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 And in reality the statistics probably paint a more positive picture, because many of us have withdrawn from the labour market.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.

Slip slop slap

Slip Slop Slap:
Avoiding the Disability Rap

Presentation to Society of Consumer Affairs Practitioners Conference Melbourne 19 August 2014

I acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we meet today.

Come with me to an olive grove in northern Italy. Do you like olives? I think there’s nothing better than a bowl of olives and a glass of dry white on a warm summer afternoon.

Have you ever swallowed an olive pip- you know, eaten all of the olive from the outside and then swallowed the pip by mistake? Did you taste that pip?

You didn’t, because your saliva is prevented by the nature of the pip from dissolving it, and if saliva is prevented from dissolving something, then you can’t taste it. You probably wouldn’t want to taste an olive pip, so prevention is better than cure.

In your work, that olive pip is a little like disability. It’s best that you don’t taste or swallow the pip, and it’s best that you take actions to ensure that you don’t treat someone differently as a result of their disability. In that sense, too, prevention is better than cure.

I’ve been asked to talk with you today about dealing with people with disability. So perhaps I should first establish my credentials for doing so. After all, I am probably regarded as an expert in this area- you know X marks the spot, and a spurt is just a drip under pressure.

Until recently I was Australia’s Disability Discrimination Commissioner for about nine years, and deputy commissioner for six before that. I’ve chaired Australia’s Disability Advisory Council, and worked as part of the Australian delegation on the Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities. I have also been a disability advocate for most of my life, being the first chair of Disabled People’s International in Australia, and the first Chair of Vision Australia, Australia’s largest blindness agency.

But I haven’t just worked on disability. I spent some time early in my working life as a staff member at the NSW Department of Consumer Affairs. I worked as a clerk dealing with inquiries from the public, as a legal officer working on – amongst other things – the uniform credit code, and I was a member of the Consumer Claims Tribunal. I think I achieve the criteria required for that spurt of water.

Now that I have some street cred, let’s think about disability. How do we define it? What does it include?

In the human rights field, particularly in the Disability Discrimination Act, its broadly defined. It includes physical, sensory, intellectual or psycho-social disability, as well as organisms in the body which can cause disease such as the HIV virus. It can be in the past, the present or the future. And it can also be imputed.

So what percentage of the population do you think has a disability? The Australian Bureau of Statistics tell us that it is about 21 %- yes that’s one in five. So if there are 200 people in this room, 40 of us have a disability.

Many disabilities are not visible. It’s hard for me to hide my disability when I walk through the door with my guide dog, but you can’t see hearing impairment, intellectual or cognitive disability, autism, hepatitis, or repetitive strain injury.

I have described these issues as disabilities. But actually they are forms of impairment. And disability only occurs when society erects barriers which – combined with those impairments – prevent a person from interacting successfully in whatever form of society they choose. In school, in work, in sport, or as a complainant.

So only having information in print prevents me from interacting with that information- but someone with low vision who corrects it with glasses is not disabled by that.
Having narrow entrances to a building only disables a person with mobility disability.
Having a flickering fluorescent light in a work-place is annoying, but it can also disable someone with autism.
Having printed signs and no pictograms may disable a person with intellectual or cognitive disability who cannot read. And for daleks, its stairs which prevent their plans for world domination.

So you can see why you should make your work-place, and the place where you handle your complaints – be it virtual or real -
disability friendly. And when you do, it will be a more friendly environment for everyone.

Ramped rather than stepped access will make it easier for parents with prams, and couriers with trolleys; clearer signage will assist everyone;
softer lighting in conference rooms – with no flickering lights – will also provide you with an atmosphere more conducive to conciliation.

Today I want to tell you three stories of how disability might impact on your work. I’ll tell you two, and the third will be told through a short dvd. Then I’ll draw out ways in which you can prevent disability-related challenges occurring, rather than having to cure them afterwards.

Let’s start with the first story. I want to conduct a transaction in a store, and use the EFTPOS machine. Pretty common occurrence you might say.

Now when you conduct such a transaction, you look at the screen on the machine to check that the sales person has put in the right total. Obviously, I can’t do that. Audio output would mean that I could. So I’m trusting that they haven’t made a keying error, or added $100 cash-out which they will put in their pocket.

Secondly, I have to put in my PIN to confirm the transaction. I can do this, provided that there is a clear raised dot on the number 5 so that I know which keys are which. This is a requirement in the relevant Australian Standards, but not always honoured.

As a sales person told me in that store which sounds like a piece of fruit and sells phones, the keys on their EFTPOS machine are quite “subtle”; so bloody subtle that I can hardly tell them apart, and certainly I can’t feel the dot on the number five.

Now I may have a discrimination complaint here, because the machine doesn’t announce the total, and because I can’t feel the dot on the five. But let’s put that aside- its not your area of expertise.

However, what is your area of expertise is whether this machine is fit for purpose. Because if it’s not, then perhaps I have a basis to complain to you.

