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The Hon. K.L. Vincent – Dignity For Disability

By March 12, 2016October 12th, 2023
KL Vincent

Kelly Vincent is a Member of the Legislative Council for political party Dignity for Disability, promoting Dignity through Choice for people with disabilities, their families, carers and networks in South Australia. Aged 21, at the time of the March 2010 election, she is Australia’s youngest female Parliamentarian, and is also the first in a South Australian Parliament to use a wheelchair for mobility.

Outside of her disability advocacy work, Kelly is a playwright. Shown below is her Maiden Speech – Hansard.

Maiden Speech – Hansard

The Hon. K.L. VINCENT (16:03): Thank you, sir. Given that I have such a small voice, your patience and silence would be much appreciated. I find I am simply not able to speak as loudly in my old age!

First, I acknowledge the Kaurna people whose footprints meet our own every time they touch this land and within whose stories we weave our own. I also acknowledge and congratulate the newly elected members of parliament, in particular, the Hons Tammy Jennings and Jing Lee. I have already found their strength of mind and spirit, eloquence and kindness to be truly honourable. Congratulations.

Sitting in this chamber as the youngest female and the first person ever to be elected into the South Australian parliament who uses a wheelchair, is, as I am sure you can imagine, not an easy thing to describe. I would like to employ one of the basic rules I often used in what is now, I suppose, my other life as a writer.

I begin at the beginning. Until recently I would have said that the beginning of my disability advocacy journey occurred roughly 18 months ago—as I was struggling to get a new wheelchair for about that long. I was approved for the wheelchair in January 2008 but would not actually sit in it until October 2009. During this period I began speaking at disability-related conferences and forums about this experience and the effect it was having on my body, mind and life in general.

I would usually just get up onto the stage and adlib something, as I am of the view that the last thing that the sector needs is another PowerPoint presentation. Through these speeches I developed something of a small cult following, and, while I really enjoyed doing them and appreciated the increased support and awareness, it occurred to me that I still was not getting a new wheelchair.

So, late last year, I turned to my last refuge: Facebook—naturally. I began a group called ‘Mission: Kelly’s New Chair’ on which I placed some of my story, as well as the contact details of the Hon. Jennifer Rankine, Minister for Disability. I began this group thinking that if just 10 or 15 of my friends joined and each of them sent a letter, then the group would have served its purpose. However, within a few weeks, the group had some 250 members, some in countries such as France, Mexico and America. Fortunately, I have some varying ability to converse in both French and Spanish and was soon dedicating as much time as possible to sending out trilingual updates. I believe that, although none of us ever said it out loud, we were all perfectly aware that we were in fact communicating in the universal languages of hope and goodwill. Soon the emails and phone calls were flowing thick and fast and, at times, I would simply sit in front of my computer and have a good chuckle about the fact that, at the age of 20, I was effectively leading a disability rights movement from my bedroom. Such is the power of youth.

Then one day, after I had been speaking at one of these forums, I switched on my computer to see that the group had gained a new member. His name was Dr Paul Henry Collier, and, though I did not know it at the time, the course of my life was changed forever. However, as I was saying, I no longer consider this to be the beginning of my journey. This is because, about a month or so out from the election, my fellow candidate turned staff member and, above all, beloved friend, Sam Paior, pointed to me and said three words that will stay with me always and forever: ‘Advocate since birth.’

I did not realise before I heard Sam say these words just how true they were. I am not just an advocate when I present at forums or run a Facebook group, I am an advocate every time I point out to the owner of a restaurant that I cannot reach the soap dispenser in their accessible bathroom. I am an advocate every time I glare disapprovingly at the seemingly able-bodied lady who walks out of the accessible bathroom after I have been waiting to use it for half an hour. I was an advocate every time I came home from school in tears because some kid made fun of the way I walked, and, most of all, I am an advocate every time I ask the following question: why is this allowed to happen to people with disabilities in South Australia?

Let me suggest a rather disturbing example of what I mean by this. Some people with a disability wait up to five years, perhaps more, for equipment such as a wheelchair. They may wait 15 years or more for supported accommodation, unless their primary carer in their current house dies or is forced to abandon them, unable or unwilling to care for them any longer. A 16 year old girl with burns to 70 per cent of her body may and does go without the wheelchair she requires to be mobile at school because the school lost that wheelchair a year ago and has not received a replacement. A deaf person may miss out on a large part of a presentation in a public place because the building’s hearing loop has been out of order for some time—and the list goes on.

