Seeing is believing: Liesl Tesch, Australia's CPwD Regional Champion, on the power of disability outreach work
Liesl Tesch, MP is the Member for Gosford in the Parliament of New South Wales, Australia. She is the CPA Australia Regional Champion for the Commonwealth Parliamentarians with Disabilities (CPwD) network. The nine CPwD Regional Champions promote the rights of persons with disabilities in their Region and represent disability interests within the CPA.
In this article, Liesl reflects on the recent CPwD Regional Champions meeting at the 66th Commonwealth Parliamentary Conference in Accra, Ghana, and the role of disability champions in Parliament.
As a Member of Parliament and in my role of Parliamentary Secretary for Disability Inclusion, one of my mandates is to help make Parliaments and parliamentary processes more inclusive, creating opportunities for people with disabilities to be represented … above all else, making sure that the voices of people with disability are heard by Parliamentarians and included in policy making. Therefore, it was a genuine privilege to be able to represent the Parliament of New South Wales (NSW), Australia, at the 66th Commonwealth Parliamentary Conference (CPC) in Accra, Ghana, in October.
Our Accra outreach visit
The visit to Ghana provided the opportunity to spend time among a united group of Parliamentarians with a disability from across the Commonwealth. Parliamentarians living with disability are a family around the world. Each of us represent one of the nine CPA Regions, and together we form the Regional Champions of the CPwD network.
One of the highlights of my trip was the time we spent touring the Accra Rehabilitation Centre, meeting people living with disabilities from across the capital and learning about the support structures for people with disability within the wider community.
Sitting side by side with Accra locals living with disability, exchanging knowing smiles and glances, there was a warmth and a knowingness... we share an unspoken understanding of each other’s lives and existences. I was probably more accepted in the rehabilitation context than in a room of Parliamentarians.
Above: The CPwD Regional Champions and staff from the CPA HQ Secretariat met staff and volunteers at the Accra Rehabilitation Centre.
If you dream it, you can be it…
Encouraging people with disabilities to live their best lives, get involved in decision-making and step up to represent their communities is an important part of my role as a CPwD Regional Champion. I had a tremendous opportunity to do exactly that when I met Juventus Dvector, a deaf man, a recent Law graduate at the Rehabilitation Centre. Juventus is both an important advocate for the deaf community and a great community role model.
When I suggested to Juventus that he considers becoming a Member of Parliament himself, well, his face simply lit up! The moment was simply magical! Often, it’s not until people see it as a possibility, that they even dare to consider it!
I suggested to Juventus: “you can aspire to being an even bigger voice for people with disabilities”.
Seeing the faces of Ghanaians and their families when they met the CPwD Regional Champions, who represent communities and give people like them a voice in Parliament worldwide, was one of many deeply fulfilling moments.
Above: At the Accra Rehabilitation Centre, Liesl met Ghanaians living with a disability who benefit from the training and support services offered by the Centre.
Working with colleagues across the Commonwealth
During my time in Ghana, it was an incredible honour to spend time with my fellow Regional Champions and share stories about our journeys to Parliament. Importantly, the group includes both Members with disabilities and disability allies who have taken on this role. I met peers including Hon. Laura Kanushu MP (Uganda), Senator Isaiah D Jacob (Malaysia), Hon. Wetangula Timothy Wanyonyi (Kenya), Senator Paul Richards (Trinidad and Tobago) and Hon. Viam Pillay (Fiji).
As CPwD Chairperson, Hon. Laura Kanushu MP (Uganda) is encouraging more Parliaments to improve accessibility and champion constituents with disabilities. In Malaysia, Senator Isaiah D Jacob is an amputee advocating for people with disabilities. Fellow wheelchair user Hon. Wetangula Timothy Wanyonyi is one of four Parliamentarians elected to the Parliament of Kenya using nominative seat positions for people with disabilities in the Senate and National Assembly to address any imbalances in elective seats. Hon. Viam Pillay is applying his experience as an Assistant Minister in the last Government of Fiji to his scrutiny of disability legislation in the country. Senator Richards attained a doctorate in disability rights in recent years and continues to utilise his nuanced knowledge of such rights in his advocacy across the Caribbean.
Above (L-R): Clive Barker (CPA HQ Secretariat), Hon. Laura Kanushu, MP (Uganda), Hon. Viam Pillay, MP (Fiji, standing), Hon. Wetangula Timothy Wanyonyi, MP (Kenya, seated), Senator Paul Richards (Trinidad and Tobago), Senator Isaiah D Jacob (Malaysia), Liesl Tesch, MP (New South Wales, Australia)
Changing policies and political parties to help people living with disability become Parliamentarians
Travelling overseas and speaking to my fellow disability champions gave me an even greater realisation that in Australia government policies have helped create the reality that I am now living as an elected representative who uses a wheelchair cultivating change on behalf of people living with disability.
Here in Australia, we are privileged to have had the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) since 2013. The NDIS delivers funding to eligible people with disability to gain greater independence, participate in the community and employment, access new skills, gain more time with family and friends and access resources. I am so blessed to have my custom-made, up-to-date, titanium wheelchair, my ankle-foot orthotics and my custom-made shoes.
Political parties also have a role to play in increasing the number of people living with a disability who can take that step into representing their communities at a local, state or federal level. In my party, we have set up NSW Labor Enabled. Labor Enabled is a branch of the Labor party that gives people with disabilities an active voice within the party and encourages and includes people with disabilities and our allies to push for policy change and step up into roles of leadership.
Above: Liesl has worked with Australia's Disability Royal Commission, which was established in April 2019 in response to community concern about widespread reports of violence against, and the neglect, abuse and exploitation of, people with disability.
My experience as a Parliamentarian with disability
I was elected to represent my community six years ago and at that time physical access to Parliament was a significant challenge. Although positive progress towards making the NSW Parliament more accessible and inclusive has been made, there is still more work to do.
Making Parliaments accessible to elected representatives helps to ensure that our Parliaments are more accessible to the general population, approximately 20% of whom live with disability. I am pleased that the CPwD Capital Investment Fund has been established to raise the accessibility of CPA member Parliaments for persons with disabilities.
We need to ensure that new Members of Parliament with disability do not have to face the same barriers I had to face as a wheelchair user – and they can get on with the job immediately after they are elected.
In Ghana, it was also nice to be able to share the work I’m doing in NSW as Parliamentary Secretary for Disability Inclusion. As an MP I can advocate for people with disability across all ministerial portfolios, do a groundswell of work from behind the scenes to ensure all portfolio responsibilities are inclusive, make sure ALL the other portfolios operate through the lens of inclusion and remind my peers about aspects of inclusion that are important.
Above: Liesl speaks to fellow CPwD Regional Champion, Hon. Timothy Wanyonyi, MP (Kenya) during the visit to Accra Rehabiliation Centre.
Having met with my Commonwealth peers, it’s empowering to know that we Australian Parliamentarians with disability are far from alone in our fight for change and that the voice of people with disability will continue to be heard as part of future legislation. I’m thrilled to be working in close partnership with other Parliamentarians in Commonwealth countries to help them up their game to ensure people with disabilities have a better quality of life.
I look forward to continuing to pursue the importance of including people with disabilities at all levels of society, including Parliaments across the Commonwealth.