Story two. Jane, who has cognitive or intellectual disability, and who is living independently in the community, wants a mobile phone. She visits Dodgy Dave’s Phone Deals because her friend has told her that the phones their are cheap. One of Dodgy Dave’s staff sells Jane an android phone very cheaply, but puts her on a contract where she is locked in for two years, and paying a call and SMS rate which is three times the average. She does what most of us do- signs the contract without reading it. Except in her case it’s because she can’t read, rather than chooses not to.

A month later, Jane gets her first bill which is very high, and her dad – who helps her deal with her bills – realises what has occurred. Again, they could go to the Human Rights Commission. But she and he come to you, alleging that the contract is harsh and unconscionable.

Story three. Let’s watch this DVD. It’s about action under the Disability Discrimination Act, but John could just as easily have walked through your door. http://www.humanrights.gov.au/twentystories/video-lights.html Now as I said, this is framed as a discrimination complaint. But could John argue that – because the movies are not captioned – they are not fit for purpose.

These three stories relate to problems in your area which have to do specifically with disability. But they are not the only times when those of us with disabilities might visit you.

My washing machine is just as likely to break down as yours;

Jane is just as likely to have a problem with her wedding dress or plans for the reception as anyone else;

And John could just as easily buy a Friday-Monday car.

So, whether it relates to disability, or just people with disabilities doing life, we will walk through your door, arrive in your mailbox, or your inbox, on one in every five occasions. High enough stats to do some serious planning to prevent problems.

Ok- do any of you check out Buzzfeed? Well, why not? My wife introduced me to it a couple of years ago, and has regretted it ever since. If I didn’t want you to pay attention to the last part of my presentation I’d say- get out your phones or tablets, and jump onto Buzzfeed right now. Its hilarious, addictive, and can become a black hole in your life.

I have followed the Buzzfeed model – and created nine neat notes for making your complaint handling processes more accessible for people with disabilities. Here we go.

1. There are no rigid rules about disability. Yes, I know this is a challenging first position, particularly for the lawyers amongst us. But, just like the rest of you, we are a diverse and different lot. Some women wear jewelry, some don’t. Some blind people use guide dogs, others canes. Some people are completely deaf, others have hearing impairment. Some people with intellectual disability read, others do not. So don’t make assumptions- ask questions- will this work for you is a good start.

2. If you want to communicate with everyone in society, you can’t just do it in print. Handing me a print brochure is about as helpful as having the Attorney-General explain metadata. You need to have alternate versions of your brochures- on your website, in audio or braille, in easy english, just as you have them in community languages. If you are sending out letters you need to consider sending them via email, not just in print. And don’t use PDF files- they are not accessible for people such as me using screenreaders.

3. If you have educational DVD’s they should be captioned- not just because it assists people who are deaf or hearing impaired (and you won’t always know that people are hearing-impaired), but because you will get better learning outcomes for everyone. And you should also think about the use of Auslan, both on your DVD’s and when a person who is deaf comes to see you. Just as you provide community language interpreters. And if you take phone calls you should also take TTY calls.

4. Your premises should be accessible to people with mobility disabilities. This means ramps as well as steps, doors of the appropriate width, and spaces in which a wheelchair or scooter user can turn. If premises are not accessible, then you should have an alternate meeting place close by which is, and ensure that your staff offer this alternative, and are happy to use it when necessary. Also, advertise this on your website.

5. Think about the way you provide your advice. Consumer law is complex, and your complaint process may also be to someone who has never used it before. It may not be very comprehensible to your clients, particularly those with intellectual or cognitive disabilities. So, as any good complaint handler should do for any client, confirm at the end of an advice session that the person receiving the advice understands it. And if they don’t, the problem is yours, not their’s.

6. How is your organisation equipped to deal with people with mental illness- as clients or as employees. If the answer is not very well, then perhaps its time for some “mental health first aid” training. Google it- it’s readily available.

7. Remember that there is a high correlation between disability and poverty- 45% of people with disabilities live in or near poverty. So the likelihood of your clients with disabilities falling into this category is higher.

8. These are not changes which you will be able to make all at once. So develop a DDA Action Plan, so that you can make the changes in an organised way. There are some excellent guides, and examples of plans, on the Human Rights Commission website. And it is always a good idea to consult with people with disabilities in the development of such plans.

Finally 9. Have a section on your website, or in your brochure, which sets out your accessible facilities. And when you are arranging community input, or advice sessions, encourage people with disabilities to indicate to you if they have any particular requirements.

These are not all the answers. There are numerous access consultants around who can provide you with advice. There are also many resources available, including some on the Australian Human Rights Commission website- the accessible meetings and events guide is a good start. But your search engine will find many others.

An alternate method is to get some people with disabilities on your management committee or as part of your feed-back process.

So let’s return to our olive grove. If you buy olives without pips, or spit out the pip before you swallow it, that’s prevention. And it has to be better than curing the problem once you swallow the pip.

It’s the same with disability. If you and your work-place are organised in a way which caters to the needs of the whole population, not just those without a disability, you’re going to provide a better customer experience for everyone.

Thanks for the chance to speak with you today.

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