Tricia Malowney — Now My Journey’s About Empowering Others

Tricia Malowney (left) with her fellow disability advocates
Tricia Malowney (left) with her fellow disability advocates

Tricia Malowney formally retired in the year 2000, but today she’s the Chief Accessibility Advocate to the Department of Transport in Victoria, Australia and a member of the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) Independent Advisory Council. “I still do this work because I want to work,” she said. “I’m already empowered. Now my journey’s about empowering others, passing that on to the next generation.” Ms Malowney holds a Bachelor of Arts, and was awarded the 2018 Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM) General Division. She is an inductee of the 2013 Victorian Honour Roll of Women and 2018 Victorian Life Time Achievement Honour Roll, and a 2016 National Lesley Hall Disability Award finalist. 

Itto Outini: Can you tell us about your new job with the Department of Transport in Victoria? What does your position involve?

Tricia Malowney: Yes, of course. I’ve recently been appointed Chief Accessibility Advocate to the Department of Transport in Victoria, Australia, and it’s been great so far! There’s no job description; I basically get to do whatever I want, whenever I want. I can talk to anyone, internally and externally, and I can look at any document or any project to make sure accessibility’s included. I’m also including women’s safety in that portfolio, which I can do because I get to set the agenda.

Itto: How did you first get involved with disability and gender advocacy? Can you give us a brief overview?

Tricia: Oh, I’m always happy to talk about me! I contracted polio the year I was born, 1954, before those vaccines were available. My parents were told, “Leave this one in a home and have more children,” and they said, “Well, we’re not going to listen to the first part!” They kept me and had eight more kids.

During that time, most people with disabilities were routinely institutionalized. I didn’t know anybody with a disability growing up. I went to mainstream schools. My parents had the same ambitions for me as they had for my siblings: get an education, get a job, then leave home. I did all those things.

I couldn’t go to university because I had a disability. Back then, the attitude was sort of like, “Oh, what can you do?” I started working at a bank instead and then took a position in the Northern Territory, which is the most isolated part of Australia. I was stationed 2,000 miles from home in an Aboriginal community that had no phones, no roads, no electricity except for generators, and when I heard about the job, I was like, “Well, why not?” I did that for a year. Then I came back to Melbourne, and from there, I went to the US for five months and traveled around by bus, on my own. That experience was really good.

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After that, I came back to Australia and got a job in the railways. They wouldn’t let me be a railway clerk back then because I’m a woman; I could only be a clerical assistant. I fought them on that, but instead of getting promoted, I ended up going to the university parttime. That enabled me to get a position as a researcher and policy writer for the police in Victoria. One day, the Chief Commissioner asked me to be a Disability Liaison Officer. I said, “I don’t know anything about disability,” and he said, “Well, but you’ve got one!” Those experiences started me on the path to where I am now, working on disability and gender.

That’s me in a nutshell!

Itto: What types of resources are available to people with disabilities in Australia? Is it the same everywhere, or does it vary depending on which part of the country you’re in?  

Tricia: I live in the city, so I’ve got a lot of resources available to me. I’ve got a bus stop by my door, I’ve got a train station not far away, I can call a taxi whenever I need to. Transportation’s not an issue for me. Also, the government will provide me with anything I need because of my disability. If I need a new bathroom because mine’s not accessible, I can apply to the government and have it built. I wear calipers, and if I need a new one, I can apply for them to provide me with a new one under the NDIS. That’s a big deal. On paper at least, it doesn’t matter if you live in the city or someplace rural–though the resources are scarcer in rural areas. Sometimes there’re shortages of support workers or therapy services. Still, in terms of government support and accommodation, Australia’s doing comparatively well.

The harder part is finding employment, especially if you live in a rural area. But that’s true for nondisabled people, too. There’s currently a big push to get broadband into rural areas, though, and that’s exciting. A lot more people are getting access to wifi–although everyone still has to pay for their own, which can be tricky when you don’t already have a job and need the wifi to look for one.