If we applied this concept to education, our children would have to wait somewhere between two and five years for equipment—schoolbooks and uniforms. Worse still, imagine having to tell your child that they could not go to school until another student died. This is, of course, unacceptable—indeed, outrageous. The ramifications of a child not having ready access to education, especially in their early years, are potentially greater than any of us in this chamber can imagine. They may become illiterate, have underdeveloped social skills and potentially be unable to contribute to society in the same way they would do so otherwise. If the disability funding model were applied to the education system, I have no doubt that there would be a public outcry, followed by a complete overhaul of the system, yet this happens in the disability sector every single day.

Perhaps what I have just said will give a little insight into why I am set back a little every time someone tries to suggest to me that Dignity for Disability is a single issue party. Disability knows no boundaries: it crosses transport, education, social inclusion, access and discrimination, just for a start. Anyone who needs proof of the wide reach of disability needs only look up at the galleries of this chamber and behold the special guests we have with us today. I sincerely thank them all for this: it is truly an honour to have you here. Disability affects people of all ages, race, gender, class and religion in different ways and this should be a source of celebration just as much as it is a difficulty. One of my favourite authors, Kahill Gibran, once wrote:

Last night I invented a new pleasure. And as I was giving it its first trial, an angel and a devil came rushing toward my house. They met at my door and fought with each other over this new pleasure, one crying, ‘It is a sin!’, the other, ‘It is a virtue!’

If only disability could be a pleasure in this sense because, although Dignity for Disability is not a single issue party, I guess you could say that its mission statement is actually pretty simple: the idea that there is no such thing as one size fits all in regard to disability, that people with disabilities are individuals and, more than that, because of the struggles they have faced and the battles they have fought, taking the good and the bad, they have become some of the most strong, well educated and articulate individuals this state has to offer.

I am sometimes asked if the name of the party I represent, Dignity for Disability, implies that people with disabilities do not already have dignity. My response to this is simple: no. In my mind the word ‘dignity’ in the name of the party simply means that people with disabilities are dignified and intelligent human beings who are able to make a real and lasting contribution in society, and it is high time that the services and opportunities given to them reflected this.

I was recently asked whether comments about people with disabilities finally having a representative in parliament implied that we were somehow ungrateful for the contributions to the disability sector made by members of parliament who have already graced this chamber and this parliament for many years. I particularly acknowledge minister Jay Weatherill and the Hon. Mr Stephen Wade, and I acknowledge Senator Mitch Fifield and minister Bill Shorten in the federal parliament. These kinds of people, many of whom do not have any direct involvement in the disability sector by way of being a person with a disability or a carer, family member or friend to a person with a disability, work tirelessly and with ineffable passion and dedication on the basis that improving the lives of people with disabilities, their families and carers is fundamentally a social, economic and, above all, human rights issue. These people are what some in the disability sector refer to as allies. As we all know, the purpose of an ally is to work side by side with those they support, not to overtake or be put in place of them.

As I said in reply to the person asking this very valid question about allies, we at Dignity for Disability acknowledge and applaud the work of these allies and look forward to being given reasons to continue applauding them in the future. However, we believe that having allies in parliament is quite simply not the same thing as a person and a party that has lived and breathed pure physical and spiritual involvement in disability.

Think for just a moment of Indigenous Australians. I am not for one second suggesting that people with disabilities are comparable with Indigenous Australians in terms of the severity of the hardships they have historically faced. However, if I may be so bold, I would like to suggest that these two groups are similar in that they are each their own culture, with their own rich histories, hardships, languages and joys that simply cannot be understood as clearly, wholly or naturally by outsiders.

Nevertheless, I will be the first to admit that I, and d4d as a party, do not have all the answers. I cannot do this on my own. So I would like to take this opportunity to give my heartfelt, spirit-deep thanks to just a few of the many people who have helped ensure that, while I am travelling this long, winding and difficult road, at least I will not be doing it with a flat tyre, so to speak—to the original members of the party: Sam Paior, Rick Neagle, Ronni Wood, Garry Connor and Michele Thredgold; to Fim Jucha, our volunteer coordinator during the election campaign; to David Holst of Disability Speaks, who joins us in the chamber today; to Natasha Stott Despoja and Kate Reynolds for their sage and—pardon the pun—democratic advice, both personal and political; to Ian Gilfillan, for much the same reason; to David Winderlich; to Chantel; to Natalie and Nick; to Lucy; to PJ Rose and Alirio Zavarce, who are largely responsible for my becoming an artist and embracing my disability as a part of that art; and to my mother, whose refusal to see her daughter effectively punished by society not only for being a sensitive soul but also for not being able to use scissors quite as well as the other children in her class, who may well have saved my life before I was even born.

