Dealing with disability discrimination: Our destiny is in our hands

Presentation to Access Arts conference

Chatswood, 28 October 2014

Scarlet wanted to go to “the school in the bush” but was refused enrollment because her spinabifida meant that she sometimes used a wheelchair.

John wanted to go to the movies with his family, but the lack of captions meant that he did not know what people were saying, and he could not enjoy the soundscape.

Maurice just wanted to catch the bus, but the South Australian government was proposing to buy another fleet of buses which excluded him because of his mobility disability.

Bruce wanted to enjoy the olympic experience with his kids, but the lack of the ticket book in braille, or an accessible web site, meant that he could not.

Madeline and Stella had a passion for fashion, but their retail experience was restricted by the discriminatory policies of the clothing stores they wanted to attend.

And I just wanted to know where I was when travelling by train. 

These are six examples of Australians with disabilities who experienced discrimination. There are millions more. Elizabeth Hastings, the first Disability Discrimination Commissioner, correctly observed that Australians with disabilities swim in a sea of discrimination. It happens to us so often that we frequently don’t even notice.

I’m very pleased that Accessible Arts Australia have decided to feature this issue at this conference, and make a film of discrimination: the good, the bad and the ugly. Because, as Australians with disabilities, discrimination is a significant issue in our lives. The film will be on the Accessible Arts Australia web site soon.

As the promotional material for the conference says “experiences of discrimination can challenge us. They can be isolating, liberating, frustrating or empowering. How we respond to discrimination can have a profound impact, both on ourselves and the people around us.” Profound impact sets the bar for our response very high, but I can assure you – from my own life experience – that those words are true.

When the call went out for exhibits, AAA received messages of loneliness, humiliation and vulnerability, but also received stories of generosity, hope and humour. We see all of those in the film.

I was really pleased to be asked to speak at this exhibition. Perhaps that’s because I watched Missy Higgins play from this very stage several weeks ago. So I’m fan-girling – if an old bloke can fan-girl – about being on the same stage as her.

The request to speak arrived when I was still Australia’s Disability Discrimination Commissioner. My time in that role ended in July of this year. And Senator George Brandis, the Attorney-General of Australia, chose not to appoint another full-time Disability Discrimination Commissioner, and not to have as the Commissioner a person with lived experience of disability. His actions just added another wave to that sea of discrimination, despite the fact that 40 % of discrimination complaints received by the Australian Human Rights Commission relate to disability, twice the total of the next largest ground of complaint. I note that he is appearing on QandA next Monday – perhaps this issue should be the subject of some questions to him.

Experiences of discrimination do challenge us. The film provides numerous examples. exhibiters were isolated by discrimination. Others were frustrated. But many were liberated. And many were empowered. I congratulate and thank all of you who shared your creativity around this issue. Arts is usually the catalyst for social change, and your work can act as incredibly valuable peer support, and as a call to action for many other people with disabilities. It shows us that we are not alone, and it encourages us all to challenge the discrimination we experience.

Because when we do challenge that discrimination, the results are often not only empowering and beneficial for us. The challenge not only affirms to us that we were discriminated against, that it hurt, and that we are fighting back. It can also benefit many other Australians with disabilities. Our response can have a profound impact.

Scarlet’s challenge to her school was rewarded with significant financial compensation, and the confirmation that Hills Grammar had broken the law. But the broader benefits were that publicity of her case showed this wrong to the Australian community, and now this school is welcoming children with disabilities.

John’s action on captions has led to the availability of cinema captioning and audio description on 230 cinema screens throughout Australia. We still have a long way to go, but many more of us than just John and his family have benefited.

Maurice’s complaint led to accessible buses being available on 50 to 60 % of bus routes in metropolitan Australia, with more to come.

Bruce’s complaint led to a large pay-out by Socog, and to web sites throughout Australia being more accessible to people who use screenreaders.

Madeline and Stella can now shop for clothes more easily, and their actions have led to an improved retail experience for everyone.