Itto: Speaking of, you must’ve witnessed a lot of technological changes over the course of your life. Can you talk about that? What was it like to grow up before smartphones and now live in a world where everything’s virtual?

Tricia: I remember when I was working for the railways in the early 80s and we got our first computer. It was a giant TV screen that took up one whole corner of a room. You had to load it with a cassette tape, which took about four hours, and we’d all stand around waiting. Most of our work was done on telex and punch tape back then. You’d literally punch holes in a tape to create a record, and then you’d send it to the head office, and three days later, you’d get a printout back so you could check your work.

I remember, one of my best bosses was sort of a tech guru. In his car, he kept a fax machine. He carried one of the very first mobile phones, about the size of a small suitcase. We used to think he was crazy! With time it shrank down to the size of a small walkie talkie, and he started seeming a little less crazy, but even he wouldn’t have believed the technology we have now. My phone’s in my hand all the time because we’re never off duty anymore.

Tricia parents and Commissioner Rhonda Galbally uses wheelchair at Government House Tricia received Medal for work for women with disabilities
Tricia and parents with Commissioner Rhonda Galbally (right), when Tricia received Medal for her work on women with disabilities.

When I worked for the police and my health started failing, they allowed me to work from home. That was back in the late 90s, and it was considered really, really crazy. They set me up with a computer in my house and had me dial into the system using a telephone. They gave me my own phone line! It took ages. You could go and cook lunch while that thing dialed. That was considered “high-tech” in those days.

Itto: So, you’ve been working from home for longer than any of us! [laughter]

Tricia: Oh, yeah. I’ve always loved to travel, and I’ve always hated missing meetings, so even back in 2016, 17, 18, I’d call in from meetings wherever I was. Maybe the Heathrow Airport.

Itto: Has the pandemic affected your work, then? Or not so much?

Tricia: It’s affected my ability to travel, but I will say, if we had to have a pandemic, I’m glad it happened now, when we have all this telecoms technology available. I’ve been working from home since March 13, 2020, and it hasn’t really affected my professional life at all. I’ve basically set my own schedule for the last 20 years.

I miss traveling, though. I did go up to our capital for 10 days to annoy politicians between waves, but that’s about all. My last big overseas trip was in 2019, to a UN conference on sexuality, sexual rights, child marriages, etc. in Nairobi, Kenya. At those big events, I’ve noticed that I always tend to congregate with other people with disabilities, especially women. We find each other. I’m still doing that online, thanks to technology.

Before the pandemic hit, I was setting up a training program for people with disabilities who want to be entrepreneurs. We were going to do it face to face, so we had to think on our feet when everything locked down. We ended up running it online, which actually made it easier and more accessible for the participants. Some people were coming from rural areas and would’ve had to stay in hotels, or they would’ve had to get up really early to get there on time. Doing it online made it easier for everyone. All those people are now running businesses.

Itto: How does that work? I mean, to start a business, you have to have access to money and resources.

Tricia: Absolutely. For that training, we were planning to fund participants’ travel for that very reason. These days, we’re hosting more events overseas, in places like Malaysia where the issues tend to be things like access to technology and internet connectivity. For those trainings, I try to fund participants to purchase wifi or devices when I can. I do feel very lucky, living in Australia: we’re not perfect, but I can usually get resources when I need them.

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Itto: What were you doing in Malaysia?

Tricia: An advocate there contacted me and asked if I’d run a training program, and I said I’m not really a trainer, I’m not really qualified. They asked if I’d just come and talk to some folks about gender and disability, and I was like, “Sure! I’m not really qualified, but those are my passions. We can have a conversation.”

It started with some blind and visually impaired people, men and women. Then they asked if they could invite some physically impaired people, too, since some of them had family members with physical impairments. Then they asked if we could bring in some human rights lawyers to give a little more clout to those conversations, and I said, “Sure.”

Anyhow, it ended up being an eight-week conversation, starting with gender and disability and then moving on to colonialism, then to basic human rights, then to sexuality. It just organically evolved.

