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.

[ends]

Benched from Team Australia

Why are People With Disabilities “benched” from Team Australia Presentation to Disability Employment Australia Conference
Gold Coast
6 August 2014

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

Most Australians have a reasonable expectation that they’ll get breakfast each day before they go to work. And for most its met.

Most Australians who want to participate in paid work have a reasonable expectation that they’ll get a job. And for most its met.

But for Australians with disabilities seeking a job, whilst most of us would argue that getting a job is a reasonable expectation, it’s not one that is currently met for at least half of that group. So what are you, as leaders in Australia on employment of people with disabilities, going to do about ensuring that this reasonable expectation is met in the future? That’s the purpose of today’s conference.

Consideration of how to improve employment opportunities for people with disability is more timely than ever. Rising living standards, and better health care, mean longer life expectancy. That means two things. First, as we get older we are more and more likely to have a significant disability. ABS figures tell us 20 per cent of Australians, or more than four million people, have disabilities; and that this proportion is increasing, in particular with the ageing of the population. The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare predicts that, on average, men in Australia as they age can expect to live 19 years with a disability (and 5 years with a “severe or profound” disability). While women, living longer, can expect 21 years of disability, and 8 years of severe or profound disability. Of course, many of us are above the average. From the point of view of those of you without disability, we’re “taking one for the team”.

Second, the ageing of the population reduces the relative size of the workforce to the population overall. In coming years, there will be fewer of us to support more of us, so as many people as possible need to be working and paying taxes, rather than receiving welfare.

Added to this, there are shortages of skilled workers in our economy – to the extent that increasing numbers of young people are leaving school early to move straight into training for trades in current demand.

What better time to ensure that disability does not needlessly prevent people developing skills and working – and that employees with skills who acquire disability do not waste those skills in unemployment, or under-employment.

But Australia is missing the boat. Lower participation rates, plus higher unemployment rates, mean that only 53 % of working age people with disability in Australia are employed, compared to 83 % of people without- half compared to four out of five. I think that statistic may over-represent the truth, as many people with disabilities have withdrawn from the labour market. And People with disability on average earn lower incomes, and frequently work well below their capacity.

Government after Government have failed to address these problems. The current government – unless it significantly changes direction – will also fail. It has developed a welfare plan – yes, it plans to get people off welfare. But it has not developed a jobs plan. A topic I spoke about at the National Press Club some weeks ago. But I have been asked today to share my personal story.

Whilst growing up I was lucky on a number of counts.

Firstly, I was lucky in the approach which my parents used when bringing me up. I say lucky, but perhaps I shouldn’t dismiss the innate good sense they used when they decided – consciously or unconsciously – to treat me as just one of three siblings, rather than as a “special” child with a disability. Many kids with disabilities were not treated this way. Their parents – with the best of intentions – figuratively wrapped them in cotton wool. This meant that they didn’t enjoy the same breadth and intensity of experiences which I enjoyed.

It must have been very hard for my parents, knowing that inevitably I would fail on occasions, or have a negative experience. And those bruised foreheads, or scraped knees, must have hurt them almost as much as they hurt me. But the advantage for me was their approach- assuming that I could do things rather than assuming that I couldn’t. Whilst this meant that I ended up with a few more scrapes, bruises and disappointments, it broadened my experience, and gave me the sense that I could do what I wanted, rather than limiting my options.

Secondly, I was lucky that a good friend of my parents was totally blind, and also a member of the NSW parliament. This just reinforced the positive message- if he, as a person who was blind, could be a successful politician, then why couldn’t I do the things that I wanted to. So I grew up not being limited in my expectations. Unfortunately, many Australians with disabilities are limited by the soft bigotry of low expectations.

One of the largest barriers which people with disabilities in Australia face is the attitude barrier. That’s why, since my role at the Australian Human Rights Commission has come to an end, I have become the Chair of the Attitude Foundation Australia. We will, through use of television and the broader media, change the attitude of people towards Australians with disabilities. We will support people with disabilities to tell their stories- of doing work, doing community activities, and doing life. And this work will be done, in the main, by people with disabilities. Six of these stories will air on ABC television beginning in December of this year. If we can raise the funding we need, a much longer series will run in the second half of next year. Check out our website http://www.attitude.org.au We will tell these stories because we know that changing attitudes changes lives. My own story shows that.

