‘A Clear Lack of Empathy’: People With Disabilities Deserve More From the Australian Government

A swarm of disability advocates and MPs have slammed the Prime Minister for saying he's “blessed” not to have children with disabilities.
Anthony Albanese and Scott Morrison go head-to-hea
Photo by Jason Edwards / Getty Images

Disability advocates and MPs have descended on Prime Minister Scott Morrison after he told the audience at Wednesday night’s election debate he was “blessed” not to have children with disabilities. 

The comment was made as part of his answer to a question from an audience member whose son lives with autism, about what the future might hold for the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) if Morrison wins at the federal election on May 21.


The comment drew condemnation from current and former Australians of the year, Dylan Alcott and Grace Tame, along with Autism Awareness Australia, who branded the descriptor “disgraceful”. 

Others were quick to defend the Prime Minister. One of them was Liberal senator Hollie Hughes – an outspoken supporter of NDIS reform and the mother of a child living with autism – who appeared on ABC News on Thursday morning to argue that the backlash had so far been unjustified. 

“If you want to talk about the word ‘blessed’ [as being] the biggest problem we’ve got facing us, as parents and carers of those people with a disability, this is why the disability community quite often struggles to make constructive gains – because there is lying underneath it a significant, almost permanent rage machine,” Hughes said.

“And when the NDIS came in, and a lot of people got funding for the first time, they had to find somewhere else to direct their rage.”

Morrison tried to double down on his use of the word first thing on Thursday morning.

Appearing on 2GB Radio, Morrison argued that the audience member who posed the question “didn’t take it that way” and that his opponents were just trying to “twist” his words.

Later that day, Morrison appeared before reporters at his daily campaign press conference, where he said he had reached out to now-retired Australian tennis player Dylan Alcott and “apologised directly” for causing offence, but maintained that Labor party members had moved to make it seem worse.


The apology, however, failed to absolve Morrison of the harm he’d caused less than 24 hours earlier. 

Samantha Connor, president of People with Disability Australia (PWDA), told VICE the language Morrison chose to use on Wednesday night remains deeply offensive “to all people with disability”. 

“To demean us in such an insensitive way demonstrates a clear lack of empathy and understanding about people with disability and the families who love us,” Connor said. 

“His exclusionary language frames people with disability as a burden, a blight and a punishment from ‘on high’, regarding us as either pitiful objects of welfare and charity, or as ‘brave and inspirational’,” she said.  

“Therein lies the issue. People with disability deserve dignity and respect, not misplaced pity.”

Connor pointed to the fact that after everything, Morrison has yet to answer the original question: what would the future hold for the NDIS through another term under the Morrison government?

“She deserved an answer and so do we. The Coalition has not yet released a disability policy, nor has it made commitments which will ensure people with disability are better supported under the NDIS,” she said. 

On Tuesday, Labor announced its promise to overhaul the NDIS’s appeals process, as part of a pledge to hire an extra 380 agency staff, as well as cut funding to consultants and private law firms, to whom the agency has paid out $32 million in the past eight months.


Announcing the pledge earlier in the week, Labor’s NDIS spokesman Bill Shorten called the entire scheme’s leadership into question, and suggested that NDIS CEO, Martin Hoffman, might have to look for a new job if Labor wins at the federal election.

“I haven’t spoken to anyone in the disability sector who has a good word to say about Mr Hoffman,” said Shorten. “That doesn’t mean I’ve spoken to everyone. It would be premature to make definitive statements about people before the election.”

Connor from PWDA was equally critical. She told VICE that, under the Coalition, the NDIS has been punished with ongoing funding cuts that run completely at odds with the election messaging pitched to voters by the Morrison government. 

“‘Fully funded’ means that people with disability can get the help that we need. Under the Coalition, the NDIS has been increasingly subjected to punitive funding cuts under a newly implemented machine learning system, where our funding is determined not by people but by AI systems and stringent operational guidelines,” Connor said. 

“What would be a ‘blessing’ is for the next government of Australia to deliver an effective and sustainable NDIS as well as other outcomes that advance and protect the rights of people with disability.”

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