Itto: Apart from making online events like that more normal, would you say the pandemic’s had any other positive effects?

Tricia: I’m saving three hours a day just on commuting. I’d call that a positive effect. I get to multitask and hang my washing when I’m in a meeting. And I’m not the only one. I know so many people who’ve benefited. Parents are finding out that they can save money on childcare. I’ve been in meetings with kids, partners, dogs, birds, all sorts of things, and it doesn’t make any difference. It’s all fine.

I think it also gives people flexibility to live wherever they want when they’re not worried about commuting. I’ve got a friend who’s blind and lives out in a rural town, and he used to travel by bus to the train station, and then by train to the city–that’s another hour’s journey–and from there he’d have to find his way to work. Working from home has been great for him. His wife’s working from home, too, so every so often, she’ll bring him a cup of coffee or something, which brightens his day.

Tricia Malowney and an Imam at a conference
Tricia Malowney and an Imam at a conference

I’ve also found that, for so for many people with disabilities, especially women, the pandemic’s finally helped us access things that we’ve been asking for, for years. Like, “Can I work from home, please?” “No, you can’t.” “Can I work flexible hours?” “Of course not, no!” Now, everyone’s saying, “Please, don’t come to work! Work from home!” I think some of the bosses have been amazed to find out that their employees are actually doing the right thing. Everyone’s working hard.

Itto: Why do you think it’s taken a global pandemic for so many managers to realize it’s not only possible to work from home, but also beneficial for a lot of people?

Tricia: I think because it’s forced everyone to actually run the experiment, and now the bosses are waking up to the fact that their employees are actually trustworthy. The ones who aren’t coping well are the ones who need to micromanage everything. The bosses who’ve been doing really well are the ones who trusted their staff from the beginning. They’re seeing that the work gets done, and that’s enough for them. I spoke to a senior manager about this the other day, and he said, “I’m not worried about where people do their work; I just care about the outcomes. And I’m seeing the outcomes I’m looking for.” I think people are even starting to realize that when you’re relaxed, you’re actually more productive.

Itto: Have you heard any managers talking about how it’s actually cheaper to build accessible digital infrastructure than to make physical spaces accessible?

Tricia: I’ve been joking about that with my sister, actually! We both work from home, so we’ve been joking about how all I need these days in terms of accessibility is flat entry and accessible bathrooms.

That said, we can’t walk away from the making public spaces or workplaces accessible. I’m lucky because I don’t have to go to the office, even now that the government’s encouraging us to adopt hybrid schedules; I can work from home as long as I need to. But I’m also a people person; I like having time between meetings to share meals and get to know my coworkers better. I wouldn’t want that option to go away.

Also, our gig economy’s really struggling. Restaurants and cafes are suffering since everyone’s eating at home. We can’t leave the people in those industries behind. Physical accessibility can’t get lost.

Itto: You said earlier that employment’s still an issue for persons with disabilities. How do you think the pandemic’s affected that? And how does it intersect with issues like gender, employment and education?

Tricia: Well, we all know that men with disabilities are more likely to have paid employment. We know they’re more likely to have education. We know they’re more likely to be independent. I mentioned the NDIS earlier, and it’s an amazing program, but only 38% of the participants are female. I’m on the NDIS Advisory Council, and let me tell you, I’m like a broken record in those meetings: “Why are only 38% of NDIS participants female when that doesn’t match the disability-gender distribution?”

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I personally know a lot of women with disabilities who’ve applied and been told they’re ineligible. I think one of the problems is that NDIS still requires a medical diagnosis instead of fully embracing the social model. That really annoys me. The diagnoses themselves can be biased. For example, most people with autism who are enrolled in the NDIS are male because they use an early intervention screening tool that misses most girls with autism. Society expects different things from boys and girls: girls are supposed to be good, quiet little things sitting in the corner, whereas boys are supposed to be loud and boisterous and running around climbing trees or whatever, so if a boy’s quiet, it means it’s time for a checkup, but that’s not the case with girls. That has some really profound consequences. A lot of women with autism aren’t considered eligible for the support they need.

