Australian of the Year calls for people with disability to show their inner leadership

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Posted 1 month ago by Anna Christian

Dr Dinesh Palipana OAM says the International Day of People with Disability is a chance to encourage people to become leaders in the community. [Source: Supplied]
Dr Dinesh Palipana OAM says the International Day of People with Disability is a chance to encourage people to become leaders in the community. [Source: Supplied]

With International Day of People With Disability being held tomorrow, Queensland Australian of the Year, Dinesh Palipana OAM, is encouraging all people with disability to be leaders in the community.

The international celebration of people with disability, initiated by the United Nations, is held on December 3 each year and the 2021 theme is ‘Leadership and participation of persons with disabilities toward an inclusive, accessible and sustainable post-COVID-19 world’.

Dr Palipana was studying at medical school when he was in a car accident that caused a spinal cord injury and resulted in quadriplegia. When he completed medical school, he became the first medical intern with quadriplegia in Queensland.

Facing barriers first in completing his education and then in obtaining work, not due to his skill or qualifications but because of societal attitudes about disability, Dr Palipana found a cause which needed his expertise and leadership.

Admitting he was not born a leader, Dr Palipana says his struggles to achieve his dream career led him to being an advocate for other students who wanted to graduate with the same qualifications and abilities as all students, but needed adjustments to account for societal barriers.

“I’ve realised over the years that it’s not so much about what you can get from the world, and it’s not so much about what you can have to fill your own cup, but it’s really happiness lies in what we can give,” he says. 

"Happiness lies in what we can do for others and happiness lies in how we can make the world a better place, so after that I went 'well, that’s what this is about'."

Dr Palipana co-founded Doctors with Disabilities Australia to advocate for the medical industry to look at the talent and abilities of students and potential employees, rather than focusing solely on their physical attributes.

After advocating for adjustments to education for other individuals facing societal barriers, working with educational institutions, employers, the Australian Medical Association and other industry organisations, Dr Palipana was recognised for his efforts to make the industry more inclusive when he was named 2021 Queensland Australian of the Year.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Dr Palipana has continued to advocate for equitable treatment for people with disability and he says the advocacy is starting to gain traction.

He successfully campaigned against guideline that would have kept people with disability, like himself, from becoming medical professionals.

“One of the biggest changes that has been amazing is that when I came back to medical school the Medical Deans of Australia and New Zealand, [an entry-level medical education peak body], produced a guideline that sought to exclude people with disability from studying medicine, or people who acquired disability while studying medicine,” he says.

“So it’s really prescriptive about the types of physical attributes that someone should have while studying medicine and if it was applied to me they could have kicked me out of medical school.

“We advocated for that to be changed. This year a new guideline came out that’s a more outcomes based approach, which has been really good. It’s more inclusive, so it just says that it’s more about the outcome you need to get from education rather than the physical things, which is a huge step in the right direction.”

The theme of International Day of People with Disability is also part of the change beginning to happen in the community, as Dr Palipana explains, “we all have it in us to be a leader”. 

"We need leaders with diversity, so please, I encourage you to be courageous, be brave, break down barriers, break the glass ceiling and push the boundaries because the boundaries you push then are no longer boundaries for those that follow.

“I would encourage all people with disability to think about how they can be a leader in changing society for the better. We’re at the forefront of a time of social change, there’ve been people throughout history who've fought for civil rights for different groups and have contributed to make the world a better place, and we need more people that do that.”

According to Dr Palipana, aside from the positive impact that leadership can have in the lives of individuals with disability and their support networks, there is proof that this kind of leadership has far reaching impacts for the whole of the community. 

“I think we need people with disabilities on boards, people with disabilities in politics, we need people with disabilities in leadership positions, we need people with disabilities driving changes at all levels - because it's not just for the community of people with disabilities that it’s valuable, but it benefits organisations, it benefits communities because of the different perspectives,” he says.

“Organisations that are diverse, there’s evidence that they’re more profitable, that they’re more innovative, that they’re more efficient, so really it benefits everyone if we can do that.”

As stories of the achievements of people with disability are shared over the coming days and as others are inspired to be leaders in their own lives, Dr Palipana also has a message for the broader community.

“Disability is really, I feel, is a social construct, I think more than whatever challenges someone might have, it's really the attitudes and the environmental barriers that we as a society put in front of people that stop them from doing things,” explains Dr Palipana.

“International Day of People with Disability should be a reminder to deconstruct the way society creates disability.”

He encourages everyone in the greater community to become an ally, to support people breaking down barriers as Dr Palipana did to become a doctor.

At the end of his study, Dr Palipana had all of the people who had supported him along the way sign his medical scrubs, which now hang in the National Museum of Australia as a powerful reminder of what can be achieved with the help of allies and a good dose of determination.

“I would love to see the day where we’re not talking about disability, we’re not talking about deficits, we’re not talking about anything like that but rather we’re celebrating people’s abilities,” Dr Palipana adds.

“I’d love to see the day where we don’t have to talk about this anymore.”

Events are being held across Australia tomorrow to celebrate the abilities of people like Dr Palipana, who is looking forward to speaking on ABC Breakfast Radio as well as attending events all through the day, and even into the night.

Other workshops, conferences, events and activities can be found on the Australian International Day of People with Disability website.