased to hear that. That's very good. I don't know whether it's just me, but I naively tell myself that I've been given my major challenge in life as cerebral palsy with all the challenges that I face. I have to say, were you really pissed off and angry when you found out you had cancer?
Natalie [00:18:36] It was pretty unfortunate, right? I had melanoma. The cancer, the effects young people in the most in Australia. I was diagnosed when I was 19. I just moved out of home, which is a really big deal for physically disabled young people. I was in Second year law I know it was all going pretty good. I got diagnosed with melanoma in my leg of all places, which I'm pretty sure never saw any sun. And then it travelled up to my lymphatic system and metastasised there. So by the time I was 21, it was looking pretty terminal and it was like don't worry about the undiagnosed medical condition this was gonna be the premature death, that was it. But I had a, ah, really significant surgery. I had a bit of radical surgery and now I'm fine, which is amazing. But definitely I thought, gosh, how unlucky. What are the chances of having a significant medical condition and then having another life threatening medical condition?
Peta [00:20:05] I've never asked this question before. I'm going to be really honest and I don't know how it's going to go, but it's one of those questions that I've always had in the back of my head and I secretly think about. I fantasise if I had one day with out my disability. I would love to be able to climb a tree. I've never been able to do that before. It's just one of those things. As a kid, I've always wanted to climb a tree and it's just one of the things that I would do if I had my one day off. Is there anything that you would do?
Peta [00:21:58] It's such an odd thing hugging other people and it's I always find it awkward. I never know what to do with other people in wheelchairs because we can't hug. And I really want to.
Peta [00:22:15] I ask this question at the end of every pod and I feel like you're probably going to have the most informed answer ever to this question. So what do you wish for the future for people with disabilities?
Natalie [00:22:31] I wish for all of our human rights to be realised. I wish for us to live lives free a violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation. The current rates of violence and human rights abuses perpetrated against disabled people in Australia is abhorrent and demands urgent and active intervention. I also really desire and actively pursue, I guess, equal opportunity for disabled people in all areas of life, in the really important areas like education and employment and housing and the justice system. But also in areas that I think that mainstream Australia considers to be kind of optional and they're really not. Things like airlines, travel being able to go to social events, being able to be included at festivals and at the cinema. And you know, in general everyday life I don't think that broader Australian communities really understand or appreciate how excluded we are and how far and how soon that needs to change.
Peta [00:24:07] Thank you so much for listening to this week's episode. I hope you enjoyed it if you did. Can I encourage you to share the show on social media or write it wherever you listen to your podcasts? It all helps more people find the pot. As always, if you want to get in contact with me, you can send me an email. My email address is I can't stand podcast at gmail.com or by Instagram. My handle is at Peter Hooke. Spelled PETAHOOKE. Thank you so much. And until next week. Have a good one, guys. Bye. I'd like to pay my respect to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures, but especially to the bunarong people where this podcast was recorded.