Employers say, its all too hard, it might not work, there’s too much risk, and people with disabilities will never fit in. Most employers have no understanding of disability until they have a direct connection with it.

Thirdly, I was lucky because I knew exactly what I wanted to do when I left school. I feel for people who face the dilemma of working this out. From the time I was about fourteen, I knew that I wanted to study law. And I wanted to study law because I knew that changing laws was one way to improve society, or improve opportunities for people in society.

So I studied law. This was in the 70s, when there were no computers, internet or web-based legal data bases. Many volunteers read law books on to reel-to-reel tapes, (yes, remember those), or on to cassette, so I could keep up with the reading. Many others manually transcribed books into Braille. I was not the first blind person to study law, but there were not many of us, so trails had to be blazed.

Studying law was just hard work. Despite the enormous efforts of those volunteers transcribing books, I had more limited access to the range of materials which I needed to complete my degree. So I had to compensate by knowing the books which I did have better than anyone else. But after four years I completed the degree. And whilst the work was hard, I can’t deny that I also enjoyed a few of the extra-curricular activities which go along with campus life, which centred on the uni bar.

I completed College of Law, and started the process of finding a job. Over a twelve month period I applied for about thirty jobs in legal positions- with government agencies and the private sector. I didn’t get any of them. Employers just couldn’t understand how a blind person could function as a lawyer. And, no matter how much I explained the methods I would employ, they were just not convinced.

I had – growing up as a person with a disability – experienced discrimination before. But this was the first time that I really struck the wall of discrimination which many people with disabilities face. And for twelve months I couldn’t get past it.

I finally despaired, and took a job in the NSW public service as a Clerical Assistant- I used to joke that I was the only Clerical Assistant in the service with a law degree. But it was a job.

It was with State Lotteries, where one of my duties was to answer the phone, and tell people the winning lotto numbers. Of course you need a law degree to do that! I was made redundant from that role by an answering machine.

I moved to the Registrar-General’s office, where I spent my time answering phone calls from the public. But at least I was learning much more about the issues around land titles and conveyancing.

From there I progressed – still as a Clerk – to the Department of Consumer Affairs. Here again I answered telephone calls from the public, but I became immersed in consumer law, at a time when the Department – under the stewardship of Minister Syd Einfeld – was ratcheting up the rights of consumers.

And it was this Department, or more specifically the Senior Legal Officer, who gave me my first “legal” opportunity – as a Clerk, and then a Legal Officer. He wasn’t totally convinced that I could work as a lawyer, but he (unlike all of the others) was prepared to give it a go.

So I started as a Legal Officer in Consumer Affairs, working on interesting issues, such as the first draft of Push-bike Helmet Regulations, and the unified Credit Code. I was finally being a lawyer.

The discrimination I faced in that twelve months looking for a job probably fired my zeal for advocacy. At the same time as I was working my way up through the NSW public service, I was spending some of my leisure time participating in various organisations advocating for the rights of people with disabilities. 1981 was the International Year of People with Disabilities, and there was much work to do. Amongst other things, disability groups successfully advocated for changes to the NSW Anti-Discrimination Act to include discrimination against people with disabilities.

I joined the Anti-Discrimination Board as one of its conciliators. Pleasingly, I was not type-cast. Whilst I clearly brought disability expertise – from my lived experience, and my knowledge of the disability sector – my case load included discrimination complaints from all grounds covered by the Act, including race, sex, age or marital status.

After a time, I continued this work in WA, following the “go west, young man” principle. And that’s where I found and married Maureen – the love of my life, my best mate, closest adviser and most constructive critic.

My continued involvement in the disability sector meant that I was asked to chair the Commonwealth Governments advisory council on disability issues. The major achievement of that council, whilst I was its Chair, was the enactment – by the Keating Government in 1993 – of Commonwealth Disability Discrimination legislation. I was able to play a part – with a number of others- in the way that legislation was crafted. I view this as one of the most important work tasks with which I have been involved.

And then- after some work in the private sector, and membership of a range of Tribunals – for almost nine years- until recently-
I got the chance – as Commissioner – to administer that discrimination legislation.

So, let me return to those reasonable expectations with which I started. What do we need to get those expectations met? We need a jobs plan. We need to learn from the Westpacs, ANZ, Telstra, IBM, Woolworths 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 30 % 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 as Australia’s Disability Discrimination Commissioner. 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 in terms of long-term outcomes gained for dollars spent. So we need to find another way.