And when I catch a train I know where I am most of the time, as do millions of other Sydney train commuters.

The arts always lead cultural change, and all of the artistic and legal actions of which I have spoken have made a significant improvement to the environment for people with disabilities. So I congratulate you for that. But it’s not nearly enough – there is still much work to do before we can participate fully in the Australian community. So I encourage you to keep making those challenges – artistically and legally. And here are ten top tips from my experiences in this area -

  1. When discrimination occurs, write it down. Make notes of what took place, what was said, and your reactions to it. The more immediately you write it down, the more accurate will be your recollections, and the stronger will be your evidence.
  1. Lodge your complaint early. Don’t talk to the organisation first before taking your action. You are in a much better negotiating position if you offer to withdraw your complaint when they fix the discrimination.
  1. Make a public announcement when you lodge your complaint. This can be a media release, or just a post on your website, facebook or twitter. This reduces the chance of having to agree to a confidential settlement later on, as the matter is already in the public arena. It also gives your complaint more momentum.
  1. Get support for your actions from friends or colleagues, or others with disabilities. Don’t be on your own against a team of lawyers from the respondent.
  1. Don’t minimise the impact of the discrimination on you. You don’t have to “hang tough” about how you felt – you only have to “hang tough” about how you negotiate.
  1. Always claim compensation, and don’t negotiate it away. Respondents take discrimination seriously if they have to pay money.
  1. Remember that lodging a complaint does not mean you have to go to court or incur costs. Less than 1 % of discrimination complaints go to court, and the decision to go to court is yours and yours alone.
  1. Think through your negotiating position before you meet with the respondent. Just like gardening, it will be much easier to hold your ground if you have prepared your ground.
  1. It doesn’t matter if you cry during a conciliation conference. The impact of discrimination is deep and personal, and emotion running down your cheek has a powerful affect. It’s fine to cry – just keep talking while you’re crying.
  1. More than half the complaints lodged are successfully resolved. to quote that famous Rolling Stones lyric”You can’t always get what you want” but you will affirm yourself, and advance opportunities for others. To continue the quote “So if you try try try, you just might find, you can get what you need.”

Senator Brandis actions – taking away our Commissioner – have meant that our destiny is firmly in our hands. So I encourage all of you, artistically or legally, to challenge the discrimination which you experience. Don’t think that one individual action can’t make a difference – because the reality is that it is only the action of individuals which does make a difference. Your challenge to discrimination will affirm your view of the damage that it did to you, and make a better and more inclusive society for us all.

Hey Tony, I want to play for Team Australia

Remember that feeling when teams are being picked and you are the last one. It might be a sporting team, it might be a spelling bee, or it might be the handing out of invitations for the six year old birthday party. Most if not all of us, at some point in our lives, have been left on the bench.

It’s a horrible feeling, right there in the pit of your stomach. It usually shows on your face, and sometimes even trickles out of your eyes. You want to be part of the in-crowd, but you don’t get invited.

That’s what happens to Australians with disabilities in the employment market. Despite it being the accepted wisdom in Sydney’s Daily Telegraph, none of us want to survive (I wouldn’t call it live) on the Disability Support Pension – less than $20,000 a year. All of us want to have an answer to that first barbecue question “what do you do?.

But 45 % of Australians with disabilities live in poverty. We are employed at a rate 30 % less than the general population. And in reality the statistics probably paint a more positive picture, because many of us have withdrawn from the labour market. In the game of employment, far too many of us are benched from Team Australia.

This is despite the fact that we stay in employment longer and are more committed employees, we take less sick leave and make fewer workers compensation claims, we have a better safety record, and we are excellent problem solvers – we would have to be to get through our lives.

So it’s time we – the members of Team Australia – did something about it. Yes, I mean each one of us reading this blog. It’s time we shirt fronted our local politician. Which I understand in polispeak means having a very robust conversation. And here’s what we should say.

