In his first article for Ramp Up, Todd Winther came out swinging. “The community of disability advocacy groups,” he wrote, “is bound by negativity…these organisations perpetuate stereotypes with their deficit attitudes, rather than empowering individuals.”
As an opening gambit, both for him and for Ramp Up – it was the site’s first opinion piece – it had many in the disability rights movement clutching for their pearls. It’s one thing to criticize broader society for its manifest failures in supporting disabled people, but the advocates themselves?
“My position was that people had advocated for rights weren’t doing enough to advocate positive change and that the discourse on disability, even by people in the community, was more about what people couldn’t do rather than what they could do,” he explained to me in a recent phone conversation. “It caused quite a deal of consternation,” he adds.
Controversy and causing consternation appear to hold few terrors for Winther. Growing up in Adelaide, the child of two teachers, he counts himself lucky that his house was one where not only education was highly valued but so were strong opinions and intellectual curiosity. Perhaps this, along with the kind of thick skin that some kids growing up with disability develop, led to him to adopt the view that “the only reason to have an opinion is to express it…anybody who expresses an opinion in a public forum will have their critics and detractors.”
This willingness to take on disability shibboleths was just the quality that Ramp Up’s editor, Stella Young was looking for.
“I think Stella saw me as a person who would generate high traffic and generate lots of feedback because most of my articles would be in opposition to mainstream though. So, if she needed debate, she would come to me to write a piece.”
And that editorial largesse extended to encouraging Winther to tilt his metaphorical lance at the holiest of grails, the National Disability Insurance Scheme itself. Whereas Young was an early and enthusiastic supporter of the NDIS, Winther saw it as a missed opportunity. He says that uniform guidelines on care packages available to the disabled did not properly account for their subjective reality – the lived experience of disability can diverge widely, even for similar conditions; and the long-term financial viability of the scheme has not been secured. He cites as evidence the recent news that the Morrison government has ‘repurposed’ funds originally set aside for the NDIS to pay for drought relief.
During the government’s public relations campaign to launch the NDIS in 2012, billed as a listening tour, Winther found much to criticize: from general vagueness on policy specifics, to a catch all response to questions pointing in the direction of the looming Productivity Commission Report (Disability Care and Support). He lacerated the national committees responsible for the plan’s implementation for their lack of representation: “(we were) told that there was one person on the national committee with a disability from Western Australia and they were not affiliated with service providers. Thanks. We now have tokenism on our own committees too!” he wrote on Ramp Up in February 2011.
Winther, who holds two degrees in political science, writes on politics with admirable clarity and punch for the Conversation and a Griffith University blog on government. And until 6 months before it was shuttered Winther continued to write for Ramp Up, with acerbic takedowns of disability policy, political ignorance, Hollywood tokenism, International Day of People with Disability, but also deeply personal (and moving) insights into his life with cerebral palsy (“…I hate my disability. I would not wish it upon my worst enemy”), along with heartening entries on finding independence with his own apartment.
His professional relationship with Ramp Up ended in in March of 2014 after a falling out with Young, the reasons for which he declined to elaborate. A clue might lie in the very qualities that brought him to Young’s attention in the first place. “I’ve always been opinionated, sometimes to my detriment,” he explained in a Facebook chat. That said, Winther laments both the demise of the platform and Young’s untimely death. “Stella was a figurehead and was able to communicate in a mainstream manner. I didn’t always agree with her arguments, but she was a galvanising figure for the general public… she had that mix of the political, the social and community mindedness that I don’t think anybody, myself included, has today.”
“My views are too antithetical to get traction in the mainstream media,” he adds wryly.
Since its demise in 2014, while he and others are active on social media, the absence of a dedicated, high profile platform is a loss to the disability rights movement from which it is yet to recover. “Ramp Up was a false dawn – it was good while it was there… but when was the last time you heard someone go into bat for the disability sector in the mainstream media.”
Ramp Up closed on the 30th of June 2014. In this series of articles, Warwick Forster traces the history of Ramp Up through the voices of those who wrote for it. Next: The Bastard Activist