When I was young, many people told me I couldn’t be a lawyer, and many others wouldn’t give me a legal job. But I, and people like you who supported me all those years ago, knew that I could. I can’t imagine my life without the chance to take the risks I took to get where I am today. I can’t imagine a society diminished because it lacked the contribution that many people with disabilities make, in all areas of life. And I’m profoundly saddened by the knowledge that many people with disabilities were never encouraged to take those risks, and grab those chances. So thanks for the work you do to give others the chances, and the encouragement, I was given all those years ago.

Continue to work hard to provide those opportunities for people with disabilities. Don’t be stopped by thinking that you – one individual – can’t make a difference. Because the reality is that it’s only individuals who can make a difference. Encourage people with disabilities to remove barriers, grasp opportunities, and live on the edge. Because, if you’re not living on the edge, you’re taking up too much room.

Thanks for the chance to speak with you today.

Glitter in the Air

Keynote Speech at Strengthening Disability Advocacy Conference Melbourne
4 August 2014

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

Thank you for the opportunity to speak with you this morning. As a worn-out old advocate, I wondered if you’d want me to come down here to speak when all discrimination against people with disabilities in Australia has been fixed. Oh, hasn’t anyone told you that? Isn’t that your experience? Well, I thought that’s why we didn’t need a full-time Disability Discrimination Commissioner any more, with lived experience of disability and who knows the disability sector. I thought that’s why we could take $1.6 million from the National Advocacy Program? I thought we all had jobs, and were off welfare, so the changes to the DSP were not a problem. At least, that’s what the Government and the Attorney-General told me! May be they got it wrong? Do you think so?

Well then, if that’s the case, I had better throw away the celebratory speech I had planned, and cancel the case of champagneI had ordered. However, if there’s still some discrimination around, if there is still a need for advocates, if we haven’t all got jobs and so don’t need the DSP, we’d better do something about it. We are advocates after all.

Ok, now that I’ve got my attempt at Monday morning wake up humour out of the way, I have to make a confession. The original plan for this part of the programme was to get someone who would start the conference off with a bang, inspire you all with his amazing story, and motivate you – both for the rest of the conference, but also in your work for some time to come. And I know who was on the original programme – and he would have definitely done that. But he couldn’t come, so you’ve got me instead. I’m just some ex-Commissioner who the committee found hanging around, and who is going to run a Q and A session this afternoon. And they asked me if I could fill up this hour. So I’ll do my best. But you’ll have to help me. You may have to answer some questions – and if you do you need to remember my one behavioral fault-
well, the one I’m prepared to admit to. If you put up your hand to give me an answer, I’ll completely ignore you. So just break those old school rules, and call those answers out.

What gets you out of bed in the morning? For me it’s usually a bloody strong cup of coffee. And your coffee down here doesn’t stack up against the coffee we make in Sydney, so I’m in trouble from the start. And if that comment doesn’t upset you, let me tell you that I barrack for the West Coast Eagles. Right, I should have the whole audience off-side now.

But really, what does get you out of bed? If you were teenagers, it would be your mother. It’s probably basic bodily functions – bathroom, hunger, partner snores.

But let’s lift this to a slightly higher level. What motivates you to do what you do?

Conferences such as this, as well as being a great chance to learn – formally from presenters, informally from peers, (yes, I’ve read about the speed dating sessions), conferences like this are a great opportunity to consider that question. So I want to start your thinking this morning.

I want to talk today about what we do. In our role as advocates. And I want to remind you all that what you do matters- you become involved at a key time in people’s lives, and can have a great impact on the quality of those lives.

I’ve been asked to motivate you. A few months after one of the cruelest Federal budgets I have ever seen. Right! What I love about this conference committee is that they only set small challenges.

So I’m going to start with the words of a poet of our time – she sings them, but I won’t emulate that you’ll be pleased to hear.

“Have you ever fed a lover with just your hands
“Closed your eyes and trusted, just trusted
“Have you ever thrown a fist full of glitter in the air
“Have you ever looked fear in the face And said I just don’t care “Its only half past the point of no return
“The tip of the iceberg, The sun before the burn
“The thunder before the lightning, And the breath before the phrase “Have you ever felt this way…”

Does anyone recognise those words? Who sings them? Yes, Pink, in her Grammy-Award winning song, “Glitter in the Air”. I heard her sing them beautifully in one of her Sydney concerts some years ago, and I was entranced. I listen to them regularly on my iPod.

