Naomi Malone’s history studies have made her certain of one thing.
“The adage, ‘Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it’ rings true,” she says.
Between 1991 and 1996, Naomi was enrolled in a combined Bachelor of Arts/ Bachelor of Laws at the University of Sydney. Born profoundly deaf, Naomi uses lipreading and speaking to communicate, and in the first three years of her degree, she would rely on her classmates’ notes so that she could lipread during lectures. As soon as classes finished, she would sprint across the Quadrangle to the Student Centre photocopier, quickly copy the notes, and then race back across the lawns to return them in time for the next class. But in her fourth year at the Law School, the volume of work increased.
“It just became significantly more challenging. I wasn’t getting enough access to the spoken word during lectures, and I failed two compulsory subjects in one semester” she says.
Determined not to repeat the struggles of the previous semester, she informed the equity coordinator of what had happened and what she needed – a laptop and a typist. The university provided both.
It was transformative.
“I gained complete access to the spoken word during lectures, and I passed the two subjects I’d failed the next year,” she says. “Plus, I now had typed, written notes – at last, no more photocopying!”
A trend developed among her classmates, and laptops slowly began appearing in lecture theatres throughout the semester.
“Both my education – especially about history – and my self-advocacy experience during my time at the University of Sydney have largely inspired me to provide advice about accessibility and inclusion for people with disability,” Naomi says.
After one opportunity led to another, Naomi was able to transform herself into staunch advocate for others through her consultancy work. Australia committed to the United Nations Convention of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2007. The Convention affirmed the protected rights of people with disability to personal independence and community inclusion. While this sounds like something most people would take for granted, the Convention represented a significant move away from the institutionalisation of people with disability which occurred into the late 1980s.
In New South Wales, the Disability Inclusion Act 2014 legislated that the NSW State Government was required to seek the advice of people with a lived experience of disability to ensure that buildings, services and information were accessible. As a consultant, Naomi has worked on advisory panels set up under this legislation, providing feedback on accessibility and inclusion to everyone from governments to large cultural institutions.
Her time on the board of the Australian Federation of Disability Organisations from 2010 to 2012 was during the crucial period in the lead-up to the announcement of the National Disability Insurance Scheme, which launched in 2013. But not all her work involves change at a national scale. Some impacts are much more local.
During her time on the City of Sydney Inclusion Advisory (Disability) Panel, the proposal for the Gunyama Park Aquatic and Recreation Centre in Zetland was presented.
“Because we were approached during the planning stages before construction began, our advice on how to make the centre inclusive and accessible to people with disability was taken into account as built-in, and not bolt-on, advice,” she says.
The centre’s website now provides a detailed access key, which provides information on what to expect from a visit to Gunyama Park Aquatic and Recreation Centre in multiple accessible formats. The key includes coloured photographs, supportive text, a visual communication board, and information on sensory elements of experiences, like notes on temperature changes and smells.
Naomi currently serves on accessibility and inclusion advisory panels for the Australian Museum, the Sydney Festival and the State Library of NSW. The outcomes of this work include physical accommodations alongside elements that recognise the cultural contribution and history of people with disability. The State Library, for example, has committed to building their collection of first-person materials relating to people with disability – recent acquisitions include oral histories from people in the deaf and hard of hearing communities. Likewise, the Sydney Festival has committed to expansion of programming from artists with disabilities. These changes ensure the continued accessibility of Sydney’s vibrant cultural scene.
Be an ally – give support where it has been sought...Where there is access, there is inclusion.
“Like any systemic cultural change, societal improvement for Australians with disability has occurred at a glacial pace and more needs to be done,” she says.
“Our cultural attitudes need to shift toward the social model of disability that prioritises identifying the barriers that people with disability experience daily and creating innovative solutions to address them. “
As social attitudes continue to shift and evolve, Naomi encourages people with disability to develop self-advocacy skills for their access needs.
“Being able to clearly articulate what the barriers to accessibility are and propose positive and professional solutions are a failproof path to inclusion.”
However, she emphasises that the onus for social change cannot fall entirely to people with disability. Their peers and colleagues need to be proactively involved in developing their own understanding and advocating for change.
“Be an ally – give support where it has been sought, adopt a positive understanding of peoples’ lived experience of disability, and gain a grounded understanding of disability etiquette and peoples’ needs,” she says.
“Where there is access, there is inclusion.”
Congratulations to Naomi Malone, winner of the 2023 Alumni Award for Service to Humanity. Nominations for the 2024 Alumni Awards are now open. Learn more.