I propose that politicians take the lead on employment of people with disabilities. I suggest a government-established scheme which allows an extra member of staff for each politician who employs a person with a disability. If you don’t think it works, just ask Minister Duncan Gay in the NSW coalition government, or Jan Barham in the NSW Upper House representing the Greens -
they’ve already done it, and they speak publicly about the benefits. Or just ask Kelly Vincent, a woman with disabilities representing the Dignity For Disability party in the SA upper house. I’m sure other politicians around the country have done it as well – I just don’t know who they are.

Let’s count the positives-
* Each politician gets an extra member of staff. That gets a tick inside Parliament.
* Just doing the numbers – pun intended – at the federal level, around 250 more people with disabilities get a job. That gets a tick in the disability sector, and in the community.
* The additional cost to the budget is under $20 million assuming $80,000 for the cost of employing each extra Electorate Officer. That’s probably the equivalent of the pilot’s seat in one of our new Joint Strike Fighters.
* People come into electorate offices and see Australians with disabilities gainfully employed – a positive image.
* We make a small saving from the welfare budget if people move off the Disability Support Pension. Let’s say that’s $5 million – we saved the seat cushion.
* The percentage of employees with disabilities in the public service increases from its current shameful level of 2,9 % when the number of people with disabilities of working age is 15 %.

So how do we make this dream a reality?

It’s up to all of us. I challenge every one of you who reads this to shirt front your federal member of parliament, in the House of Representatives or the Senate. Personal visits work best. Letters or phone calls next best. But emails are good as well. You can find their contact details at http://www.aph.gov.au It doesn’t matter which party they represent – we just want to create a ground-swell of support.

I made three phone calls today. How many have you contacted?

Graeme Innes is a human rights advocate, Australia’s former Disability Discrimination Commissioner, and a renowned shirt fronter – in polispeak of course.

You Start Monday

For anyone who is unemployed, the words “You start on Monday” are very powerful. For someone like me, who is blind or vision impaired, these words have an even greater significance.

I walked out of Sydney University and the College Of Law with a glint of triumph in my eye. I had the qualifications required to do what I had wanted to do since I was fourteen – be a lawyer.

I spent the next twelve months at about thirty interviews for jobs I did not get. This was because employers did not believe that a blind person could operate as a lawyer, no matter how much I told them that I could. I never heard those words I longed for.

These misconceptions or myths among employers are still very common. Research indicates that we are four times as likely to be unemployed as a person who can see.

I finally took a job as a clerical assistant, the lowest level in the NSW public service. Part of my work involved answering the phone, and telling people the winning lotto numbers. 12

You really need a law degree for that! I was made redundant by an answering machine.

2edd113

Today is International White Cane Day, a day to celebrate the independence of people who are blind or vision impaired.

One of the ways in which that independence is achieved and maintained is having a job. But with one-third to half of us out of work, that independence is harder to maintain.

Let’s bust some of those employer myths.

We can access the majority of documents and programs used in a workplace, including emails. We use software which reads content on a computer screen out loud, magnification software that enlarges text on the screen, or a braille display. The government’s Australian Employment Assistance fund pays for such technology.

While technology gives us the independence to read and write, training with a provider like Guide Dogs gives us the skills to find our way around a workplace safely on our own. Such training also allows us to travel safely to and from work.

guiddog_shoppingmall

Employers have a duty of care to all employees to make the workplace safe. Simple things like ensuring hallways and pathways are obstacle free creates a safer workplace for all employees, including us.

We stay in jobs longer, take less sick leave, and make fewer workers compensation claims. Guide Dogs provides free work place appraisals to help employers to identify and provide solutions to potential risks and hazards.

We are very independent. Although we don’t drive, we use mobility aids like long canes or Guide Dogs.

MuQ5qBCblack-lab

We catch public transport, taxis (which are often subsidised), or travel by foot using a talking GPS.

You may not be sure that we can do the job. Talk to us about any concerns you may have. We can work together to find solutions.

Your attitude is the key. I finally found someone who gave me a chance to be a lawyer, and it changed my life.

