National Press Club address
Graeme Innes AM
Disability Discrimination Commissioner
Canberra, 2 July 2014
I acknowledge the traditional owners of this land. I do so not as a formulaic beginning, but as a sincere recognition of the place which the land holds in the lives and culture of our first Australians. I saw much of the disadvantage Aboriginal people experience during my time as Race Discrimination Commissioner, and fail to understand why – at a time when we are seeking to recognise them in our constitution – we would be changing laws to reduce their protection from the serious challenges of racial vilification.
I also acknowledge the Auslan interpreters around Australia who have signed most of my speeches for the last thirty years or so. I apologise to all of them, particularly Mandy, one of my favourites, for always promising to speak more slowly, but rarely delivering on that promise. She hasn’t carried out her threat to hit me yet, but its often been close.
I was blessed to grow up in a middle-class family, with christian ethics and values. I’m very pleased that my sister and brother are here today, and I know that my mum is watching. I gained from them the benefit of not being treated as different due to my disability, the recognition that disadvantage was real in our wealthy Australian society, and the strong will to challenge that disadvantage. That is why, when I began as Disability Commissioner and Human Rights Commissioner almost nine years ago leading the inquiry which led to the same sex same entitlements report was a no-brainer- why should we treat people differently simply because of who they loved.
At fourteen I knew I wanted to be a lawyer, because I understood that the law could reduce that disadvantage. I achieved that goal at twenty-two, and immediately experienced the reality of disadvantage. In a twelve month period I failed at thirty job interviews, mostly because employers could not understand how a blind person could work as a lawyer. Sadly, not much has changed.
Maureen, from whom I have been privileged to receive the gift of marriage for the past twenty-five years, is also here. She is my best mate, my greatest support, and my most constructive critic. Whilst not always sharing my politics, she has shared my ethics and values, and her encouragement and support have fuelled my will to succeed. She and my children have put up with my annoying ways, dad jokes, and frequent disappearances to pursue my career.
My children, Leon and Rachel, have constantly grounded me, and their view of me as a sometimes irritating and embarrassing dad has shown me their love, and made me a better Commissioner. These are the foundations on which my life and work journeys have been built.
I have never accepted the concept of “lifters” and “Leaners”, a Ming dynasty phrase which has lately gained currency. It’s such a facile concept. And we all move from one role to the other, dozens of times a day.
When I walk down the street with Maureen- and which ever street that is I couldn’t be happier- I’m a leaner. I’m gaining guidance from her by holding her arm. But when that guidance stops, and at the end of a long hard day for her, I put my arm around her in a supportive cuddle, I become a lifter.
I prefer a more positive, and less judgemental society, where everyone’s contribution is accepted and valued. I want entrances where everyone- not just people who use steps- can come in. I communicate with Auslan, so everyone – not just hearing people – can understand. This makes a more inclusive, and more sustainable society.
But many in society force people with disabilities to live within that leaner-lifter rubric. And we would be lifters, if there were not barriers in society which cause us to be leaners. I have challenged that rubric all my life, and will do so in this address.
Others demonise people with disabilities – or Disability Support Pension recipients – as slackers, shirkers and rorters. I also reject that, and will return to it later, with a solution in the form of a “jobs plan”..
So join me now on the past nine years of my life journey- yes, I’ve been a Commissioner for most of this century, and if you count the deputy role as well for all of it. Since Phillip Ruddock’s phone call to appoint me to this role, while I was buying the family fish and chips in December 2005. I vividly remember throwing my eight year old daughter high in the air, as I celebrated getting the best job I have ever had. Luckily, I caught her on the way down.
As I usually do, we’ll travel the path of assessing policy change through the stories of Australians with disabilities- Elliot, Judy and Amy. And sprinkled throughout will be references to such human rights icons as Cyndi Lauper, Dr Seus, and the Captain Matchbox Whoopee Band. I bet that’s the first time they’ve cracked a mention from the Press Club stage.
First Elliot. Elliot is a thirty-something tax accountant. He has worked for the same firm for eight years. He uses a wheelchair.
Let’s look at two days in Elliot’s life- in 2005 as he starts this job, and in 2014.
In 2005 Elliot lived with his parents, in a wheelchair friendly home in the suburbs. He wanted to live independently, but it was impossible to find a suitably accessible apartment, let alone one in his price range, near transport. He doesn’t drive, and buses in his area were among the more than 75 % not yet accessible.
Each morning, Elliot travelled in his wheelchair to the station. Stairs made the ticket office inaccessible, but he bought an annual pass, and entered the platform via an accessible gate. That works going in, but not coming home- coming home steps barred him from being on the right side of the tracks.
Lack of kerb cuts frequently prevented him from accessing a footpath or shop, and extended his journey to the office from 300m to 500m. He has to settle for bad coffee, as the good stuff, though close enough to smell, is up a step.
