Don’t Bugger Off Now: We Need You

I saw Stella Young perform last Wednesday night at the closing function for the Don’t Dis my Ability campaign. Her opening lines were something like-

“Now before we start tonight, I just want to thank all the able-bodied people in the room. I’m so pleased that your friends have brought you out tonight, and that you are here. You are just so – what’s the word – so inspirational.”

From then on, for the next twenty minutes, she had the crowd in the palm of her hand – laughing, cheering, and applauding. Her stories of ordinary life as a person with a disability were funny, poignant, but always contained a powerful message – “It’s not our disability that’s the problem, its the way you view it, and the barriers that you put in our way.”

I didn’t even bother to talk to her last Wednesday night. There was a big crowd of people, and I thought I’d just catch up on twitter or the phone some time soon. And now she’s gone – at 32 way before her time.

I would have loved her to write my eulogy. I never expected or wanted to write hers. “You can’t bugger off now: we need you.”

How do I describe Stella Young. Feisty, smart, quick mind, sharp wit, great communicator – speaker and writer – and passionate disability advocate. Good friend, who would call me out publicly as the Disability Discrimination Commissioner if I wasn’t speaking strongly enough, or acting quickly enough, but have a drink or a coffee with me as a friend, and strategise on how to progress disability issues.

If you haven’t seen her Tedtalk, go and watch it now! If you haven’t seen the “room for change” five-minute films made as part of the Australian Human Rights Commission’s Twenty Years Twenty Stories films, search it on Youtube and watch it now. If you haven’t read her powerful articles on Rampup and ABC The Drum dealing with disability, violence against women, do yourself a favour, go and read them now. If you haven’t followed her on Twitter, go and look @stellajyoung

Stella didn’t achieve the National Disability Insurance Scheme implementation on her own – but she made a significant contribution. Stella would be the first to admit that she could not have run Rampup on her own – she needed all those of us with disabilities who contributed articles. Stella wasn’t the only one to use social media to achieve positive change for people with disabilities – but she led the charge. Stella has not ensured that every music venue and bar in Melbourne has an accessible toilet not stacked with cleaning materials – but she has, with her force and charm, taken many along that path.

Stella had so much more to do. She was energetic, passionate and committed. But not only did she communicate so effectively, using humour to pass on her message, but she worked hard to ensure that the voices of other people with disability would not be silent.

This woman, who said that she could break a bone just by breaking wind, will be sadly missed. Her legacy will be that all who are disability advocates will campaign harder to achieve the change she sought. Heaven must have been short of a few laughs to take her so soon.

This article was first published in The Guardian.

An Excellent Save

Several weeks ago in this blog I wrote about Westpac and how I was “locked out” of my bank. This was because the Go button on the banking app did not work for users operating via voice output.

So it is only fair that I tell the rest of the story.

There were two issues about which I was upset. The first was that, because the Go button did not work, I was effectively prevented from doing my banking, or “locked out”. The second issue was Westpac’s response – whilst the member of staff to whom I spoke was friendly and helpful, her response indicated that Westpac were aware of the problem, and that there was no immediate plans to address it. So I was blocked – during the Christmas and new year period – from using an app which I had used perfectly happily for a number of years before it was upgraded. But other customers who did not use voice output were not. I felt excluded, and I felt hurt.

A previous occasion when I, and many other Australians with disabilities, were hurt in this way was when Myer’s Bernie Brookes said, on the day of the increase of the medicare levy to part-fund the National Disability Insurance Scheme, that this was money which would not be spent in Myer stores. Hundreds of people with disabilities reacted to this comment. The next day, Myer made an apology straight from the Claytons song book.

On that occasion I expressed how hurt I was by that half-hearted apology, and challenged Myer to do something positive, and commit to an employment target of 10% of people with disabilities. This was a challenge I had issued to many other employers, and 30’000 Australians supported my call.

Westpac took a very different approach. The head of the relevant IT area in the bank contacted me personally, after I had published my blog, apologised, and explained that Westpac took access for everyone very seriously. He and I then worked together to narrow down the cause of the issue. So unlike Myer, Westpac made a full apology and sought my support to resolve the problem.