Graeme Innes is the spokesperson for Guide Dog NSW ACT’s “have cane am able to work” campaign being launched today, International White Cane day. He is Australia’s former Disability Discrimination Commissioner, and the Chair of the Attitude Australia Foundation.

(This article was originally published in the Australian Financial review).

[tags unemployed, blind, blind or vision impaired, sydney university, college of law, lawyer, employer, employers, guide dogs, guide dogs nsw, nsw public service, lotto, answering machine, international white cane day, white cane, bust some myths, myths, software, braille disclay, employment assistance fund, training, trainer, travel, duty of care, work place appraisals, sick leave, workers compensation, public transport, taxis, gps]

Adopting The Bunny Approach

BUNNY

I wake in the morning – there’s an app for that.

I check the weather – there’s an app for that.

I look at Twitter – there’s an app for that.

I check my emails – there’s an app for that.

I send a text – there’s an app for that.

I navigate my environment to a place I have never visited;

I read a book or document;

I browse the web;

I listen to the cricket from overseas;

I operate my home music system;

I read blogs;

I listen to podcasts.

My life with my iPhone, it’s my favourite possession. But it only works if the apps are accessible.

It’s my life – one of the Twenty Years Twenty Stories with which I was involved at the Australian Human Rights Commission related to Geoff scott. He just wanted to make a TTY call when everyone else made phone calls. In those days phones were provided as part of the rental, but TTY’s were not. Telstra opposed Geoff in the human rights commission, but they are clearly a company who can change. They have adopted the bunny approach.

They now support the TTY scheme, but do lots of other things to support access to the telephone system – landline and mobile – and the internet for people with disabilities. 

The Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities, which I like to call the DisCo, promotes, through Australia’s international commitments, a new approach to and for people with disabilities. We are no longer to be viewed as objects of pity and charity. Rather, we are to be regarded as subjects and citizens, and as the bearers of rights, in the same way as other citizens.

The Disability Discrimination Act and equivalent legislation in each State and territory, provide a mechanism to lodge complaints if app developers do not make their app accessible.

This convention, and the legislation which supports it in most countries of the world, is only worth the paper it is written on if it is not put into practise.

We live in a society where the smartphone is playing a more and more important part in all of our lives. Those of us with disabilities must be able to use smartphones on an equal basis with others, in order to participate in society on an equal basis with others.

There are two ways in which this can be achieved. One is that people such as Geoff Scott and Bruce Maguire, who are prepared to lodge discrimination complaints, could lodge complaints against app developers who do not make their apps accessible. That is the stick to enforce the Convention.

But the easier way is the bunny approach. App developers can be proactive, and build their apps accessibly from the start. And in the same way as buildings are cheaper if built accessibly, rather than having to be modified, apps are cheaper if built accessibly rather than having to be modified. That’s the carrot.

Congratulations to all the app developers who have adopted the bunny approach, and who participated in Accan’s accessible apps competition. I regard you all as winners, for joining us in the journey towards a society which includes everyone, not just people without disabilities. Keep eating those carrots – I’m sure there is an app for carrot selection.

(Graeme Innes likes nothing better than eating a raw carrot, and is a devotee of Bugs Bunny.)

10 top tips to getting a job

I’m one of the lucky people with a disability in Australia- I have a job.

People with disabilities in Australia are 30% less likely to have a job than people without disabilities. When we are employed, we are usually under-employed. In addition, 45% of us live in or near poverty.

I spoke at a careers forum this week for university students with disabilities. I shared my story, and some of the wisdom I have gained about employment. In this blog, I will share it with you.

What are the lessons I have learned? Following the Buzzfeed model, here are my Ten Top Tips for getting a job as a person with a disability.

One, it will be harder for you to get a job than your peers without disabilities.  That’s the reality, supported by the statistics.  So suck it up.  And as Sara Henderson famously said – don’t wait to see the light at the end of the tunnel – get down there and turn the bloody thing on yourself.  Your opportunities are in your hands.  Be proactive, and keep being proactive. 