His employer made minor office adjustments, widening a corridor, and installing a height adjustable desk. A small ramp was needed for Elliot to wheel into the building, but the owner said it would look out of character. There were no mandatory requirements to provide access to buildings, unless a complaint was lodged under the Disability Discrimination Act. Elliot lodged his complaint, and a successful conciliation by the Human Rights Commission ensured access through the front door.
On this day in 2005, Elliot left the office early to fly to Melbourne to attend an evening seminar. Usually Elliot booked flights early, since most airlines only allow two wheelchair users per flight. But dates were changed the week before, so Elliot caught an earlier flight. This meant hanging around Melbourne for two hours before the seminar. Or maybe not, depending on whether his pre-booked accessible taxi turned up -
Like most places in Australia, demand for accessible taxis far outstripped supply.
The picture is clear. In 2005 Elliot, a well-educated, successful accountant, struggled to overcome basic accommodation and access barriers. Being a lifter was not impossible, but it was hard.
How about employment? Did Elliot face the challenges I did? Initially, he found it hard. Work force participation by people with disabilities in 1998, the year after his graduation, was 53,2 %, compared to 80,1 % for people without disabilities, ranking Australia third last among OECD countries. Eventually, he accepted a job with a firm run by a friend of his father’s, although his pay was 17 % less than the other five accountants, due to his inexperience, or so he was told…
Five years later, he landed his current position. We stay longer in jobs, take less sick leave, and claim less workers comp, but still we are under-employed.
In the mid 1990s 5,8 % of the Commonwealth government workforce were people with disabilities, but by 2005 that had fallen to 3,8 %.
Let’s fast forward to the present. The debate over the National Disability Insurance Scheme has moved disability more into mainstream conversation. Elliot now lives independently, in livable design housing, thanks to the Livable Housing Australia initiative. There isn’t much of it yet, but more than there was. And greater government and industry support needs to occur fast, if the aims of the NDIS are to be achieved. A voluntary model was agreed as a Rudd government initiative, but most of industry and government are still on their way to the party. As the current Deputy Chair, I plan to ensure that they arrive, and figuratively BYO.
Community support is starting to become available through the NDIS. I congratulate the Abbot government on continuation of the rollout in full and on time. It is providing people with disability with choice and control, and the capacity to move from leaners to lifters. And it must continue to roll out, if community participation is to become a reality. There have been some glitches around the edges, but the surveys of people with disabilities now on the scheme overwhelmingly indicate high satisfaction.
Building and footpath access have certainly improved. The Access To Premises Standards commenced in 2011, revised to meet the objectives of the DDA. Any new building, or existing building undergoing significant renovation, must comply. So Elliot now gets that great skinny latte, and has a shorter journey to work.
When he visits his parents, both sides of the railway station are now accessible. The Accessible Transport Standards, passed in 2002, are arguably the largest infrastructure change, and the biggest spend, in Australia’s history. And, as Cyndi Lauper says “Money changes everything.”
Accessible buses are well ahead of the timetables in the Transport Standards, although expensive rail and tram infrastructure is not keeping up across the country.
After dragging a recalcitrant Sydney Trains to the Federal Court, I now get told where I am on the train, and despite our worst fears, Maureen and I did not have to sell our house to pay the $800’000 Sydney Trains spent to defend its discriminatory stand. Why they didn’t just spend it on fixing the announcements remains one of life’s mysteries.
But the transport picture is not all rosy. Airlines, apart from Qantas, still practise wheelchair apartheid, with the two wheelchair policy. Whilst he may have starred on harmonica in such well-known classics as “My canary has circles under his eyes” by the Captain Match-box Whoopee Band, yes you remember them! Jim Conway learned recently that if you can’t move yourself from your wheelchair to your seat you can’t fly with Jetstar. Market forces have failed to deliver for people with disabilities in the budget airline industry. And despite loud calls for equal treatment by the disability sector and myself, government have failed to act. Regulation, similar to that in Europe, Canada and the US, is necessary to give us access to the skies.
In most States, apart from Queensland, you might wait 2-3 hours for a wheelchair accessible taxi, and people are regularly rejected from taxi travel because they use a guide or assistance dog, or have cream on their face due to their skin condition. We want to be lifters, but we have to lean, and wait til the taxi turns up, or the airline lets us onboard.
And whilst Elliot has a job, most of us do not, and 45% of us live in poverty, last among OECD countries. Government, far from leading the way in an area desperate for positive change, has only 2,9 % of its workforce as people with disabilities, when we make up 15% of the working age population. And while the recent budget makes welfare harder to get for us, re-assessing some disability support pensioners, there is no plan to get us off welfare and into work. Changes proposed just last weekend will place people with episodic disabilities on a different – probably lower – allowance, but there is still no effective jobs plan. Again, we are blocked from being lifters.