Many people think they only apply to opportunities for love, but I think they beautifully capture a broader message for life – to throw glitter in the air; to take the opportunities life presents; and to live life to the full. I’m very much in favour of the view that if you’re not living on the edge, you’re taking up too much room.

But living life to the full should not only be an opportunity for four-fifths of the population. It should also be an opportunity for Australians with disabilities. And, despite what the Attorney tells us, discrimination still exists, and we can’t live life to the full. That’s why we need advocacy.

Let me move from one iconic American woman of today, to another iconic American woman of the 1960s – yes, back in that period of history known as the last century. I’m talking about Rosa Parks.

Who was Rosa Parks? Perhaps your recollection will improve if I tell you she refused to sit at the back of the bus. In the 1960s in the US, millions of dollars were spent on providing public transport systems, but in many places, if you were black, you could only ride at the back. Rosa’s action in refusing to do this was one of the sparks for the civil rights movement.

But that was way back then, you might say, it wouldn’t happen in Australia today. wouldn’t it? For many people with disability, sitting at the back of the bus still isn’t possible – we can’t even get on the bus. And that’s just one of many examples where opportunities are not equal in the world in which we all work and live.

Let me tell you a story, because it underlines the importance of the work which we all do, and the amazing assumptions that are often made about people with disability.

I had completed a meeting with some senior bank officials in Brisbane. Walking with my guide dog, I got into the elevator on the 30th floor of their building, at the same time as another person. The lift buttons were not marked with raised letters or braille, so I didn’t know which one to press. Turning to the other man in the lift I said- “Could you press the button for ground please?” I got no response.

Thinking that he may have a hearing impairment, I looked directly at him so he could read my lips, and said a little more clearly “Could you press ground please?” Still no response.

Puzzled, I reached over and tapped him on the shoulder, and repeated my request.

“Oh,” he said, “Are you talking to me? I thought you were asking the guide dog.”

My guide dog’s good, but she hasn’t learned to read lift buttons yet!

I’m sure you could tell me many similar stories about assumptions made about people with disabilities. In my experience, most of those assumptions are negative, and most of them are wrong. But they still keep being made. So people with disabilities keep having to deal with the soft bigotry of low expectations.

Now as well as swimming against the tide of negative attitudes, people with disabilities are disadvantaged – in relative terms – in today’s society. Let’s look at three measures of that disadvantage.

Firstly, there is a high correlation between people with disabilities and poverty. 45 % of people with disabilities live in or near poverty. This is due to low incomes, fewer employment opportunities, and additional costs due to our disability. I don’t need to bore you with all the statistics- you’ve heard them before.

Secondly, whilst Australia experiences relatively low unemployment, this is not the case for people with disabilities. We are employed at a rate 30 % lower than the general population. And when we are employed, we are usually under-employed. And we are often just employed in one position, and forgotten about.

The third indicator of disadvantage is the level of people with disabilities in, or who have been in, the criminal justice system.

There are high rates of people with psycho-social and intellectual disability in prisons across Australia. In fact, prison is a significant accommodation option for people with disabilities. How shameful is that!

90 % of women with intellectual disability have been sexually assaulted at some time during their lives. What a shocking statistic!

There are high rates of violence towards people with disabilities, particularly in institutional settings. And when we report it, the justice system doesn’t cater for our particular needs, so it often goes unpunished. You know the statistics better than I do.

So those – and many others I haven’t talked about, but which you understand intimately – are the challenges or barriers facing people with disabilities.

And we as advocates have the task of supporting people with disabilities through or around those barriers – that’s what we’re all about. We have the challenge of assisting people, often with fewer life skills, to make decisions which will profoundly affect their quality of life for the future. So what gets you out of bed is working with some of the most disadvantaged and disempowered people in Australia. So, no pressure, OK! That is a seriously awesome challenge.

Now some of you here might say, at this point in my presentation, that I’m not doing what the conference committee told me to. I was asked to motivate you, and all I’ve done for the last ten or so minutes is tell you funny stories, and demonstrate how hard our job is, and what a huge challenge we have. After hearing all of this, you might just go back to that bed, and curl up in the foetal position.