Two, think hard about whether or not you disclose your disability.  It’s a bit hard for me not to disclose mine when I walk into a job interview with my guide dog. But some people with hidden disabilities have that option.  I learned quickly that when I disclosed my disability during a phone conversation with an employer, that was usually the last interaction I had with them.  So I just turned up, and surprised them at the interview.

If you have a mobility disability, and need an accessible venue for the interview, that may be more of a challenge than you are prepared to give an employer. On the other hand, it may put you in a stronger negotiating position.

Your only legal obligation to disclose is if your disability means that you cannot carry out the inherent requirements of the job. Don’t be told otherwise.  And don’t accept the employer argument that you somehow misled them by not disclosing.  In the same way that no employer can require you to disclose your sexual orientation, no employer can require you to disclose your disability, or punish you for not doing so.

But there may be benefits in disclosing.  Some employers are now running programmes to encourage employment of people with disabilities. So disclosing may get you into jobs with those employers.  Of course, if employers have a more disability-friendly workplace then you are more likely to disclose (Westpac and Woolworths) And you may feel that if you disclose your disability it may be easier to negotiate those reasonable adjustments you may need. 

In essence, the answer to the disclosure question is – it depends – on you, and on your view of the employer.

Three, prepare for each job application, and send an individually written letter which indicates you have done so.  You may have a standard CV, but your cover letter should always be written for each application.  As a person with a disability, you have to follow the Baden Powell principle and be better prepared.

Four, research the job with a disability focus.  Be in a position to point out to recruitment agencies that there is a specific stream for people with disabilities into which you would fall.  Getting past the mass-production recruitment process is often the biggest hurdle you will face.

Five, if you do disclose, be up-front at the interview about your disability and any reasonable adjustments.  If employers don’t ask you about your disability – and many won’t – be prepared at the end of the interview to talk about the disability, and how you will do the job for which you have applied.  Give them all the material they need to make an informed – rather than an uninformed – decision.

Six, research some successful people with the same disability as you. If they are working in the same profession as you even better.  Get some stories or youtube clips about them, and show them during discussions with employers.  It’s all about challenging assumptions.

Seven, be prepared to do some voluntary work, internship, or “stepping into” programmes. If you can’t get the job you want, or for which you are qualified, take a lower level job and work your way up. The biggest challenge we face is that people can’t see how we can do the job.  Showing them may just get you over the line.

Eight, find a good mentor.  Someone with a similar disability to yours, who has been successful in employment, would be great. Peer support is always valuable. You don’t have to follow their advice, but you can always learn from sharing experiences.

Nine, make sure that you understand the Australian Employment Assistance fund process, and how that might be relevant for reasonable adjustments for you. Work with the employer to make this happen. If there is a problem, own it. That is a great approach to show to employers.

Ten, always dress up, not down.  People with disabilities are generally viewed more negatively than others, and these visual judgements are often made in the first few seconds of the interview.  So compensate by strutting your stuff.

Please let me know if these tips are helpful, and share the news of your success when you get a job. One of the ways we, as people with disabilities, will get more jobs is if the conversation about us getting jobs increases.

(Graeme Innes qualified as a lawyer, and then spent a year attending thirty job interviews without success.  He took a job as a clerical assistant in the public service, and recently ended a nine year term as a Commissioner at the Australian Human Rights Commission.)

Five Minute Flicks: part four

You’ve gotta love a movie with an excellent story line which you can watch in five minutes! I have twenty of them for you. Here are the last five.

One of the activities I led whilst Australia’s Disability Discrimination Commissioner was the production of Twenty Years: Twenty Stories, to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Disability Discrimination Act.

Watch these stories with me, because they show how the actions of the main characters changed their lives, and the lives of thousands of other Australians with disabilities. I’ll give you my review, then you can watch the movie.

