top of page
  • Writer's picturePeta

Senator Jordan Steele John: The disabled politician fighting for disability rights

Experiencing inequality for people with disabilities can be a daily (if not multiple times a day) reality. Many people with disabilities are passionate about improving life for themselves and fellow people with a disability.

So imagine having the opportunity to use your voice in federal parliament?

That is what Jordon Steele-John has dedicated himself to. Fighting for disability rights as a fellow disabled person.

I hope you enjoy this chat, Peta had with Jordon.

Get in touch with Jordon:

You can ask Peta a question for a future epiosode of the podcast via:

Instagram @petahooke


Episode Transcript:

Peta [00:00:03] Hello and welcome to the I Can't Stand podcast, the podcast, answering your questions about what life is like when you have a disability. My name is Peta and I'm your host. I had cerebral palsy, and I love to answer your questions. This week on the podcast, I have Senator Jordan still John. He is an Australian politician for the Greens Party, who is a disability advocate and has a disability himself. Regardless of your personal politics, I believe this chat is really valuable. Jordan can offer a unique perspective of what it's like to live with a disability and represent people with disabilities in parliament, while also giving us an insight of what it's like to be a federal politician and have a disability. Jordan is based in WA, so of course, we had to do this interview remotely. We had a few technical difficulties, to say the least. Jordan Work Computer could not connect to my podcasting programme that I use, so we had to use Zoom. So I do apologise if there's a little bit of audio discrepancy throughout this episode just to let you know if you have little is around. It might be a good idea to listen to this episode a little bit later because Jordan does like a good swear, OK? Without any further ado, let's hand it over to Jordan.

Jordan [00:01:55] Hello, everybody, my name is Jordan Steele-John, and I'm one of the Greens senators for Western Australia.

Peta [00:02:01] Thank you for being on the podcast.

Jordan [00:02:04] It's a pleasure to be here. How did you get into politics, Jordan? I was lucky enough to grow up in a household with about four generations under one roof after my family emigrated from the UK through my nan and my great-grandma. There was a memory of like the time before women could vote in my grandparents. There was the time before anybody could get health care before the National Health Service was in or before they had an eight-hour working day. My granddad, the house he was born in, didn't have a sealed floor so that I can slough. I'm through listening to them, telling stories about it and talking about it. That kind of leads you to a political understanding. And I think if I combine that with the fact that my mum was there for 20 years, a social worker and child protection social worker. So we've got a deeply steeped in social justice and the need for a systemic change in all those kinds of things. And then the kind of spark and the flame and the gas-filled environment, if you like, was a refugee back in back in 2001. I was, I think, six at the time, and I remember watching a news report about the Tampa crisis didn't obviously know what I was watching on, but I kind of could understand that there was a boat in the middle of the water with people on it then and I help, and the government was saying, No, we're not going to help them. And that struck me as really odd that stuck with me as always, being something that was inherently wrong and mixed all in together with disability rights as a disabled person and a kind of innate passion for justice in that space. Environmental issues all tend to lead me to the green.

Peta [00:04:05] You clearly have a very deep history that really spurs you on going forward. I understand that being in politics is about using your voice every day. But why is it important to you to be a voice in the disability community in particular?

Jordan [00:04:25] Well, I think there are so many decisions that get made in in the, you know, in parliamentary spaces, right, that affect our lives. So I think it's really important that we have people with actual lived experience in those decision-making spaces contributing to and shaping those decisions. And the NDIS is a really key example of that. You know, we as a disability community, our friends are allies banding together almost 10 years ago to campaign for the achievement of a scheme that would provide it with the support. We need to live a good life just like everybody else. You know, that scheme has achieved that goal for some people, it is also failed, other people. And behind every failure that I've discovered you did you come across a decision that was made by a non-disabled person despite the fact that disabled people and their advocates went down there? That didn't work and somebody went, Yeah, but how about we do it anyway? And then we created problems for people. I think it's really important to have our voices in that space. And that's what I love being part of.

Peta [00:05:45] As somebody with a disability as well, I often feel really frustrated by how hard it is to make change. So I really admire, you know, your willingness and ability to be sitting there to help us make change on our behalf.

Jordan [00:06:02] Oh, I absolutely love it. How are you doing? It's an honour and a pleasure to serve our community in that role.

Peta [00:06:12] And when you did start, firstly in parliament was the parliament will trigger this bill and accessible to you?