We need a jobs plan. We need to learn from the Westpacs, ANZ, Telstra and others, all the members of Australian Network on Disability – the employer representative body.
The Department of Health and Ageing – bucking the trend – are at 10 %, so it can be done. Westpac are at 13 %, so it can be done. We need to listen to employers, and meet there needs. We need to make it safer to venture off the DSP and into work. We need to offer every politician an extra staff member if they employ a person with a disability- as is done in the US. We need to give willing employers some KPI’s and some funding, and twelve months to see if they can meet their planned targets.
Because, apart from the benefits these actions would bring to people with disabilities, if only one-third of that disability-jobs gap moved off welfare and into work, the NDIS would run at a profit within a decade.
Many private employers are willing to commit to these processes. I have worked with many of them during my time in this role. But they need to learn from their peers, and be resourced to get on with it, not be surrounded by government red tape. Limiting rules and bureaucratic disincentives are, to paraphrase Missy Higgins, a danger government are addicted to. The various services contracted to find jobs for people with disabilities are not giving us value for money.
Let’s go back to 2005 with Judy – a fifty-something woman of no-fixed address. She spends some nights with her partner, but when the abuse and violence get too much she sleeps rough, or couch surfs. Judy has an intellectual disability. Like many with intellectual disabilities, she also experiences depression.
Judy is one of the 45 % of Australians with disabilities living in poverty. She would like a job, but like 19 % of people with intellectual disabilities, she cannot secure one.
Violence against women like Judy is hard to quantify in 2005. The ABS doesn’t disaggregate statistics on violence, women and disability. But we know that 90 % of women with intellectual disability experience sexual assault at some time during their lives. We know that if Judy reports the violence, the justice system will deal with it inadequately. And we know that a higher than average proportion of the population with intellectual or psycho-social disability have prison as their accommodation option.
Judy loves pretty greeting cards, and helps herself to her favourite ones from local shops. She is frequently in trouble with the police, and charged with summary offences. The Magistrate is told of her intellectual disability, yet it is rarely given consideration. She has never been offered a support person in court.
Judy doesn’t comprehend the court process, and acquiesces just to get it over with. She is encouraged to plead guilty when she is overtly unfit to do so.
Judy’s lack of access to appropriate court support programmes are a barrier to justice. They are a social cost to her, and an economic cost to the community.
So how is Judy faring in 2014? Sadly, no better. We have a long way to go to address levels of violence, particularly against women with disabilities, and to ensure all people with disabilities are treated equally before the law. And this applies particularly to Aboriginal people, and people who are culturally or linguistically diverse. That’s why the Commission’s report, which I launched this year, called upon every jurisdiction to implement a disability justice strategy.
My last story is of Amy, a diligent year 11 student in 2014, just like my daughter. She loves English and history, and stands up for what she believes in. As a member of the Deaf community, Amy uses Auslan for her learning.
Amy takes Auslan for granted, and finds it odd that another young student, Jacob Clarke, had to take his ACT school to Court in 2004 to be provided with an Auslan interpreter. So Amy appreciates that many before her have fought for their, and her, rights.
One of them was Sekou Kanneh. A year or two younger than Amy, in 2012 he took his complaint to the Commission for conciliation to level his playing field, or his running track. He’s a champion sprinter, who broke the Queensland record for his age group last year. He, too, is deaf, and just wanted a flashing light when the others got the starting gun. His actions won him, and others like Amy, an equal chance.
Amy enjoys movies with her friends. Thanks to the discrimination complaint of John Byrne, and negotiations with industry which I led, the latest movies are captioned on 230 cinema screens around Australia, so Amy sees the dialogue her friends hear.
This is also true for captions on television, which have increased significantly in the last eight years due to positive use of the Commission’s exemption process. But although I, as a blind person, get audio description in the same cinemas, I am still waiting for it to be more than a short trial on the ABC.
Amy, of course, is a digital native. Her Smartphone, like mine, is never far away. I’m probably live-tweeting this speech right now. You think I’m joking, don’t you?
Apps remove significant barriers for Amy and I. In 2012 Media Access Australia, a not-for-profit social enterprise, launched Access IQ, advocating for media that is accessible for people with disabilities. The site helps those launching video content to include captioning, or to make the content accessible to blind users. SOCOG may have prevented Bruce Maguire from enjoying the full olympic experience in 2000, but the 2012 London games were accessible for all.
So let’s consider the broader picture of significant reforms to the disability rights framework. Transport Standards passed in 2002, while I was Deputy Commissioner.
Access to Premises Standards finally passed in 2009, after significant delays in the Howard era.
Australia ratified the Disability Convention in 2008, which COAG then used as a foundation to a National Disability Strategy in 2011. For a time, our own Professor Ron McCallum AO – senior Australian of the year and a definite disability lifter, chaired the convention expert committee, although sadly we did not put forward another nomination when his term ended recently.