Rockwheelers:
A man’s struggle to take control of his life, and live it positively, is assisted by being accepted as a member of a sporting team. http://www.humanrights.gov.au/twentystories/video-rockwheelers.html

A school in the bush:
Scarlet just wanted to go to school. But she needed all of her seven-year-old tenacity, and the support of her parents, to challenge the discrimination she experienced. http://www.humanrights.gov.au/twentystories/video-school-in-the-bush.html

Building better lives:
Far too many Australians with high support needs are stuck in nursing homes. These stories show how better lives can be built. http://www.humanrights.gov.au/twentystories/video-building-betterlives.html

Presumed guilty:
Marlon Noble is one of a small number of Australians who are in prison but never convicted of a crime. This law must change. http://www.humanrights.gov.au/twentystories/video-presumed-guilty.html

Let me win:
Sekou loves to race, and all he asks for is an equal chance of winning.

http://www.humanrights.gov.au/twentystories/transcript-let-me-win.html

These are the final movies in the series.

Which ones are your favourites? Comments are very welcome.

Ahoy me hearties

One-eyed Jack the pirate chief
Was a terrible fearsome ocean thief.
He wore a peg upon one leg,
He wore a hook, and a dirty look.
One-eyed Jack the pirate chief
Was a terrible ocean thief.

What thoughts does this anonymous poem evoke for you?

Child-hood memories?
Scary pirate stories?
The sea and sailing?
Olden days criminal activity?

For me it says “Just another person with disabilities at the top of his profession.”

He’s the chief, he’s in charge.
He is fearsome, which is definitely part of the skill set when you are a pirate. He’s obviously stolen a lot of “pieces of eight” so he’s successful.
And his marketing plan has worked so well that he is notorious, and someone has written a poem about him.

On this “talk like a pirate day” we should celebrate these ancient villains whom we have turned into folk-heroes. These Ned Kelly’s of the sea.

Pirates were very inclusive of people with disabilities. Missing eyes, hands or legs were clearly not a factor when the recruitment agency was culling pirate candidates. Being deaf was actually a situational advantage with all that cannon firing. There treasure maps included such things as footprint markings, rhyming treasure clues and X marks the spot for people who could not read as a result of cognitive disability.

The business system was clear and direct, which benefited everyone- but particularly people with intellectual disability- find ship, stop ship, steal treasure, sink or take over ship.

Prisoners were given a clear two-option choice for career advancement- walk the talk or walk the plank.

So, is the pirate model one which we should all follow in our progress towards diversity?

We could certainly do a lot worse.
Disability was not a bar to promotion- take one-eyed Jack, captain Hook and peg-leg Pete as three examples.
Pirate leaders were genuinely elected- so others in the work-place clearly looked at the person and their skill set first, and the disability second.
Stolen treasure was equally shared, including shares for those injured in the course of their employment activities. And companion animals- particularly parrots- were acceptable in the work-place.

So ahoy there me hearties. Today, let’s not just talk like pirates. Let’s celebrate the contribution which people with disabilities can make by saying those really powerful words to someone with a disability- “You start on Monday.” And I’m sure that the person won’t mind very much if you say it in a pirate accent.

Invisibility out of my control

I have an invisibility cloak. You think I’m joking, but I guarantee it. I will show you how it works any time you like. The only problem is, I can’t control when it operates – someone else always does that.

Let me tell you about it.

My brother Brian and I had just bought our first car. It was a blue Chrysler Galant. It was five years old, with a few miles (yes they were miles when that car was made) on the clock, but we thought it was the best thing since sliced bread. We never missed an opportunity to take it for a spin.

I had been asked by a social club in Wollongong to give a presentation to their afternoon meeting on people with disabilities. So Brian and I decided to drive. For him, four or so hours behind the wheel of our little beauty was worth the tedium of listening to one of my presentations.

I spoke about the importance of including people with disabilities in all aspects of society, and how disability was just one part of our lives. I encouraged people to focus on the person, not the disability, and to ask if assistance was needed rather than making assumptions (often negative) about what we couldn’t do, and acting on those assumptions. During question time I reinforced these points, and commented how critical it was to talk to the person themselves rather than about them.

