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Acting local: influencing governments

In this video, Therese Sands and Antoni Tsaputra share some perspectives on working with governments to create change for people with disabilities.
MAN: FutureLearn. [THEME MUSIC] UNSW Australia. Engaging with government.
THERESE SANDS: Well, I think first of all, because we live in the democracy that we live in, I’d have to say that we’re very lucky that the government will fund organisations to provide a voice for people with disability and to advocate for their rights, and provide that in terms of independent advocacy. So that’s really important. We don’t live in a society where we’re provided funding that means we are really connected and tied to government opinions. We’re independent in that way. I think it’s important, and certainly from People with Disability Australia point of view, we pride ourselves on being fierce advocates.
So regardless of where the funding comes from, our objective is to promote and protect the rights of people with disability, and we have to do that fearlessly. That doesn’t mean that we’re just constantly in, say, the government’s face or our funding body’s face, for example. It means that you have to be strategic about how you do that. You have to have a partnership with your funding body– in this case, say, government. And you have to be constantly in dialogue with them, wherever possible. You need to be clear that you will be open and transparent, that you will tell them what you’re going to be saying.
You may even let them know that you’re going to put out a media release that might be not favourable to the government. But you’re being very transparent about that, and you’re giving your reasons why. There needs to be that grounding and relationship building with government. They are a key stakeholder. And you can influence them through dialogue and negotiation. And where that fails, then you move to the next level of escalation, I suppose, in terms of advocacy, to look at perhaps stronger ways of presenting your case. And that might be going to the media. That might be bringing people with disability together to put their case forcefully, directly to a minister, for example.
It may be taking legal action, or writing a shadow report and sending that to the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disability. I think, being funded just means you are mindful of your relationship. You are transparent and open. You’re strategic about how you work with government and what the process is to escalate issues. But it should not detract from your key objective, which is the rights of people with disability.
ANTONI TSAPUTRA: As a government officer, I myself have also engaged myself actively with Disabled Peoples’ Organisations. We have done a lot of advocacy work to convince the government to pay more attention to us. And one of our goals is for the government to pass a local law on disability rights. And after four years of struggle, and finally we could make it last year. The Padang City local government passed a groundbreaking local law on disability rights in Padang. What you want is being included and treated equally just like other citizens. So– well, for the government, I think, they should be more disability inclusive in their policies, in their programmes, in all their departments.
They can start with a simple thing like having a disability toilet, for example, that even until now, we don’t have yet.

In the above video, Therese describes the importance of working independently from government influence to progress the rights of people with disabilities whilst simultaneously maintaining an open and productive dialogue with government. This is relatively easy to do in a country like Australia, where even government-funded institutions maintain a certain degree of independence from government opinion.

Antoni describes how he has worked for change from within the Indonesian government, in his role as a government officer. While on the one hand he has been able to work with Disabled People’s Organisations to advocate for a new law on disability rights, he notes that the government itself is still not inclusive of people with disabilities, suggesting that there is a lack of political will to address issues of access and opportunity in his local context.

Both Therese and Antoni stress the importance of working with the local or domestic government, through formal channels. However, as Therese suggests, when the government won’t listen, an advocate or advocacy group might decide to escalate things to the next level — for example, by taking their concerns to the media.

Since 2015, disability activists in Bolivia have undertaken some high profile campaigns to highlight their concerns. The campaigners are trying to highlight their situation as publicly as possible, rather than through more formal meeting and reporting processes.

They have done this using a range of techniques — including dramatic actions, such as people who use wheelchairs for mobility suspending themselves off bridges and other public buildings; or marching more than 1,000 miles over treacherous landscapes to the capital La Paz. You can find out more by looking at the links in the See Also section below.

Consider how this Bolivian advocacy is different from the other forms of advocacy we have discussed so far.

Talking points:

  • How effective do you think grassroots activist movements, like the Bolivian movement, can be?
  • Who are the audiences for such actions?
  • Are the intentions and/or impacts of these activist campaigns different from more formal advocacy routes? In what ways?
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