It turned out after further investigation that the problem only occurred when My braille keyboard was connected to my iPhone – whenever I disconnected it, the Go button magically reappeared. Westpac have tracked this down to incompatability between the Go button, which is a generic Apple tool, and braille keyboards. Westpac have reported this to Apple, and are moving to return to the old login process – which did not use Apple’s generic Go button – until Apple solve this incompatability.

There is a clear lesson here for all businesses. Whether a business, or an individual, none of us are infallible. So it’s how you go about dealing with the mistake which is important. I am no longer “locked out” of my bank, and I have withdrawn my discrimination complaint.

You can be Myer My Store and say my way or the highway, or you can be flexible and support diversity like Westpac, and stay simply the best.

Not Getting The Point

Picture the scene. It’s been a lengthy cab ride to the airport for my guide dog and I. The driver and I have chatted. We have agreed on politics and sport, but expressed different views on the weather and choice of radio stations. Situation normal.

The traffic hasn’t been too bad, so I’m in plenty of time for my flight. And I know a good cup of coffee awaits on the other side of airport security. Life is ok.

I pay the fare, and am about to get out when I ask the driver to tell me where the entrance is. Cabs can pull up along the front of the terminal, so I like to get some broad direction.

“it’s just over there,” he says, as I feel his arm raised in front of my face to point.

How do I respond? Do I just get out, not having the information I need? Do I ask him to tell me again, because my dog wasn’t watching where he pointed? Do I explain that I can’t see the direction of his digit?

“Pointing doesn’t work for me,” I say, “is it behind or in front of the car.”

“It’s right there,” he replies, pointing again. His physical action showing that he has not got the point.

I get out defeated, hoping my dog will find the way. Which she usually does. She’s a labrador, not a pointer.

This is a regular experience for me. Many people have trouble giving clear directions.

“It’s to your right,” they say confidently, when they mean left.

“You turn left here,” they say, when they mean go straight for another five metres and then turn left. I try to smile as I brush the dust from my clothes, having turned left immediately and walked into a wall or a tree.

But my favourite is “It’s just there,” as I imagine there finger pointing confidently in a direction which I cannot determine.

Perhaps I should reach out and grab their arm, encourage them to hold it steady while I track it down past elbow and wrist, and – using touch – determine the direction in which I should travel. If I could find there arm, that is, without grabbing various other more inappropriate sections of clothing or anatomy.

Perhaps I should train my guide dog to watch carefully, and point her nose in the direction shown by their finger. My dog is good, but that may be above her pay scale.

But until then, or when the penny drops for those who resort to the directional digit, I will continue with my life, not getting the point.

Graeme Innes is a Don’t DIS my ABILITY ambassador, lawyer and disability rights activist. He was Australia’s Disability Discrimination Commissioner from December 2005 to July 2014. He now Chairs the Attitude Foundation which uses story-telling and the media to change attitudes about people with disabilities, because changing attitudes changes lives.

This article was originally published in “Made You Look” the Don’t Dis My Ability campaign publication.

Simply The Best

The words of that Tina Turner song ring in the ears of many -

Simply the best

Better than all the rest.

But even when you are at the top of the tree, you have to be continually paying attention to ensure that you stay there.

Many a sporting team has learned that hard lesson. I still vividly recall the fall of the mighty Australian cricket team, and my pain as I endured the ashes of 2005. You just cannot take your eye off the ball.

So, as Gail Kelly announces her retirement (and I don’t suggest that the two are related) Westpac has done just that. Yes, that organisation which the disability sector holds up as a bright light whose achievements should be the bench-mark for employment and access. The bank who have 13 % of their employees as people with disabilities, who recruited paralympic champions, and led in many areas of building and internet access.

Just as the citizens of a number of countries were during the GFC, I’ve been locked out of my bank. You won’t be surprised to hear that I’m talking about a virtual lockout – access to the Westpac banking app has been removed for me.

I do the vast majority of my banking through my iPhone. I can’t quite make my wife’s claim of not having walked through the door of a bank branch this century, but I would come pretty close.