But I haven’t told you anything that you don’t already know – and yet you’re all here, not in that bed back at home. And why is that? Because we’re in this job – and many of us have been in it for many years – because we – perhaps against the odds – are determined to support people with disabilities to successfully overcome those barriers- and to live life without them. We believe that – just like every other Australian – people with disabilities have a right to take a risk, and to own their own destiny. We know that when we come into contact with people with disabilities, they will be making critical decisions – what you wear, what you do, where you live, where you work – sometimes for the first time. And we believe that it is both their right, and critically important, that they can make those decisions, and not just be presented with limited options. Even though – in some cases – they may make the wrong decisions, we believe they should have a broader choice. Taking that choice away is denying people with disabilities our rights. We are in the forefront of creating opportunities for people with disabilities – and we know that if we don’t facilitate those broad options, the chance to take those risks, and the right to fail, it’s less likely that anyone else will do so.

We know that if people don’t succeed, our job is to figuratively pick them up, brush them off, and support them to try again. We know that if we don’t see potential, and encourage it, and advocate for it, then there is little hope of changing other people’s attitudes. So we find out how to draw out that potential, what skills we need to draw it out, and how to maximise that chance of success. that’s what advocacy is all about- having a can-do approach, and finding a way to remove those barriers.

So you don’t need me to motivate you. You would have to be some of the most motivated people I know to continue with these challenges.

There are many different ways and forms of advocacy. You know more about them than I do. But let’s look at a story from the Twenty Years, Twenty Stories series, made while I was still at the Australian Human Rights Commission, which illustrates two contrasting advocacy styles.

Video Room For Change http://www.humanrights.gov.au/twentystories/video-room-for-change .html

So, let’s go back to being some of the most motivated people I know. But, rather than allow us to rest on our laurels, as the committed change-agent that I am, I want us to continue to find those barriers, and to work with people with disabilities to overcome them.

When I was young, many people told me I couldn’t be a lawyer, and many others wouldn’t give me a legal job. But I, and people like you who advocated for me all those years ago, knew that I could. I can’t imagine my life without the chance to take the risks I took to get where I am today. I can’t imagine a society diminished because it lacked the contribution that Australians with disabilities can make, in all areas of life. And I’m profoundly saddened by the knowledge that many people with disabilities were never encouraged to take those risks, and grab those chances. So, thanks for the work you do to give others the chances, and the encouragement, I was given all those years ago.

You should use this conference to hone your skills, and replenish your energy. Advocacy and barrier removal needs all of the skills and energy we can muster.

And continue to work hard to provide those opportunities for the people for whom we advocate. Don’t be stopped by thinking that you – one individual – can’t make a difference. Because the reality is that it’s only individuals who ever do make a difference.

Encourage and work with clients to remove those barriers, grasp opportunities, live on the edge, and throw that glitter in the air.

Thanks for the chance to speak with you today.

Flying solo

I had three diary malfunctions this week. None as spectacularly catastpophic as Jannet Jackson’s super-bowl experience some years ago, but only because they were in front of a much smaller audience.

The first related to a presentation I was due to give next week which I had completely forgotten. I received an email on Thursday reminding me of the time and place. Yes, I replied, I’m all prepared for that one, and scheduled a couple of hours during the weekend to pull it together.

The second related to the screening of a new film, for which I was an interested audience member, but luckily nothing more. I turned up two hours late. Woops!

The third was more embarrassing. I received a text at 2,40 PM asking if I was still available for the 2,30 coffee we had arranged. Unfortunately I was on the other side of the city in a different appointment. Super Woops! Several grovelling appologies and a promise to buy the coffee next time later I had regained a little self esteem. You are probably reading this, and I am still very embarrassed. This is not what I usually do.

I’m finding it difficult to nagivate both to and inside my new temporary office at the Australian Law Reform Commission. Whoever designed the MLC Centre in that octagonal shape, with a multi-entranced and noisy food court as the main access to the building, and no labels on lift buttons or announcements in lifts, wasn’t thinking about the challenges it presents to guide dog users.

It’s a little more of an issue booking my own travel, and doing all of those really important tasks which my Executive Assistants at the Commission seemed to do so imperturbably and efficiently.

And – inevitably – I’m experienceing a small dose of relevance deprivation syndrome since I finished my term as Disability Discrimination Commissioner.

All challenges of operating differently, and flying solo.

But then I went back to that well-known aphorism- it’s not the problem that’s the problem, it’s your attitude to the problem that’s the problem. And I considered the bigger picture.

