I wrote an article for ABC Ramp Up toward the end of its era - it was about why I won't provide disability advice for free. A couple of months after that, I received a query to talk - for free. It was at a university, to empower students to seek employment in the workforce. Oh the irony. This was my response - on Facebook and to the university:
I was asked to speak at an event to empower disabled students in getting employment. Ironically, there was no budget to pay me as a speaker. This event wasn't run by a charity but an education institute. (No doubt they'd pay a consultant specialising in an area outside of disability. No doubt the person running the event gets paid. For me, it'd mean an afternoon away from my day job, plus several hours preparing the presentation.)
While this event clashed with another I have on that day, I politely declined and pointed them into my article on why I won't provide disability advice for free.
This 'no budget for disability education' mentality is hardly giving disabled students hope for their own employment prospects. It's certainly not empowering.
I'm tired of the lack of worth and respect placed on advice based on lived disability experience.
And I hope others asked to speak at such events will decline, on principle. Don't settle. Sure, do charity work. But don't settle for exposure or goodwill when a company should pay you for your skills, knowledge and lived experience.
After talking with the university, I wrote this on my Facebook:
So... After declining to speak at that university event aimed at disability employment yesterday because of a clashing event AND lack of payment, I received an email from the staff member telling me how disappointed they are in my response that disabled people giving lived advice about disability should be paid. I should be happy to donate my time. And anyway, they don't pay other people from diverse backgrounds either, don't worry. They. Just. Didn't . Get. It.
I also got confirmation of the event I AM talking at that day - a university panel discussion about disability and the benefits of blogging as story telling. And they WILL pay me and reimburse travel costs.
That's how things should be done.
Never be afraid to speak up about injustices or inequality - even if it means you're seen as a trouble maker. Because though that opportunity might be lost, another one will come up!
And here's the ABC article. I've been named a finalist in the 2014 Yooralla Media Awards for this piece:
I believe there is a sense of united empathy between diverse communities, even if our difference is not the same. I find myself nodding when I hear stories from my Indigenous and gay and lesbian friends too.
Back in March I saw my friend Anita Heiss speak at her book launch. She's an Indigenous author - so smart, so funny and so beautiful. A lot of what she said resonated with me.
Anita addressed the 'working for free' mentality geared towards diverse communities. "Everyone wants an Indigenous person to do something, but they're not valued in the marketplace," she said.
Anita told a story about how she had been asked to speak at a public event. She sent her invoice, but the organisers asked to lower it as they already give to charity. "I'm a small business, not a charity," she said, and told them she would donate money to a charity if the organisation's staff did the same. Cue gasps from the audience.
I find this happens for disabled people too. Commitment to engaging disabled people often comes without a fee, also even without consideration that we must take time from our paid or voluntary jobs to give this free advice. It's like we are given unpaid opportunities as a gesture of inclusiveness, or worse, that our qualifications, opinions and experience aren't worth money.
There seems to be the belief that we should be grateful for opportunities, that at least it's something for us to do. I feel there's an expectation that because we educate incidentally in life, we don't mind educating large audiences for a low fee or for free.
Lawrence Carter-Long, American disability advocate, says "If you value the insight and the skill set, the best way to show it is to pay for what you're learning. Changing the world shouldn't require taking a vow of poverty. I'm not a non-profit or NGO. Bottom line? If you value what I'm bringing to you, then pay me. If you don't then that's a clear indicator of what you think our community is worth."
I recently consulted with two organisations for free - providing them with firsthand information about living with a visible difference. I spent five hours at one organisation and three at the other. I took time off from my day job to do this work. I received a snack and a drink from each, and a taxi fare, but no payment.
I'm not ungrateful. I have a full time job with a good wage. I earn money from freelance writing and speaking, plus teaching. And I do work for free for charities and schools. I've done speaking events where I've donated my speaker fee to causes I believe in. I've donated time to a film project for organ donation. I've volunteered at the hospital providing guidance to young people. I write without payment for other bloggers and boutique online magazines. And I am proud and committed to supporting these initiatives.
But when I consult for a private or public organisation, I expect payment. If a company asks me for advice on disability, especially when they'd usually pay a consultant for their services, I expect to be paid. Similarly, if a publication or organisation asks me to write for them for free when they pay their staff to write, and if they generate revenue, I want to be paid. I'd also like a link back to my blog - especially if I've done work for free.
Jax Jacki Brown, a disability activist with tertiary qualifications and lived experience in disability, concurs. "There is this assumption that people with disabilities don't live busy lives and that we should be grateful for any opportunity to educate around these issues. And while I am, and I take my educational work very seriously, it takes up my time, travel and money to do it," she says.
I believe the work that people like me and Jax do in educating people is important in facilitating change and improving access and inclusion, and it deserves compensation. Our work is not to be given away for free.