At the end of the meeting we were invited to afternoon tea, and were happy to partake of the excellent cakes and biscuits on offer. One of our hosts approached me, and said to Brian who was standing right next to me, “Would Graeme prefer tea or coffee?”

I winced in disappointment, given that my presentation had referred to talking to the person, not about them. However, “coffee” was Brian’s calm reply.

“Does he take milk,” she asked.

“Yes,” Brian replied.

“And what about sugar,” she continued.

“Two sugar’s please,” was his calm response.

In contrast my temperature was rising, steam was beginning to trickle from my ears, and I was planning the tongue-lashing he would receive during the drive home.

“By the way,” Brian said with a wry smile, as our host was about to leave with the coffee order “would you like me to drink it for him as well?”

Suitably chastened, she apologised to me, and my recompense was an excellent cup of coffee, and an extra lamington. She worked out the way to my heart.

My invisibility cloak had been in evidence. She had switched it on as she walked up to Brian and I.

This is a regular occurrence. It happens in shops. I walk up to the counter with my wife or daughter, indicate to the sales assistant what I want to purchase, and they immediately start talking to the person with me. Or often, they will hand my goods or my change to that person, despite me standing there with my hand out.

It happens in restaurants – when the only advantage of my invisibility cloak is that the bill usually gets delivered to the person with whom I am dining rather than me.

It happens on aeroplanes. On one memorable occasion my wife was scolded by a flight attendant for letting me use the business class rather than the economy class toilet.

And it happens to people with other disabilities as well. People who use wheelchairs often find themselves being discussed – in their presence – as if they were a package or simply not there.

I’m told that this invisibility cloak is also worn by women of a certain age, who can stand in shops for ages waiting for attention, whilst men and younger women are served.

I wouldn’t mind having an invisibility cloak if I could switch the damn thing on and off myself. It would be pretty useful when I wanted to walk between my family and the television screen, or to pop across to the bar or buffet table for that second cake or fifth beer.

But I’ve lost the remote control. It’s attached to the cloak somehow, but always seems to fall into the hands of the person with whom I am seeking to deal, rather than into my hands.

Why does this happen to people with disabilities? We’re not any more difficult to talk with than the rest of society, once you get started. In fact, some of us are quite engaging people.

It’s really a demonstration of the way people with disabilities are viewed by society. Either people are afraid to talk to us because of the stigma that goes with our disability. Or they just can’t be bothered; viewing us as less than equals. Not everyone does it, but my invisibility cloak is regularly in evidence.

What do you think are the reasons for this behaviour? How might we change it? I would welcome your comments.

Graeme Innes is excited by the possible alternative uses of his invisibility cloak if he can only find that remote control, and is geeky enough to think that someone might have developed an app. by which he could control it. He can often be found wandering the corridors of the app. store carefully reading product descriptions.

Five minute flicks part three

You’ve gotta love a movie with an excellent story line which you can watch in five minutes! I have twenty of them for you. Here are the second five.

One of the activities I led whilst Australia’s Disability Discrimination Commissioner was the production of Twenty Years: Twenty Stories, to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Disability Discrimination Act.

Watch these stories with me, because they show how the actions of the main characters changed their lives, and the lives of thousands of other Australians with disabilities. I’ll give you my review, then you can watch the movie.

Driving change:

Greg’s height prevented him from using most accessible taxis. So he checked the measurements, and found that they were not complying with the relevant standards. He drove change for himself, and hundreds of others. http://www.humanrights.gov.au/twentystories/video-driving-change.html

A call for support:

Parenting duties should not continue into your seventies, but the system is letting down two adult sons with mental illness. http://www.humanrights.gov.au/twentystories/video-call-for-support.html

Dee’s place:

A fantastic story of living life “just like my brothers” and the plans for getting to Gracelands. http://www.humanrights.gov.au/twentystories/video-dees-place.html

A Grand entrance but not for all:

Two queenslanders buck the system so they can share the grand entrance with everyone else. http://www.humanrights.gov.au/twentystories/video-grand-entrance.html

Graeme Innes v Railcorp:

All I wanted was for Sydney Trains to tell me the next station, just as their signs did for everyone else. Three years, and hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees later they do. http://www.humanrights.gov.au/twentystories/video-graeme-innes-railcorp.html

Tune in for more movies in future blogs. Or if you just can’t wait, watch them all now.

