The journey of an Indigenous scholar in disability

23 November 2023
From research journals to wooden canvases
The roll out of the NDIS in Australia was historic, but the scheme has faced many challenges. This is the subject of an art exhibition by Professor John Gilroy opening this week in conjunction with an international research symposium on Indigenous disability.
rofessor John Gilroy holds his work The Head And Hands Need The Heart

Professor John Gilroy holds his work The Head And Hands Need The Heart

Professor John Gilroy will see decades of his work come together this week with the University hosting a first-of-its-kind International Indigenous Disability Research Symposium, commencing with the official opening of his art exhibition ‘People’s experience of the NDIS.’

“There is still a lot of work to be done to improve the lives of Indigenous Australians living with disability, but the events this week have helped me reflect on how far we have come in our knowledge and understanding,” said Professor Gilroy who came to a PhD in disability studies in 2012 after working as a policy worker, case worker and as a disability advocate.

“To bring scholars from across the world together to discuss these challenges and devise solutions, and to be able to engage people in the experiences of our mob through this art exhibition is such an opportunity – to reach two very different yet important audiences.”

A Yuin man from the NSW South Coast, Professor Gilroy is no stranger to the experiences of First Nations people with disability.  He and his family know too well the discrimination and challenges people face when trying to access disability support and health services – experiences that he soon realised through his own research are often shared with other Indigenous cultures across countries and continents.

Wooden artwork with burn marks and shattered glass, bearded man behind bars with words stigma, racialabelism, social control, we need NDIS too

Incarceration of Disability and Aboriginality 
There is a high prevalence of Aboriginal people with disability being unfairly and unjustly incarcerated due to the criminal justice system not properly equipped to support people with disability, such as brain injury or foetal alcohol syndrome. The NDIS is not properly engaged with state/territory health and housing systems to appropriately support people with disability to live in the community and prevent reoffending. People with disability have reported that the prison system punishes them as a person rather than helping them with issues pertaining to their mental health and disability. [Artwork and words by John Gilroy]


These are the topics that will be covered in the International Indigenous Disability Research Symposium, hosted by the University’s Centre for Disability Research and Policy in partnership with the Poche Centre for Indigenous Health, and held over two days at the Camperdown campus this week.

With representation from academics from Australia, the USA, Canada and Sweden, the goal of the event is to develop a global collaborative research community in Indigenous disability research guided by the UN’s Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities. One of the key focus areas of the symposium will be on how scholars can both empower and respect Indigenous people in disability research.

While encouraged by this progress, Professor Gilroy points out that as such a prosperous nation Australia should and could be leading the way in leveling the playing field for First Nations people.

 “Yet the rate of disability among Indigenous Australians is almost twice as high as among non-Indigenous people. And when we look at certain age groups or rural and remote areas those rates can be as high as three times. These are pretty confronting statistics – especially when taking into account that much of this disability could be prevented,” said Professor Gilroy.

The roll out of the NDIS in Australia was historic, but the scheme has faced many challenges and the application and planning process have proven quite traumatic for many.

This is the subject of the art exhibition opening to staff, students and the public this week in the level 4 foyer of the Susan Wakil Health Building, a collaboration with his sister-in-law and artist Jessica Gilroy and psychologist Associate Professor Paul Rhodes.

When many of his research projects in communities came to a halt during COVID-19 lockdowns Professor Gilroy was inspired to communicate his research on Indigenous people’s experience of the NDIS through art, rather than the journal papers he was used to writing.

Long wooden artwork featuring goannas, ducks and bass of different sizes and a large spider web etched into the background

NDIS Review Can Be Traumatic
Many people with disability reported that they have lost funds and supports after the NDIS plan review process. In many cases, people were requested to provide evidence that they are still ‘disabled’ during the review process. This includes people who are vision impaired, people with cerebral palsy, and even people with a brain injury, which are all life-long disability types. The goannas, ducks, and the bass are different sizes and shapes to represent the changes in the NDIS plan following a review. Sometimes the plan was better and other times it was worse. The spider web represents the feeling of being trapped and lost during the NDIS plan. [Artwork and words by John Gilroy]


Experimenting with wood-burned art and paints, one artwork soon turned into a full series that has since travelled as an art roadshow to communities in Orange and Brisbane.

“Research publications are important, but they can only get us so far. I feel our art speaks to a much wider group of people, it confronts people and starts conversations – which is so important," reflects Professor Gilroy.

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