ANALYSIS

Australian of the Year Dylan Alcott is a powerful voice at a critical time for the disability community

Dylan Alcott named Australian of the Year for 2022

If Dylan Alcott wins another Australian Open crown on Thursday, he'll end his professional tennis career with 24 quad wheelchair grand slam titles.

It would be a remarkable sporting achievement.

But the significance of the feat would pale in comparison to the legacy he could leave if he "wins" as Australian of the Year over the next 12 months.

The title brings with it a megaphone and a torch. Broadcast and shone in the right places, it can change the country, as Grace Tame demonstrated.

As the first physically disabled person to win the award, Alcott can lead a national conversation capable of reshaping how Australians view people with a disability, and how people with a disability view themselves.

The conversations could be hard, confronting and uncomfortable. Hold a mirror to the nation and the nation mightn't like what it sees.

Almost one in five Australians - some 4.5 million people - have some form of disability.

Dylan Alcott was named Australian of the Year on Tuesday night. Picture: Keegan Carroll

Dylan Alcott was named Australian of the Year on Tuesday night. Picture: Keegan Carroll

And yet, for its size, this cohort is so often overlooked, excluded from or ignored in public debate and policy making. People with a disability are overrepresented on measures of disadvantage and underrepresented in positions of prominence or influence.

In a moving acceptance speech on Tuesday night, Alcott said he loved the person he was and the life that he was able to lead.

But he knows that many people with a disability don't feel the same way.

The elevation of a disability advocate to the position of Australian of the Year could not have come at a more critical time.

Just hours before Alcott collected his award, a coalition of disability advocacy groups published a statement condemning the response from government's - state, territory and federal - to the Omicron outbreak.

"As representatives of some of our most clinically vulnerable people, it is clear to us that governments' let-it-rip approach is an ablest approach that does not value the lives of people with disability," the statement read.

The sector has been pushing for rapid antigen tests to be made free for people with a disability, their families and their support workers.

The cause now has an ally who Prime Minister Scott Morrison and other leaders won't find so easy to ignore.

NDIS Minister Linda Reynolds. Picture: Elesa Kurtz

NDIS Minister Linda Reynolds. Picture: Elesa Kurtz

"If a person with a disability needs a free daily RAT test so they feel confident going out and doing things that we all might take for granted, they gotta get that RAT test," Alcott said in a speech delivered just metres from where Mr Morrison was seated.

The federal government has too often failed people with a disability during the COVID-19 pandemic, no more egregiously than in the shamefully slow rollout of the vaccine to people in care homes.

Alcott's platform - and the torch he now holds - should mean that future failures will not be able to stay out of the spotlight.

In the backdrop to the pandemic, another fight is playing out.

The Morrison government has spent much of the past 12 months pushing an argument that the National Disability Insurance Scheme is becoming a financial burden which Australian taxpayers might soon struggle to shoulder.

The mid-year budget in December included an extra $26 billion over the next four years to cover the rising costs. The NDIS Minister Linda Reynolds has insisted there will be no cuts to the scheme under her watch.

But the sector is deeply sceptical.

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Advocates believe that in framing debate about the future of the NDIS, the Coalition has chosen to focus attention on the scheme's cost rather than its benefits, thus - the argument goes - making it easier to sell cuts to the voting public.

Alcott signalled on Tuesday night an intent to flip that narrative by demonstrating the economic and societal benefits which flow from properly funding the scheme.

He wants to see people with disabilities in boardrooms, in mainstream schools, on sporting fields.

Fundamentally, he wants Australians to truly value people with a disability, and for people with a disability to value themselves.

If he "wins" at that, he will have changed the nation.

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This story The disability community has a powerful advocate in Dylan Alcott first appeared on The Canberra Times.