When Australia became one of the first nations to sign the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2006, it indirectly launched the juggernaut that ten years later would become the National Disabilities Insurance Scheme (NDIS). With its national application, AUD 22 billion budget and root and branch reform of the way peoples with disability are supported over the long term, it became the sun around which all national conversation about disability revolved for a decade, and counting.
But the NDIS was not the only game in town when it came to government policy shifts concerning people with disabilities. In 2009/10 Craig Wallace was working for the Department of Families and Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs. He recalls that while the NDIS was the focus of everybody’s attention, in the lead up to the National Disability Strategy signing by the Prime Minister (Julia Gillard) and the state and territory leaders in February 2011, his department was throwing around a number of ideas to live up to the policy obligations governments were intent to deliver on.
One of the areas under consideration was promoting ‘Inclusive and accessible communities’. That meant, to quote directly from the COAG strategy: “the physical environment including public transport; parks, buildings and housing; digital information and communications technologies; civic life including social, sporting, recreational and cultural life.”
“Some of the initial measures put up by the department were a Leadership Program, a Black Spots Program and a Web Portal,” says Wallace. “I can’t really recall who dropped it into the conversation but pretty quickly we decided that there should be a website built along the lines of the BBC’s ‘Ouch’. “ The obvious home for the site was the ABC.
From the start there were issues with funding. Firstly, not that much money was on the table – a budget of AUD 300 000 for three years. Second, the government was not going to commit to extending the funding beyond that time frame. Bruce Belsham was the head of what was then known as ABC Innovation and in charge of the ABC’s websites and digital platforms. An ABC lifer with a strong pedigree including a long stint as executive producer of Four Corners, he recalls the ABC being keen to take on the brief, despite concerns about the finite nature of its resources: “starting up something that you might not have the resources to continue, unless you take away resources from some other part of the ABC offering. That was a concern that we always had,” he explains.
Belsham does not believe in silos. In general, he tells me minorities and marginalised groups are better served by being included in mainstream programming and are better served if they are part of the cut and thrust of public debate. However, “the discussions around disability were pretty uninformed in the general community. Uniformed and invisible. I think we had an obligation, as the public broadcaster, to make them more visible, at least in the short term.”
Early conversations on the editorial focus of the site went relatively smoothly. “There was some uncertainty over the details,” says Belsham. “The government wanted a public service element and there was the question of how much it would be a site that only people with disability would contribute to, whether it would focus only on disability or whether it should have a broader remit… but at the time we were looking to make the ABC site as inclusive as possible.”
When Young came on board in 2010, she helped clarify the site’s ambitions. “(Stella thought) the whole carers element had been overemphasised in the past and the site should be much more about the lived experience of people,” says Belsham, “I was sympathetic to that”.
In short order, it became clear to ABC management that Young was capable of running the editorial side of the operation without the need to hover. “Stella basically ran her own editorial agenda,” says Belsham.
Working in the ABC building in Southbank, Melbourne, Young – who was joined by an assistant editor- Karen Palenzuela – in March 2013, shared an open plan office with many of the Corporations online teams, including the ABC homepage, ABC Education, The Drum and ABC Environment. As a lot of contributors were first time or emerging writers, Young and Palenzuela spent time editing and collaborating with them on their work. “My aim was to make sure the writer’s ‘voice’ remained loud and clear,” says Palenzuela.
While Ramp Up, the website, is still viewable on the ABC’s platform, it is no longer being actively updated. According to a June 5, 2014 post from Young and Palenzela to warn of its impending closure, the site had published over 500 pieces of original content in its three and half years of existence. It had been an important three and a half years for the disability community. As Young and Palenzuela wrote in their sign off:
“We have seen a significant shift in coverage of disability issues in the media and a move towards more critical thinking within the movement. We’re proud to have been a part of that journey.”
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 Architect.