Westpac upgraded their online banking platform several months ago, and as part of that upgrade they changed the front screen of their app. I can key in my customer number and password, and the voice on my iPhone speak them back to me. Once this is done, the user is expected to press the Go button. Except while people can see the Go button on the screen it isn’t labelled – so my screenreader does not speak it to me. So I’m locked out.

I could ring up and use telephone banking. I could open my computer – something I do less and les these days – and do my banking online. But the app door is locked for me.

If the Go button did not operate for customers who could see it during the app testing which I am sure took place, the app would never have been released. But clearly no-one checked if the button operated using voice output, or if they did check they took no action to fix it. They took their eye off the access ball.

I finally spoke to Westpac today. The staff member with whom I spoke was friendly and apologetic. She said that they were aware of the problem, and it should be fixed in the next upgrade. So after the Christmas New Year break I can do my banking. Until then …’

The Sydney Olympic Organising Committee lost a court case about these issues fourteen years ago. Coles are currently being taken to court for lack of access for their online shopping site. US grocery sites are currently settling similar claims. The WWW Access Guidelines have been around for years.

For Simply The Best, this is Simply Not Good Enough. Just as we build buildings to be accessible for everyone, we should build virtual environments to be accessible for everyone.

That is why I am lodging my Disability Discrimination Act complaint against Westpac today, and seeking $100 compensation a day until this problem is fixed.

If you lock me out of my bank I’m banging down the door.

Inclusion or Exclusion – it’s your choice.

We Need You

My guide dog and I

arrow is the cutest

walked through the ticket barrier at Wynyard station last week with clear instructions for where I was meeting my friend. “I’ll meet you at the top of the escalator for the Carrington Street entrance of Wynyard,” Gemma had said. “It is on your left after you walk through the ticket barrier.”

Wynyard has a large open concourse between the ticket barriers and the Wynyard ramp, and I was not sure Arrow and I could find the escalators in question without assistance. She would want to go straight up the ramp, as we had done hundreds of times before.

So I asked at the ticket barrier- “could you please tell me where are the escalators for Carrington Street?”

“where do you want to go?” replied the Attendant.

“I want the escalator up to Carrington Street,” I repeated.

“Yes, but where do you want to go,” he said.

“I’m meeting someone at the Carrington Street entrance,” I said, not really understanding why he needed to know.

“Ok,” he replied. “We’ve got a lift that will take you to that level.”

I’m sure this man was trying to help. But he, consciously or unconsciously, had made a decision that anyone else would make for themselves. He had decided that I and my guide dog could not use an escalator – something we do multiple times every day. He had excluded me.

Despite my reference to the escalator twice, he had decided that I needed to use the lift. His actions would result in me not arriving where I wanted to be – the top of the escalator.

This is a very minor example, which did not change my day much. I found someone else who showed me the escalator, and got to where I wanted to be.

But it is an example of something which happens many times every day to people with disabilities. Elizabeth Hastings, Australia’s first Disability Discrimination Commissioner, used to say that we swim in a sea of discrimination. People – consciously or unconsciously – make many choices which exclude us.

People park in accessible parking bays, removing the only parking option for people with mobility disabilities.

People leave obstructions such as shop displays, tables and chairs on footpaths, which people who are blind or have low vision run into, or who have mobility disabilities trip over or can’t get past.

People at meetings don’t use microphones when they are available, and exclude people with hearing impairments.

silly microphone

People stare at our difference – our skin condition, our wheelchair or our crutch. 

People use words without pictures on signs, and exclude some people with learning or intellectual disabilities.

complicated road sign

People use words like Mental, Insane, Retard or Spastic, or describe others as “turning a blind eye to my problem” or being “deaf to my concerns”. Language which hurts us, and sends a message that we are diminished because of our disability. 

Laws and regulations sometimes, but not always, bar these actions. Or they provide a basis for people with disabilities to lodge complaints if we are discriminated against. But those laws do not stop the exclusion and discrimination from occurring. Because laws can change behaviours, but they cannot change attitudes.

We can campaign all we like in the disability sector. We can successfully lobby politicians to enact laws such as the NSW Disability Inclusion Act, or provide support through the National Disability Insurance Scheme. But without you, those benefits are significantly reduced if you make the choice – consciously or unconsciously – to exclude us.