Jordan [00:06:20] No, no, it was not. They said it was no surprise. Yes, I know something shocking. A building built in 1977, and finished in 1988 was not wheelchair accessible. And to be honest with you, it's still bloody, isn't it? So I was elected and they went, Oh, we don't seem to have a senator's office in the building accessible. We have one over on the other side of the building that we built for the only other disabled person that's ever been elected to federal parliament. But we don't seem to have one on the Senate, so. So they spent six months building an office that was accessible because it wasn't even the basic staffer couldn't even really use the money. And then you have to engage in a game with anybody that's ever needed to rely on aid on an accessible toilet in a shared building environment. You play that game that I like to call home roulette where we go looking for the accessible toilet on the floor, which has not just been used by Greg in accounting to take a massive shift in. Absolutely. Yeah. Yeah. Is that your gross experience? Horrible? We will be there. It's absolutely like you just might be a toilet dedicated to the child in the world, but we don't fucking stew on it as we're trying to get our bloody day done. It's gross, but yeah, I had to do that for about six months and then they applied in the office. And then from there, it's been a kind of constant push to get the other places and spaces accessible and also to get in the parliament to have disability access and inclusion plan, which you didn't have before I turned up there. So now it has one, but it is pretty, pretty basic, you know,

Peta [00:08:21] regardless of whether you're in politics or not. The story that you've just told really resonates with me and is very familiar to me, and I'm sure as well too many of my listeners because it's so many of us walk into employment settings and they haven't thought about accessibility. We're constantly educating people and, you know, having that equality, we've just got such a long way to go.

Jordan [00:08:49] We do. And I think if we kind of step back and look at the bigger picture for a moment like physically inaccessible place in space, digitally inaccessible place in space is a form of discrimination and it results in. And I say this absolutely knowing the meaning behind it if it results in a form of cultural and social apartheid. Let us just think for a moment if every building without wheelchair access instead of being you know or as well as being which are inaccessible, also had a sign that said no blacks allowed because that's what it that's what it is for us, right? It says you are not welcome in here. In fact, you cannot come in here alone if you welcome or maybe use the back door, you know, or maybe, you know, we'll just be you in a special area. Yeah. And that not only feels like faith, it also narrows our job opportunities. It narrows our social opportunities. Over the last ten years, something like four per cent of the housing stock in Australia has been accessible, meaning that it limits our ability to buy a home or to find a way to live in this accessible and inclusive. But it also means that it makes it difficult for us to, you know, get around to our main place and have a drink on a Friday. People's access needs to change over time. And it's really important for us to make those that place in space accessible so that as our mobility needs change, we are cut off from that social engagement or indeed that economic injury. Look, I'm really aware Peta is a joke about this, you know, talking about the inaccessibility of parliament or whatever, I still bring a shit ton of privilege. If anybody's going to get help at MPs, probably going to get help, right? I'm not going to drive, you know, oh, woe is me. The committee room door doesn't open because the reality is I probably thought I was somebody opens that for me. And they will. You know what I mean? Yeah. The broader point, though, is if the very place where people are making decisions that affect accessibility is itself inaccessible. What hope did we get of solving the broader issue? You know what, I really yeah, because it's the place where Australian democracy lives, and at the moment it is aimed to think of that broader problem, not of the solution. When it was built, Parliament House was considered to be one of the more accessible buildings built in Australia. And they added what they thought was additional accessible loans and all that kind of thing. And they were very proud of that. But they did that only in the public spaces of Parliament House with the idea that the point was to make it accessible for the four people that would visit it. Right? Yeah. Remember thinking that a disabled person would be an MP, would be a staff member, would be any of the other working roles that are within parliament.

Peta [00:12:08] It just goes to mindset and low expectations of people with disabilities.

Jordan [00:12:14] It absolutely does.

Peta [00:12:17] In your opinion, what are the disability issues currently in our society that need to be addressed?

Jordan [00:12:23] The first thing you've got the NDIS, what people are telling me is that it is far harder to get on than it should be. It's far harder to get the supports you need when you are on it than it should be, and you don't when you're interacting with it. You are currently at respected and seen as you should be. You know that it feels like people are constantly having to struggle to get what they need, often having to tell their stories multiple times being dismissed, having paperwork lost. We need to return to that thing which we, as disabled people and our allies, campaigned for nearly 10 years ago, which was a system which ensured that every disabled person was able to get the support they need to live a good life, just like everybody else on our terms in our own way. And at the same time, I think we need to be expanding the eligibility criteria to make it easier for people to get on board. We need to be employing more people in the agency that are disabled and make sure that everybody in that body knows what disability is and is trained properly to do their job. Then, beyond the NDIS, the disability, more broadly, we need to be looking at education and ensuring that our education systems are mainstream and inclusive of all disabled people. We still have a situation in Australia where about 15 to 20 per cent of kids are educated in segregated special schools. They're not educated alongside their peers. And we know that that leads to really bad educational outcomes for kids. We know that inclusive education techniques actually did better education techniques for everybody. We've got to look at work and employment more broadly. We know that unemployment amongst the community is very high. Underemployment is higher still, and we know it's very difficult to get a job as a disabled person and that is not OK. Ending it is ridings where people are paid, you know, cents on the dollar for programmes that masquerade as employment programmes when they're not actually paying people a living wage, you know, and that that is not okay. And then finally, I would say health care is a massive one for us as a community right now. Peta. The COVID pandemic has revealed the extreme risk that we are placed as disabled people because of the barriers that exist in our health care system. We knew already before the pandemic that the average life expectancy of an intellectually or cognitively disabled Australian is twenty-five years less than the rest of the population, and the primary driver of that is poor health outcomes. So we really need to address that, as well as make sure that any and all responses that we craft to the COVID 19 pandemic are inclusive of disabled people and actually put our needs and respective at the centre.

