15/11/2016 10:35 AM AEDT | Updated 15/11/2016 10:35 AM AEDT

We Must Address Discrimination Of The Real Forgotten Ones

No, I'm not talking about the old, white men of middle America.

George Doyle

As I hurried along a Manhattan street, steam billowing from nearby street vents, an African-American woman looked at me from where she was parked her rickety wheelchair.

She did not ask for anything, although the desperation on her face told a story of a life lived without many of the social protections we take for granted in Australia -- adequate healthcare, a strong social safety net, a public education set up for achievement.

While these are currently under attack in Australia, they are still the envy of much of the world.

The woman gave a tired nod, but I was pushed along with the excited crowd gathering at the Jacob K Javits Center for what was set to be a historic night.

With the building's tall glass ceiling, everyone present expected Hillary Rodham Clinton to walk out on stage at some stage that night and declare that she will become the first female President of the United States of America. And as the first few results were flashed on the screen, the feeling grows.

For me, this concluded a fortnight of learning about the rights of people with disabilities in the US to see what we might be able to implement in Australia. What was clear is that we face many of the same challenges but differ in how we are approaching them.

With the US election approaching, a lot was on the line. Almost all of the people in the disability movement I talked to saw the election as an opportunity. The ones who didn't were public servants required to be neutral.

Trump's appalling behaviour in mocking a disabled reporter put disability issues much higher on the agenda. The expected Clinton win would pave the way for the biggest reforms since the early 1990s, when the movement in the US got the support of the Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA. Australia followed suit with the Disabilities Discrimination Act, but our law has not been as powerful.

Walking into a café in San Francisco, you might walk up a ramp to get to the counter. In Australia, that's where it ends. It is deemed accessible. But it is not unusual in San Francisco -- a city with many similarities to Melbourne -- that there will then be a lift to any other part of the café with stairs with a big sign declaring "for ADA customers only".

Granted, this progress is not the same around the country, but it is an insight into the law's potential. Its introduction was the result of careful campaigning.

America does civil rights movements well. There are deep historical reasons for this and the well-documented racial equality, feminist and LGBTI movements are strategic, loud and powerful.

The US disability movement is no different.

The movement in Australia showed its potential when it achieved the National Disability Insurance Scheme. But we face the same issue of a lack of genuine commitment to disability issues, despite large support in principle from across the political spectrum. You just have to look at the Abbott-Turnbull government's lack of commitment to the NDIS to see this phenomenon at work.

There are also genuine issues when it comes to the way disabled people are reported in the media. When one in five Australians lives with a disability, where are the reporters focussed specifically on disability issues? Yes, there are health reporters, but when you talk about disability as a health issue rather than a social issue, you allow discrimination to occur in everyday life.

Everyone has seen these stories -- a cute kid "defying the odds", aimed to inspire and produce a fuzzy feeling of relief the audience is not in their shoes, or their parents' shoes. It might even ask for support for the person's needs, whether it is money for medication or equipment or the opportunity to meet a celebrity.

But the fuzzy feeling does not mean a thing if that child grows up and cannot get into a restaurant because there's no ramp, or they are unemployed because potential bosses like her resume but think there might be extra costs involved in employing her, even subconsciously.

Yes there might be extra costs. But that cost is worth it.

All this is not simply a matter of emulating other movements. It is about how progressive movements can work together to achieve intertwined outcomes.

When people are members of multiple minority groups, the impacts of discrimination can multiply and manifest in an inability to attain and maintain employment, pay the bills or have a roof over head.

In both Australia and America, the unemployment rate for people with disabilities is hovering around 10 percent -- around twice that of people without disabilities.

Improving this is not simply about providing menial jobs and definitely does not involve allowing people with disabilities to be paid under minimum wage, as is still allowed in both countries. It is about recognising talent that has been suppressed by systemic discrimination and embracing it.

Former Obama adviser and woman with a disability Rebecca Cokley would read a blog or see someone with a disability on social media, and then call them and ask "would you serve the President?" That is not just empowerment. It is action.

The discrimination and disadvantage faced in the jobs market inevitably leads to other social problems such as homelessness.

Back to San Francisco, where black people make up seven percent of the city's population, yet 36 percent of the city's homeless population. The homeless population is overrepresented with people with disabilities and the LGBTI community, particularly transgender people.

Do not make the mistake of thinking Australia is any different.

The best way address this entrenched discrimination is to work with each other. We are stronger together.

Back at the Javit Center, the morale plummeted. One by one, the results in key states showed Trump has been rewarded for turning back the clock on decades of progress towards reducing discrimination.

I watched the giant screen as President-elect Trump's frankly amateur victory speech gave a token mention to coming together then bathed in the glory of what he terms the "forgotten Americans". From the exit polling, we know that means old white men without a higher education qualification who've been told all their life they're entitled, and need someone to blame now things aren't going their way.

As Trump descended into thanking everyone in the room like a boring Emmy speech minus time limit, I had to get out. Just down the street, in the same place as before, sat the same woman in the same rickety wheelchair.

"Election results don't look promising," I offered.

"Won't change anything around here," she responded.

I kept walking, thinking about who the forgotten ones really are.