Just like The Beatles sang, we need you.

Graeme Innes is Australia’s former Disability Discrimination Commissioner, a human rights activist and a Don’t Dis My Ability campaign Ambassador.

(This blog was originally published on the “Don’t Dis My Ability” campaign website.)

I like your new stuff

 “I like your old stuff better than your new stuff” were the song lyrics Regurgitator used to lament the new music from one of their favourite old bands. But in life rather than music, give me new stuff every time.

Our seventeen-year-old was recently lamenting – as only teenagers can – the fact that she wasn’t allowed to vote. She was shocked and appalled – as only teenagers can be – when I told her that in my lifetime the voting age in Australia had been 21. It was reduced to 18 after the persuasive argument that we should not send our young men (not people in those days) to fight in our wars before they could vote in our elections. I drew the parallel with Caroline Overington’s recently published “last woman hanged” where the suffragettes argued that if the legal system could execute women then perhaps women should have a place on juries, and be allowed to vote. Another successful argument.

This discussion caused me to think about several conversations I have had in the last week where I liked the new stuff better than the old stuff. They were numerous and disparate.

The first related to driving. A friend was bemoaning speeding fines, and I pointed out that the reasons that Australia’s road-toll and vehicle-related injuries have significantly decreased during the past few years were better safety technology in cars, better roads, and more stringent speeding laws. I prefer the new stuff.

Next was bill paying and banking. I asked someone about the methods of payment for their account, and they replied that the easiest way was for me to post them a cheque. I chuckled, and told them that I had not written a cheque since the last century. They were a little shocked by this claim, but agreed that the various electronic payment methods now available to us – direct debit, credit cards, and Paypal – were much more efficient for all concerned.

My wife and I were conducting a banking transaction on Sunday afternoon when the website stopped the transaction and logged us out without a reason. I bemoaned this inconvenience until Maureen pointed out to me that some years ago I would not have been able to pay this bill on a Sunday, and would have either had to post a letter, or go into a bank branch (something she claims not to have done this century) and pay over the counter. Of course she was right.

The third conversation related to how I read newspapers and books. Until a decade or so ago I didn’t read newspapers much at all. And when I did, it was in a bulky braille version with a very limited selection of articles which were quite out of date, or on the radio (link radio for the print-handicapped) at a time of the broadcasters choosing rather than mine. Now they arrive on my iPhone, and I select the type of articles I want to read from a variety of publications. It’s called an RSS feed.

Books are the same. I grew up reading braille books which arrived on my front verandah in a large cane basket, and more recently in satchels which I had to lug to the post office because they were too big to fit in the post-box. The alternative were audio books, which arrived in packages of cassettes. Now they fly to my iPhone or similar sized reading device through the cloud, and that trip to the post office has morphed so that my fingers do the walking on a keyboard or touch-screen.

Finally, there was the christmas holiday planning – fitting three generations of the extended family into the combination of apartments we had booked at our favourite resort. It was tricky – catering for cots, crying babies, and snoring adults (I plead guilty of that), and the different dates people would arrive and leave. “You’ll need a pen and paper,” I said to Maureen as we sat down to tackle the task. “I think you will have to draw a chart.”

“No,” she said, “I don’t need a charting tool I need an annotating tool. I think I’ll use Skitch in Evernote.” Three minutes, job done!

That’s why I like your new stuff better than your old stuff.

Dealing with disability discrimination: Our destiny is in our hands

Presentation to Access Arts conference

Chatswood, 28 October 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hey Tony, I want to play for Team Australia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So how do we make this dream a reality?

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

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

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

You Start Monday

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

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

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

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

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

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

2edd113

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

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

Let’s bust some of those employer myths.

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

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

guiddog_shoppingmall

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

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

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

MuQ5qBCblack-lab

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

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

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

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

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

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

Adopting The Bunny Approach

BUNNY

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

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

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

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

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

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

I read a book or document;

I browse the web;

I listen to the cricket from overseas;

I operate my home music system;

I read blogs;

I listen to podcasts.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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