Just last week, Australia signed the Marrakesh copyright treaty, which will help to end the world-wide book famine experienced by people with print disabilities.
The NDIS commenced a year ago yesterday- and we are now paying 0,5 % more Medicare levy to help resource it- the most popular tax in Australia’s history, with support by 78 % of us, but not by Bernie Brooks and his friends. It will represent a seismic shift in choice and control for 500’000 Australians with disabilities.
Thanks to those changes, and a number of DDA cases brought by disability legends, some recorded in the Commission’s Twenty Years, Twenty Stories five-minute film series, of which I am very proud, it’s a different landscape.
So what might the future look like for Elliot, Judy, Amy, Graeme, and many others like us.
Disability is a normal part of the diversity of the human experience, and the life of our community. But it’s not viewed that way. Fuelled by sensationalist journalism such as that of the Daily Telegraph, running front pages comparing slackers AKA Disability Support Pensioners to slouch hats AKA Ausie soldiers, calling us shirkers and rorters, we are demonised and diminished. The pictures of so-called slackers were actually south american backpackers on holiday, and of the 45’000 “slouch hats” who returned to Australia, 20 % experience mental illness. The Tele gets it wrong on so many counts, and trashes the disability brand, but people with disabilities are the ones who pay the price and wear the damage. The Tele pushes us back into the leaners corner, despite our best efforts to leave it.
We see retail chains who think its ok to sell t-shirts with “retarde” across the front, when “nigger” or “slut” would not pass muster. Such language diminishes us, and we are viewed as either victims or heroes, when we should be viewed as agents of our own destiny. The soft bigotry of low expectations limits what we can achieve. Stella Young, who until two days ago was the editor of the ABC’s disability portal Rampup – closed down due to lack of funding by the Abbot government and the ABC – gets it right when she talks of “inspiration porn”. Watch her on TED Talks – now there’s another lifter.
That’s why one of my post-Commission activities will be to chair the board of the newly-established Attitude Foundation, following the New Zealand example of using television, film and the internet to change attitudes about people with disabilities. We need to find $200’000 by September to cover the cost of the first programming on the ABC.
Another indirect consequence of the NDIS, as well as providing us with much more choice and control, is the uniting and strengthening of the disability sector. Once divided and somewhat ineffective, the NDIS campaign has shown the benefits of a united stand, and now “the force is strong in that one”. And it will need to be, to combat the challenges ahead- to contest the “lifters and leaners” paradigm, to continue to challenge the negative and limiting view of disability, to ensure that the NDIS delivers real change, to continue to use the DDA to challenge systemic discrimination, and to lobby for a jobs plan for people with disabilities. The sector can do this, but it will need to ensure that more young leaders are nurtured, that technology, the internet and social media are harnessed, and that the faster political and media cycle are used to our advantage.
Sector participation will also be critical because the role played by the Human Rights Commission is diminished. This is not because I am leaving, but because the resourcing for the Commission has been on a downward slide, in real terms, since the mid 90s, and the capacity to produce continued positive results through the passion and commitment of Commissioners and staff is not sustainable. The Commission will do its best with the hand it is dealt, but that is becoming a weaker and weaker hand. When I began as Deputy Commissioner in 1999, there were four policy staff dedicated to disability issues, and a significant programme budget. The passion and commitment in that team, and what we achieved together, was outstanding. The down-grading of the Disability Discrimination Commissioner’s position, about which my views are well known, will mean that there is only one person in the policy section with significant disability expertise, and she is moving to another role. This reduction in the disability area reflects Commission-wide experience. Another voice to advocate for our move from leaners to lifters has been diminished.
I love this job. It’s the best job I’ve ever had. And, to paraphrase Roy and HG, too much work as a Commissioner is never enough. I still have the passion and the stomach to advocate for the rights of people with disabilities. And I will continue to do so in other roles. What I don’t have is the stomach to advocate for the rights of bigots. So perhaps its time for me to move on.
The position of people with disabilities has improved significantly in Australia in the last few decades. There is still, to quote then NSW Premier Maurice Iema “more to do, but heading in the right direction.”
On the up-side, there has been significant progress in making transport and buildings more accessible. On the down-side, as a community we are failing at finding jobs and delivering equal justice for people with disabilities. As I leave this role, I urge government, the community and the disability sector to commit to more jobs, more equal justice, and a community attitude which celebrates and enhances the contribution of people with disabilities.
Quality of life for Australians with disabilities will continue to improve, and one day we will have another full-time Disability Discrimination Commissioner with lived experience of disability. In the mean time, I’ll follow the dictum of that great human rights advocate Dr Seus, “don’t cry that it’s over. Smile that it happened.”
Thanks for the chance to speak with you today.