Returning to the matter at hand, it is high time that these outsiders I have just spoken about came in, not only because we could use some more allies but because there are numerous factors—such as the rate at which our population is ageing—that means that the current 20 per cent of South Australians who have a disability, the 20 per cent who care for a person with a disability, and the 40 per cent of carers who, in fact, have a disability themselves, could at any second become 21 and 41 per cent. This number could include any one of the currently non-disabled people in this chamber.

As the tragic event of 9 March 2010 showed us, you just never know what is going to happen. The death of Dignity for Disability’s late cofounder and president, Dr Paul Collier, was sudden and, in many respects, untimely. It goes without saying that it was a great shock to me and the party, and I once again offer my sincere condolences, support and love to Paul’s mother, Wendy Collier, and his sister, Joanne Harvey. I would also like to thank them because, although I sadly did not know Paul quite long enough to figure out where all his charm, intelligence and warmth come from, I suspect it had something to do with his upbringing.

I recall a telephone conversation I had with a friend and fellow advocate a day or so after Paul had the brain haemorrhage that would ultimately claim his life. After taking 10 or so minutes to digest the news about Paul, my friend said that Paul was like an older version of us. I realise now how true and profound this simple statement was. In his 46 short years, Paul Collier did more than most can hope to do in 100 years.

He chose to attend Oxford not because it was going to be friendly to him and his wheelchair but because he saw it as the best place for him from an academic perspective. He was, of course, admitted and, during his time there as a student, he took steps to make the university accessible to everyone. Paul organised and ran public rallies and forums on disability issues. Towards the end of his life, Paul performed an action that at the time seemed small and, in some ways, still does seem small: he put my name down as the No. 2 candidate for the upper house in Dignity for Disability’s 2010 election campaign.

I am still trying to figure out how big a place the idea of fate has in this chamber. However, I will say that the fact that the person who, for want of a less candle snuffing expression, would take Paul’s place is 21 years of age, disabled and a woman seems a pretty big coincidence to me.

I had to laugh when I was recently talking to a friend of mine. He has been backpacking around Europe for about a year now, so is not quite au fait with Australian political happenings. He said to me as we spoke on Skype (our first conversation since he left the country), ‘I was talking to mum the other day on the phone. She said to me, “One of your friends from high school has just been elected into parliament. You’ll never guess who.”‘ My friend exclaimed, without hesitation and without even the knowledge that this person had been elected on a disability platform, ‘It’s Kelly Vincent, isn’t it? It’s Kelly, isn’t it?’, to which his mother could only reply with a shocked nod of the head. So, perhaps there really is a plan for each and every one of us. I sincerely hope so.

There can be no denying that Dignity for Disability’s recent election and Paul’s death are intricately intertwined. However, like many people with disabilities, I am pretty good at working with what I have. Yes, the circumstances under which my election came to pass are tragic, even macabre, and very difficult to deal with. But what option do I, and we as a party, have but to embrace this wonderful opportunity and privilege as best we can in order to achieve the best outcomes for people with disabilities and their networks in South Australia and to help Dr Paul Collier live on, because he should; we need him to.

Yes, I suppose I am the quintessential accidental politician, and I unashamedly admit that, on my bad days, I find myself questioning whether I am deserving of sitting at this previously non-existent custom-made bench, for which I thank you very kindly, which in itself is just a small symbol of just how big this is.

I did not earn Paul’s votes in the election. I cannot earn a place on this earth in lieu of Paul Collier. But I can earn the respect of both our constituents and my colleagues. I can earn your trust, and I am sure, more often than not, I will earn your criticism. But I am ready and willing to earn all of these things until such time as people with disabilities, their families and allies do not have to fight for and ultimately earn something that is seemingly a birthright to all others: dignity through choice.

Honourable members: Hear, hear!

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