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Quarterly Essay 91 Lifeboat - Micheline Lee


Caring or careless? In this powerful and moving essay, Micheline Lee tells the story of the National Disability Insurance Scheme, a transformative social change that ran into problems. For some users it has been “the only lifeboat in the ocean,” but for others it has meant still more exclusion.

Lee explains what happened, showing that the NDIS, for all its good intentions, has not understood people with disabilities well enough. While government thought the market could do its job, a caring society cannot be outsourced. Lee draws deeply on her own experience, on diverse case studies, as well as insights from moral philosophy and the law. She begins by considering what it is to be disabled. And since to be disabled is part of the human condition, she also considers what it is to be human.

This is an essay about common humanity and effective, lasting social change. “Unless you change how people think about things, you're not really going to change their actions or responses.”

“How people understand disability transforms how they respond to it. When they saw us as cursed or contaminated, they banished us, euthanised us or left us on the streets to perish. When they saw us as requiring protection, they institutionalised us. When they saw us as defective and in need of a cure, we were hospitalised and medicalised. When they saw us as tragic, they treated us as objects of charity. Now the NDIS has given us a new identity: consumer”—Micheline Lee, Lifeboat