This past week has been a particularly busy one for Awareness, it being the week of blanket coverage from the ABC’s “Mental As” programming for Mental Health Week. Cerebral Palsy Awareness day snuck in there too on Wednesday and we’re all still recovering from the exercise exhaustion of the Cerebral Palsy Alliance’s Steptember, while manscaping to within an inch of our lives for YGAP’s Polished Man, while preparing for the men’s health marathon that is Movember, which is a really a warm up to the gigantic feel good frenzy that is International Day of People with Disability on December 3. Frankly right now I’m suffering from awareness fatigue and the cleverer the Awareness Campaign the more fatigue I’m feeling.

As an active ally of the disability rights community I’ve been watching the rise of Awareness Campaigns and wondering what they achieve and are they really worth the effort, especially for the people they are purporting to help?

I’ve noticed that some of the most creative and successful campaigns have grown out of the anguish and powerlessness caused by painful life experiences. The mental health charity “Speak Up Stay ChatTy” was established by Mitch McPherson following his brother’s suicide. Mitch spoke on Radio National this week about the helplessness and bewilderment he felt that lead him to want to do something about suicide prevention. Like many of us who experience intense grief and loss, he needed to harness those feelings into something positive to create meaning out of a tragedy that felt meaningless. Mitch felt that if he’d recognised the signs of his brother’s declining mental state he might have spent more time talking to him and possibly averted the disaster that followed.

On the face of it Speak Up Stay Chatty (and other similar Awareness Campaigns) come with admirable motivations that have helped us understand the early warning signs of suicide. I admire any individual’s willingness to turn adversity into positive action and try to make a difference, however I wonder if the proliferation of Awareness Campaigns is merely window dressing that disguises deeper systemic problems that are complex to address and probably beyond the power of any individual to solve.

Earlier this week Helen Razer plunged her pen deep into the heart of the ABC’s Mental As week by pointing out that the real problem for people with serious mental illness is a medical system that is completely inadequate in providing psychiatric services for people who are severely unwell. She argued that the central message of the ABC’s week “be nice” is pathetic in the face of serious prolonged mental illness.

In promoting single issue Awareness Campaigns we are creating a communal feel good fest by contributing, donating, sharing our stories, and posting links on social media at the expense of real meaningful engagement and change.

We are letting our politicians and leaders off the hook by failing to demand systemic changes that only governments and large corporations can effectively implement. By worshipping individualism over the power of the collective we are frankly lacking in ambition for what we can achieve.

Awareness Campaigns have been around for decades and as far as I can tell we’re taking a hell of a long time to become aware.

What disabled people want more than Awareness Campaigns is meaningful employment paid at award wage rates. Working alongside a colleague with a disability would surely create a whole lot more meaningful awareness among co-workers than a fancy campaign that lines the pockets of public relations graduates searching for a feel good fix and a stepping stone to a career.

Currently disabled people of working age have a 50% chance of being unemployed (yes that’s 50% – one in two people) so there’s a lot of disabled people out there who are not participating despite their desire to do so. In 2013 the Sydney Morning Herald reported that there were just 4450 disabled people employed in the Australian Public Service down from 8063 in 1994.

Other social problems also evaporate if we tackle the employment issue – poverty, the need for affordable housing, social isolation, and the mental health issues that stem from the stress of poverty are also alleviated. This is a big and complex problem that demands a collective effort to solve.

We should be demanding better leadership in disability employment from our governments and large corporations but that’s not so easy to explain in a sound bite. In many ways it’s quite dull trying to sort this stuff out because it can’t be done with fun runs or charity balls or moustache growing competitions.

It’s true that some of these Awareness Campaigns do raise considerable amounts of money, mostly frequently for “medical research”, but must it always about donating money? Does the money really end up where it can be of most use?

American performer Jerry Lewis’ life’s work has been to raise awareness and money for Muscular Dystrophy. In a decades long campaign he has raised billions of dollars for research into MD but none of the money ever bought a person with MD a wheelchair or accessible housing that would have made their life easier. Babies are still born with Muscular Dystrophy but the best they can hope for from Jerry Lewis is to be trotted out on stage for the benefit of medical research.

We need to examine our motives for supporting these campaigns. Are we giving to make ourselves feel better? Are the biggest and brashest of our charities the ones offering the best value for our donated dollar? What about the small not for profits doing the unglamorous systemic work on shoestring budgets? Most of these tiny organisations are too busy doing the work they do to mount a high profile Awareness Campaign. So how can we do better and ensure that our goodwill has the greatest impact?

Everyone can make a difference in everyday life by acting more inclusively even if it adds some financial cost to the bottom line. This can mean creating employment opportunities in your business for workers with a disability, including people who might be socially isolated in social invitations, including physical access features in home renovation, and researching small impactful organisations to support with donations or skilled volunteering.

We should also be engaging more intelligently with the political process and demanding more of our politicians.   Get to know your local member regardless of whether they represent your preferred political party or not. Make them aware of what matters to you and what you want them to do about it.   It’s surprising how interested and agreeable most of them are away from the glare of the media. If we all took a more clearheaded approach to doing good and acted more strategically and collectively then maybe real change is possible and we can move on from the Awareness phase and create real progress.

Author

Sarah Barton
Hi, I'm Sarah and I'm the creator behind Disability Busters. I've been making films on disability for over 20 years.

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