As with every other horror statistic Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are hit with disproportionately high rates of disabilities than the rest of the population. In September, the Geneva-end of the United Nations launched and hosted a photographic essay about disability among remote and urban Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities to coincide with the UN hearing for the first time about First Peoples’ disabilities, their challenges and the ways forward.
Australian photojournalist Belinda Mason compiled a photograph essay from right across Australia titled “Unfinished Business” and it was launched at the Palais des Nations in Geneva, lauched by the UN’s Director-General, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev. In attendance was Australia’s Peter Woolcott, who is the permanent representative of Australia to the United Nations.
Ms Mason’s exhibition coincided with the Committee on the Rights of Person with Disabilities (CRPD) in attendance at the 24th session of the Human Rights Council. Australia’s First Peoples Disability Network and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade supported Ms Mason’s work.
Ms Mason highlighted the high rates of disability among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples with a capture of photographic stories and text of individuals Australia-wide, some of them quite well-known.
“Each participant’s story is complex and intertwined with Australia’s shameful political and social history, which has resulted in the unacceptably high rates of disabilities in Aboriginal and Torres Strait communities,” said Ms Mason.
“Through their involvement in the project each participant revealed their story and drew much needed attention to critical issues.”
“Uncle Yami Lester, who was blinded by the Maralinga Atomic tests, Aunty Gayle Rankine who is an amputee from cardiovascular disease, Uncle Kevin Coombes who also represented Australia as a paralympian and he did at a time when Aboriginal peoples were still considered as flora and fauna and not as human beings. Aunty June Oscar who campaigns for culturally appropriate drug and alcohol education. Uncle David Williams, a Vietnam Veteran who continues to fight for the right of returned soldiers who suffer post-traumatic stress disorders. Rex Bellotti Jr who was struck down by police vehicle. Aunty Patti Mundine, who acquired her disability as a result of being exposed to asbestos at the Barygugil mine. Gary Umbagai, whose community is experiencing an epidemic of suicides. Aunty Eve Kitchener who as part of the Stolen Generations was sexually abused, leaving her with profound mental health issues. Aunty Carol Carter who spends her time campaigning about the implications for people on the Basic Card. Aunty Lesley Flanders who as a foster parent raised 40 Aboriginal children. These are just eleven of the thirty stories told through the exhibition,” said Ms Mason.
“There is one frame that sits empty at the Geneva exhibition – it is simply titled “The Forgotten“. It represents the plight of ‘Roseanne’ who has foetal-alcohol syndrome disorder (FASD). I was given permission to photograph her for the exhibition by her guardian, Ian McKinlay, but because of legal issues we have not been able to display her image. Nevertheless, for me, the empty frame symbolises Australia’s position on the increasing number of Aboriginal children with FASD who finish up eventually before the criminal justice system.”
Ms Mason describes the hard determinism that befalls many of these children, the conditions they were born into which they had no control over and to which as youth and adults they are often destined towards. However she describes a confrontational justice system that awaits them without the resolve for mitigation and a society that chooses to blame them, neglect them, to forget them altogether.
“They are often found unfit to plead, and are often not tried and sentenced.” Ms Mason describes them in a prison of their own where they languish forlorn waiting for the day that care for their disability abounds, finally becomes matter-of-fact.
The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities was introduced only five years ago. Australia is a party to the Convention.
“This is the first time Australia was reviewed in reference to the Convention, and the first time the First Peoples Disability Network and other Australian Disability associations were able to provide the committee working papers… and this was especially important for the first time introduction of human rights issues to do with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples with disabilities, because many of their disabilities were glossed over or in effect denied.”
The UN responded that the Australian Government can “do more” to ensure the human rights of all Australians with disabilities. The UN committee noted ‘Roseanne’, and Ms Mason’s observations were included in the committee’s concluding notes.
The committee noted “…the committee is concerned that persons with disabilities, who are deemed unfit to stand trial due to an intellectual or psychosocial disability can be detained indefinitely in prisons and psychiatric facilities without being convicted of a crime that can significantly exceed the maximum period of the custodial sentence for the offence.” West Australian Aboriginal man, Marlon Noble spent more than ten years incarcerated in Geraldton’s Greenough prison without charge, without ever having gone to trial, before he was finally released on a number of conditions in January of this year. Mr Noble is intellectually impaired.
The committee went on to note that it is concerned “…that persons with disabilities are over-represented in both the prison and juvenile justice systems, in particular women, children and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples with disability.”
The exhibition at the Palais of Nations will conclude October 14 and will then commence at the World Health Organisation headquarters in Geneva where it will remain for three months. Ms Mason said, “We are currently negotiating with other institutions in Europe to host the exhibition. The images are all black and white three dimensional holographic lenticulars.”
Accompanying Ms Mason’s exhibition is a video crafted by her sons Dieter, 19, and Liam, 17, in which the subjects tell their stories. The video won a Melbourne-based Anti-Poverty Award for its contribution to raising awareness of social disadvantage.