13 September 2023

Good morning, everybody, thank you very much for inviting me here to join with you at this breakfast. I acknowledge that we meet on the land of the Ngunnawal and the Ngambri people, and I pay my respects to elders past and present, and I acknowledge any Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people who are present. I also would like to acknowledge there's a lot of members of Parliament here. Amanda Rishworth, the Minister of Social Services, had to attend a funeral in Adelaide, which was unavoidable this morning, otherwise she would like to have been here. But it's lovely that Libby Coker, who's the chair of the Joint Parliamentary Standing Committee on the NDIS, was able to represent her. I'd also like to acknowledge amongst all of the MPs, Michael Sukkar, who is the Liberal Opposition spokesperson on the NDIS. And let me assure everyone here that he's interested in working collaboratively in the best interests of the scheme, so it's lovely to see you here this morning.

I would also like to acknowledge that I'm deeply conscious that I only speak one language, and there are many clever people here who speak two, so I apologise for my lack of knowledge of Auslan. The reason why I did that is because I do appreciate that for many deaf Australians, Auslan is a cultural, it's an expression of your cultural and linguistic identity as a deaf Australian, and I also recognise that it's a different language from English with its own grammar and syntax, and I respect that.

The reason why I made that point in my initial points is that one way or the other I've been coming to functions organised by the deaf community ever since I got elected into Parliament and it's lovely to see Alex Jones on Table 8, who I've worked with in the past on several of the barriers to the deaf community. But listening to what's already been said in the introduction and with some nervousness, the impending questions from the young leaders, I am conscious that for all of the progress that we should celebrate, that some of the issues still remain the same. And that's certainly the thought, which is in the back of my mind, how do we speed up the change? How do we deal with some of the issues that have remained the same issues.

In this job as the Minister for the NDIS, one of the gifts of the job is to meet children who have a range of conditions and to meet deaf children. My wife Chloe and I, who've been involved with the Furlong School for the Deaf in North Sunshine in Melbourne, the Furlong Park School, we had the opportunity to visit there last week. It's a clever school. They have an early education program providing free play-based education for three- and four-year-olds, delivered both in Auslan and in spoken English.

And what was quite overwhelming, and I shouldn't be surprised because I've seen it in the past, was the lovely, remarkable emotional intelligence of these young children. I had a staff member sitting outside the classroom and she's a Gen Z, so she was on her phone, doing work no doubt. But these little children who haven't been told to think in terms of hierarchies or very important people, became a bit upset that this other person was outside the room and not included. And it was quite stunning to watch the emotional intelligence and generosity of these kids. And I couldn't help but wonder that whilst the education system sometimes does its best to rewire emotionally intelligent young kids, I can't help but believe that when you have to work a bit harder just to stand still and just to cope with society, that it gives people insights into the world around them, that people who can take things for granted don't have to ask themselves.

I've also had the opportunity in the job to travel to Darwin, where I saw the early hearing assessment for Indigenous kids. It is the case in Australia that whilst we have hearing screening that there are gaps in that system and they are most clear in our Indigenous communities, remote communities in particular. I recognise that the detection of hearing challenges at an early age gives people options which they wouldn't otherwise have.

And I know that when we don't detect hearing loss, this has a ripple effect and consequences far beyond the individual. Back in a previous career, when I was a union rep, I would go to metal factories. There was one actually in Mr. Sukkar's electorate in Rooks Road, I think, and there was a man there who had never had his hearing loss detected and had deteriorated over time. It's a very, very noisy factory with poor systems. But he was not just a man who then had hearing loss, because it hadn't been detected. he was - I was told by my delegate, he's very grumpy, he's very angry. But if you think that people are talking and you're not including, if you think that they're talking about you, and you can't tell. It began to develop an attitude in him of isolation. So, I've seen the consequences in a very real sense of a lack of detection and a lack of support for hearing loss.

Getting children and parents the earliest possible support is crucial. But I also recognise in my journey to understand deafness and to understand disability that we need not just to have interventions with people. It's not the person who's deaf who needs to change. It's actually the rest of us. Universal design is not just how we describe a building or a doorway or allow a noisy room. For me, it is about a way of thinking. Human beings, we come in all sizes and shapes and packages. Not everyone is as athletic as me, I understand. But we - that was an attempt to be funny - but we need to build a society where we see the value in people and we see the value in the whole person, and we don't define that person by a particular attribute.

Now we do have the National Disability Insurance Scheme and it is life changing. I understand very clearly its imperfections. I know that when I turn on my emails an hour after this function, I'll have been told I have another 6 or 7 imperfections that I didn't know before I even started this meeting. But it is life changing. It is world first. In the 21st century, there has not been a lot of necessarily big, life changing societal things that have happened in this country, which have come through the parliament as well as from the grass roots. The NDIS was supported by all sides of politics, and I should also acknowledge Senator Janet Rice from the Greens political party. Everyone supported the creation of it and now we need to make sure that it is delivering for the people for whom it was intended.

In the year to the 30th of June this year, the NDIS provided $232 million for paid supports with participants with a hearing impairment. That's actually up 20% on the year before. Of the 600,000 or so people who received some support, 4% have a primary disability of a hearing impairment. So that's about 26,500. 36% of this, or about 10,000 of them are kids under 15. Nearly 6000 of people who identify as coming from a culturally and linguistically diverse community.

In the last year, the number of participants with hearing impairment has increased on the scheme. We just need to have a look, though, of the world of disability and the world are beyond the NDIS. The NDIS can't be the only lifeboat in the ocean. We need to look at what investments we're making outside the scheme. And I listened very carefully to our first speaker about being a deaf teacher from a deaf family, and the challenges which she expressed still exist in the community. But when we think about it, schools, transport, early childhood, community activities, building regulations, communications, community mental health - the review panel, we've got a review into the NDIS, it's due to report before the end of October to all the state ministers and myself and then the Prime Minister and the Premiers and the Chief Ministers are going to talk about it in November. It is a very exciting time because there is genuine political interest, genuine political goodwill to see how we can lift the discussion and outcomes, not only from the NDIS but a broader approach to inclusion. And I know that my colleague Amanda Rishworth, who will be leading our response to the Disability Royal Commission and also the Australian Disability Strategy, is equally focused on this matter.

I know we've got to go to the questions which are much more interesting for the interrogators that I face, but I do see that today and this week there's also a celebration not just of particular issues but of deaf culture, of deaf history and of deaf achievements. It's great that there are young leaders emerging. I was meant to read out that I'm excited about responding to your questions, but I'd rather get a question from the opposition in Question Time than a question for some of the young leaders. Not for the least, you may well know the answer.

But I am conscious, though in conclusion, we've made a lot of progress, but there are some issues which are still there, like an itch under the skin and they're still persisting, and we've got to deal with that. But I do also acknowledge that. I want to finish from a quote by Helen Keller. She does seem to have a quote for every occasion to, I'll tell my colleagues, but she does observe “Alone, we can do so little. Together, we can do so much”. True words.