Which ones are your favourites? Comments are very welcome.

Kicking an own-goal for Team Australia

Mitch Fifield is one of the best ministers in the Abbot government- you would have to be to have piloted the National Disability Insurance Scheme unscathed through the tsunami of the recent federal budget. But he has been badly advised if he blames the situation of employees with disabilities in sheltered workshops or Australian Disability Enterprises on the Australian Human Rights Commission.

Let me tell you the real story.

This government, and the previous two, have continually dragged their feet on this issue. In the late 90s, when the Business Services Wage Assessment Tool was being developed, representatives of the Commission told the government that the tool was probably discriminatory. As Deputy Disability Commissioner (1999 to 2005) and Commissioner (2005-2014) I regularly reminded them. They chose to take no action.

Mean while, about half of Australia’s ADE’s have operated, and continue to operate, using other wage assessment tools which were not discriminatory. Most of those come out with assessments which result in employees being paid higher wages than those assessed using the BSWAT.

When the Federal Court found the BSWAT to be discriminatory in 2012 I encouraged the government to support ADE’s to begin transitioning to other wage assessment tools. Instead of doing that, they sought leave from the High Court to overturn the Federal Court decision.

When the High Court did not grant leave I suggested that they apply to the Human Rights Commission for an exemption from the DDA while the transitioning took place. They took almost twelve months to lodge that application.

Minister Fifield said last week that the Commission denied the exemption application. That is not correct. The Commission granted the application, but for a period of twelve months rather than three years.

In granting a twelve month exemption, the Commission balanced the threatening of jobs against the very low wages received, and weighed the time government and ADE’s had already had to act on this matter. The Commission was not persuaded that more than twelve months would be necessary. The government had indicated in its submissions that the transition process had commenced. Other non-discriminatory assessment tools exist. The Commission wanted to ensure that the conduct which had been found to be discriminatory continued for the shortest time realistically possible.

The assertion that “there was very little consultation with the people who would be affected by the decision before it was handed down” is not true. As Commissioner, I made sure that I met with parties on all sides of the exemption process- government, National Disability Services representing the ADE’s, and organisations representing employees with disabilities. I also visited a number of ADE’s themselves, and spoke to many employees with disabilities.

In the last few years the government did economic modelling on ADE’s. This showed that some of them were not economically viable, and would be unsustainable whether the BSWAT was discriminatory or not.

It is true that ADE employees are in receipt of the Disability Support Pension- an amount of less than $20’000 a year. This does not make an hourly rate of $1, $2000 a year on top of the DSP, irrelevant. I support the concept of the “dignity of work”, but it needs to be matched by the “dignity of a fair wage”.

To suggest that without ADE’s many people would just “stay home” is an over-simplification. As the National Disability Insurance Scheme which Minister Fifield did such a great job of protecting rolls out, people with disabilities will gain far more choice and control, and be enabled to participate in a wider range of community activities.

The way to give people with disabilities “the best chance possible for a fulfilling life through employment” is for government to have a jobs plan. They could begin, as I have also said since the late 90s, by improving the percentage of people with disabilities employed in the Commonwealth Public Service. This figure has dropped from 7,5 % to 2,9 % in that time, when there are 15% of people with disabilities of working age. by not developing a jobs plan to accompany its welfare plan, the government risks kicking a spectacular own-goal for Team Australia in the hard-fought game of economic success.

The Human Rights Commission was strongly criticised by both the government and ADE’s on one side, and employee advocates on the other side, for granting a twelve-month rather than a three-year, exemption. Rather than idealism, or misplaced eutopianism, I would describe that as a realistic path towards appropriate change, along which the government and ADE’s still appear reluctant to walk.

First published in The Australian. This is the unedited version.