Peta [00:15:48] It just goes to show that despite disability varying so much that many of these issues carry across many people's lives, regardless of their diagnosis.

Jordan [00:15:58] Totally. I mean, that's the essence of our shared experience of disabled people, and this is why I'm really in love with the concept of disability pride that actually we as disabled people are bound together by a shared a shared context. And that is that we live in a world in a society that is deeply rooted, entrenched in a hateful ism that shared experience of ableism, combined with a shared experience of kind of adaptation and different perspective and skill and brilliance that we really should celebrate. You know, and I have reason to celebrate. We, disabled people, are bloody fantastic. And combining that shared experience of the crap, together with the shared acknowledgement of our awesomeness is kind of the centre of disability pride. A proud community of people that are like, you know what, it sometimes really difficult to be a disabled person. The source of that, however, though, is ableism and easing the discrimination. There ain't nothing wrong with that. And if we had the right supports in the right place and we were able to take the time to think through and challenging questions the way that we think about ourselves, I think the vast majority of us would say that the reason that we are down on ourselves with any particular moment can be traced back to some person without a disability, making a decision or normalising a thing which is actually rooted in enabling.

Peta [00:17:41] I've been thinking about my non-disabled listeners listening right now. How do you think they could better help us as a community?

Jordan [00:17:51] Oh, that's a really great question. Well, I mean, broadly, Peta, I think your question is about allies and allies. Shepherding Centre is about recognising that you as an ally, so in this context would be talking about non-disabled persons have a bunch of privilege and agency good allies, whether it is two wars, disabled people or people of colour or we folks are about using that privilege and that granted agency proactively to work alongside disabled folks to break down those barriers. So, you know, if you see somebody being able to discriminate towards a disabled person, you know, using judgement obviously may well be that the disabled person that you're with, you know, really well and, you know, for whatever reason, just doesn't want to be bothered with anybody taking it on. But if you see a situation that didn't seem OK, pull it out. You know, use some of that agency that you have to help us break down these barriers. If you have a building that is inaccessible, you can flag it with the management to, you know, why isn't there a ramp that when we're sitting left, is there hearing room? How many disabled people do we employ?

Peta [00:19:14] Yeah, that was my next thing. Where are all my disabled colleagues?

Jordan [00:19:18] Yeah, they are also making sure that absolutely wherever you can, you're talking to your disabled peers about how they would like to be supported. You know what I mean to do. So it can also be bad to kind of just kind of white knight in when maybe that's not what we want. So, you know, like make sure that you begin your day to help with that and do disabled people about the engagement that they want from you like an animal.

Peta [00:19:47] What do you love about having a disability

Jordan [00:19:51] or the parking spot? I travel. I just love being able to get a park. I wish I could get a job. I wish there were more parking spaces. I love being out. I'm a proud member of our disabled community, meeting other disabled people like sharing in our cultural language and understandings. I really just love getting together with my mates. The fact that stuff that I. That's the best thing about being disabled is being part of our disability community.

Peta [00:20:27] Last question, because I know you're a very busy man. What do you hope disability will be like in the future for all Australians or?

Jordan [00:20:39] That's a great question, Peter. First of all, I hope that every disabled person, no matter how they no matter what their impairment or difference, whether they were born with that impairment or different acquired, it fails at their core a deep sense of pride in themselves as a disabled person and is able to look themselves in the mirror and say You bloody awesome or look in the mirror and go, Oh, for God's sake, Kevin, you really do need to lose some bloody way but have it be nothing to do with their impairment or difference, you know what I mean? Yeah. And then on top of that, the community that we live in, the society that we're part of and the government that is formed in our name and represents us are free of ableism that it has been driven out in education and employment, healthcare in housing, in every bloody place that it lives. So we, as disabled people, are able to live our lives in the way that we see fit on our own terms, just like everybody else should be able to.

Peta [00:21:54] Well, I couldn't have said it better myself, and what a great way to end. Thank you so much for being here. I really, really appreciate it.

Jordan [00:22:01] No worries. Thank you. It's been fabulous to be back with you as I've to.

Peta [00:22:09] Thank you for listening to my interview with Jordan Steele-John. I thoroughly enjoyed the chat and I hope you did too. If you did, can I ask you to leave a rating and review? If you listen on Apple podcasts if you listen on Spotify or Google or another podcasting platform, can I ask you to share the podcast with someone you think might find the podcast interesting? It all helps more people find the podcast and better understand what it's like to live with a disability. OK. Two Next week by.


bottom of page