Despite the view of the Attorney-General that disability discrimination was diminishing, so we only need a part-time Commissioner, not much has changed. There is still no jobs plan for people with disabilities.
We are still refused airline travel if we happen to be the third person who turns up for a flight using a wheelchair.
Gaols are still viewed as an appropriate accommodation option for people with intellectual and psycho-social disability. Fifi thinks its ok to fake a disability, and then laugh about it on radio. And there is still no audio description on the ABC.

To use Stephen King’s well-known phrase “same shit, different day.”

So I just need to get over the challenges of flying solo, and get on with what I promised myself I would do. Keep working to improve the quality of life of Australians with disabilities.
I’ll play a leadership role at the Law Reform Commission, assisting to complete the disability and capacity inquiry, and improve the decision-making processes for people with disabilities.
http://www.alrc.gov.au I’ll contribute, through the board of Life Without Barriers, to improving the quality of life of kids in out-of-home care, asylum seekers, Aboriginal people and people with disabilities. http://www.lifewithoutbarriers.org.au I’ll contribute through the board of the Attitude Foundation to changing the way people with disabilities are viewed in the media- because changing attitudes changes lives. http://www.attitude.org.au I’ll just do it from a different place. And learn to fly solo.

Ending the Blind Curfew

Last week Brisbane City Council advised that all audible traffic signals would operate 24 hours a day seven days a week, ending the curfew for people who are blind or have low vision in Brisbane which has applied for more than fifteen years. Previously, many signals were turned off at 9:30 at night, and back on at 6:30 in the morning.

I concgratulate Brisbane City Council for this decision. It is a triumph of committed people over bad policy.

I visited Brisbane to attend a conference several months ago. I was planning where I should have dinner, and someone commented that I would need to start dinner early, as I would have to be home by 9:30 at night. Being unused to having a curfew, I questioned this. It’s because the audible traffic signals are turned off at that time, I was told. I could not believe it!

As it happened, I was unusually well behaved at dinner that night, and I was home before 9:30. But the next morning I took my guide dog out for an early walk- prior to 6 AM. And as advised, there were no audible traffic signals to let me know when I could cross the road. I was a prisoner of the Brisbane City Council policy.

I did some research, and found that this policy had been in place for more than fifteen years. This was due to a councillor who had once been kept awake by similar signals in New Zealand. I knew, however, that the volume of such signals was controlled by a monitoring microphone, so that when traffic and other noise was quiet, as it often is in the middle of the night, the signals are quiet as well. So this equipment had not been working in New Zealand all of those years ago, or he had only had a small travel budget, and managed it by sleeping on the footpath next to the light pole.

I was so outraged that people who were blind or had low vision in Brisbane could be so disadvantaged by the ill-informed whim of a policy maker with insomnia that I talked to a journalist about it. She thought it would make an excellent story, and the rest – as they say – is history.

The media ran with the story, and I did interviews across the country. The policy was made to look silly, and – after further consultation by council with relevant disability organisations- it was changed.

This story made me think about the language I had used. What seemed to concern council most was that I had referred to the policy as a “blind curfew”. I did so because that is how I had regarded it. But the reaction this received demonstrated the importance of the language which we use.

The Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities seeks to shift the mind-set about us from objects of pity to subjects with rights, and from our disability being the barrier to the environment in which we live being the barrier. Thus, it was not that I could not see which prevented me from crossing the road, it was that there was no audible traffic signal to give me the same information which people who see received.

I was once counselled by a colleague for whom I have great respect not to refer to the policy – applied by most airlines in Australia – of only carrying two passengers who use wheelchairs as “wheelchair apartheid”. She was shocked by the use of apartheid in that way, because of its origin. Apartheid is the system of segregation or discrimination on grounds of race in force in South Africa from 1948-ia. It comes from the Afrikaans, and literally means separateness.

I thought very carefully about this advice, because I valued my colleague’s judgement highly. But I decided to continue to use the expression, because treating people with disabilities separately and differently is exactly what the “two wheelchair” policy does. This process confirmed the importance of describing such policies by their impact, and effectively “calling out” the policy-makers for what they had done to people with disabilities.

Perhaps it was the use of the term “blind curfew” which swayed the policy-makers, or caught their attention. I don’t know. But there is no doubt that good advocacy, and implementation of the disability convention, requires clarity on the barriers in our environment, and their effect.

What do you think? Should we describe such policies in this emotive way? Should we call a spade a spade?