Itto: Is that trend consistent all over the world?

Tricia: I suspect so, though there’s not much data. Autism’s a relatively new diagnosis. In many societies, it’s still not even recognized, or only recognized in cases linked to extreme behavior. I think it’d be an interesting thing to look at, though. I personally know some women with autism who’ve been trying to start those conversations.

Itto: What other trends have you witnessed, working internationally? Like, which countries are making a lot of progress? Which ones have good laws for persons with disabilities, or good implementation?

Tricia: I can really only speak to the countries I’ve been to, or where I have connections. My husband’s from Sri Lanka, and I recently met a great woman there, Manique Gunaratna, who’s doing some truly amazing work. I was last in Sri Lanka in 2018, and thanks in large part to the work she’s done, that country’s made some really amazing progress. When I first went in 1994, and then again in 2004, it was completely different. People with disabilities were hidden. The only ones who got any support were those who’d been injured in the Civil War, which was still going on. They would talk to me and ask, like, “How come you’re traveling?” And I’d say, “Well, I’m working.” That shocked a lot of people. I don’t think it would anymore.

When I was in Kenya, I met people from all over the world, and a lot of us have kept in contact. I think there’s an international community of women with disabilities that’s emerging. We’re all in different places, but we’re talking about the same things: access to health, justice, education, housing, and freedom from family violence.

I do some work in the family violence sector, supporting women with disabilities who are trying to leave violence. That’s the same all over the world. It doesn’t matter where you go. Sometimes, people think it must be better in Australia, but no: people are the same.

Tricia screen shot of 9 women-with-disabilities from around the Asia Pacific Region in a zoom meeting
Tricia screen shot of 9 women-with-disabilities from around the Asia Pacific Region in a zoom meeting.

Itto: How do you support women fleeing violence, exactly? What does that work involve?

Tricia: I’m connected to a couple of family violence services. If a woman with a disability comes through any of their programs, they’ll call me, and I’ll help make sure she gets the help she needs. It’s hard to leave a violent situation no matter what, but it’s much worse when the person who’s violent is the one who gets you out of bed in the morning and you don’t have any other access to accommodations.

Where I live, in Victoria, the state makes funding available to women trying to escape those violent situations. There’s additional funding earmarked for women with disabilities so they can receive support until they get enrolled in the NDIS. Still, even with that funding, though, it’s not easy. Women with disabilities aren’t always believed. That’s one of the problems we still face here. Men who stay with women with disabilities are seen as heroes. People aren’t

We have a great organization here called Women with Disabilities Victoria, and they do some fantastic work researching violence against women with disabilities and highlighting their concerns.

Itto: Are there any other resources for persons with disabilities you’d like to highlight? International organizations, maybe, since we have an international audience?

Tricia: There’s the Disability Leadership Institute (DLI), of which I’m a member. It was started five or six years ago by a woman named Christina Ryan, who’s now the CEO. It’s a place where people with disabilities can come together, talk about the issues they’re dealing with and share resources. We have a business directory with a job board, and we offer training programs. I think a lot of people are tired of organizations run by non-disabled people, or really privileged people with disabilities, telling us what to do. They’ve been wanting something like this, run by and for people with disabilities. We’re gaining quite a reputation in Australia, and we have membership in over 20 countries. Anyone can sign up for the newsletters and learn what’s available and what’s going on. The trainings are online, so you can attend those from anywhere in the world.

Itto: Is there anything else you’d like to share?

Tricia: Yes. I want the world to start recognizing and appreciating that women with disabilities have valuable skills. In short, I’d like to put myself out of a job–because that’s what happens to advocates when the world’s fixed, right? [laugher] But really, it’s time for us to take our rightful place alongside everybody else. I want people to acknowledge that we’re experts, that we know what we’re doing, that we know what we need. Service providers and families are fantastic, but we shouldn’t need to speak through others. We should be able to speak for ourselves and be heard.

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