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?

Five Minute Flicks part two

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.

Just The Ticket:

The excitement of the Sydney Olympic Games caught many people-
including Bruce. He wanted to share it with his kids, but the organising committee were not very accommodating.

http://www.humanrights.gov.au/twentystories/video-just-the-ticket .html

Jacobs Story:

Jacob wanted to learn the way he knew best- using his first language. Not an unreasonable request- but his school didn’t think so.

http://www.humanrights.gov.au/twentystories/video-jacobs-story.ht ml It’s My Life:

Geoff just wanted to make a phone call- his way. This is the story of how Geoff does things his way, and how organisations can change, and make that happen.

http://www.humanrights.gov.au/twentystories/video-my-life-my-call .html

Hot Tutti:

Music is the winner here, and the members of Tutti enjoy the spoils.

http://www.humanrights.gov.au/twentystories/video-hot-tutti.html

Access For All:

Maurice is a man who wants to do the ordinary things, like catching the bus, with everyone else. His determination wins through, for him and thousands of other Australians.

http://www.humanrights.gov.au/twentystories/video-access-for-all. 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.

Changing Attitudes Changes Lives

Dave changed his attitude, which changed my life. This is how it happened.

I roared out of the garage of Sydney University, and the College of Law, a shiny new lawyer. My social justice engine, fuelled by its knowledge of unfair dismissals and unconscionable contracts, was ready to drive people from the back roads of disadvantage onto the freeway of life.

Then reality kicked in. I spun my wheels for twelve months while I went to thirty job interviews. I didn’t get any of those jobs, mostly because employers could not comprehend how a blind person could work as a lawyer.

So that shiny new baby lawyer took a job as a Clerical Assistant, the first step in the NSW Public Service. I used to joke that I was the only clerical assistant in the NSW public service with a law degree.

My first job was answering the telephone, and telling people the winning lotto numbers. I was made redundant from that role by an answering machine.

After a short stint at the Land Titles office, I found a job in the Department of Consumer Affairs. Again I was answering the telephone, but at least I was providing advice to consumers. But I was still the only clerk with a law degree.

Then I met Dave. He was the Senior Legal Officer at the Department. We used to chat at the coffee machine, and at drinks in the pub across the road on a Friday night. I kept talking to him about how I wanted to be a lawyer, and how I would do the job if I could get it. He wasn’t absolutely convinced, but agreed to give me a try. Dave’s change of attitude changed my life.

I worked as a Clerk in Legal, and then as a Legal Officer. I contributed to the department’s work on bicycle helmet regulations, and the National Uniform Credit Code. I was there in a time of reform, when Sid Einfeld was the Minister for Consumer Affairs. I was living the dream.

Then the NSW Anti-Discrimination Act was amended to include disability as a ground of discrimination, and the President of the ADB, Carmel Niland, wanted someone with lived experience of disability, and some knowledge of the sector, as a conciliator. I had made it.

I made it because I was determined, and because Dave changed his attitude. He was definitely not convinced that a blind person could operate as a lawyer, but he decided to give it a tryPeople with disabilities in Australia are limited by the soft bigotry of low expectations. We don’t get appointed to jobs that we know we can do, because others think that we can’t. We are not offered the careers that we want, we are told what more limited careers we can have. We don’t do things because people assume – usually incorrectly – that we can’t.

I, and the Board of the Attitude Foundation in Australia, want to change those attitudes, because we know that changing attitudes changes lives. We will use film, television, media and the internet to change those attitudes.

You can work with us, and others like you, to change attitudes.

You can write the story of how attitudes changed, and be a guest blogger.

You can become a supporter, and recruit others to our cause.

You can contribute to Attitude Foundation Australia.

Go to http://www.attitude.org.au now, and let’s start changing lives today.

National Press Club speech

National Press Club address
Graeme Innes AM
Disability Discrimination Commissioner
Canberra, 2 July 2014

I acknowledge the traditional owners of this land. I do so not as a formulaic beginning, but as a sincere recognition of the place which the land holds in the lives and culture of our first Australians. I saw much of the disadvantage Aboriginal people experience during my time as Race Discrimination Commissioner, and fail to understand why – at a time when we are seeking to recognise them in our constitution – we would be changing laws to reduce their protection from the serious challenges of racial vilification.

I also acknowledge the Auslan interpreters around Australia who have signed most of my speeches for the last thirty years or so. I apologise to all of them, particularly Mandy, one of my favourites, for always promising to speak more slowly, but rarely delivering on that promise. She hasn’t carried out her threat to hit me yet, but its often been close.

I was blessed to grow up in a middle-class family, with christian ethics and values. I’m very pleased that my sister and brother are here today, and I know that my mum is watching. I gained from them the benefit of not being treated as different due to my disability, the recognition that disadvantage was real in our wealthy Australian society, and the strong will to challenge that disadvantage. That is why, when I began as Disability Commissioner and Human Rights Commissioner almost nine years ago leading the inquiry which led to the same sex same entitlements report was a no-brainer- why should we treat people differently simply because of who they loved.

At fourteen I knew I wanted to be a lawyer, because I understood that the law could reduce that disadvantage. I achieved that goal at twenty-two, and immediately experienced the reality of disadvantage. In a twelve month period I failed at thirty job interviews, mostly because employers could not understand how a blind person could work as a lawyer. Sadly, not much has changed.

Maureen, from whom I have been privileged to receive the gift of marriage for the past twenty-five years, is also here. She is my best mate, my greatest support, and my most constructive critic. Whilst not always sharing my politics, she has shared my ethics and values, and her encouragement and support have fuelled my will to succeed. She and my children have put up with my annoying ways, dad jokes, and frequent disappearances to pursue my career.

My children, Leon and Rachel, have constantly grounded me, and their view of me as a sometimes irritating and embarrassing dad has shown me their love, and made me a better Commissioner. These are the foundations on which my life and work journeys have been built.

I have never accepted the concept of “lifters” and “Leaners”, a Ming dynasty phrase which has lately gained currency. It’s such a facile concept. And we all move from one role to the other, dozens of times a day.

When I walk down the street with Maureen- and which ever street that is I couldn’t be happier- I’m a leaner. I’m gaining guidance from her by holding her arm. But when that guidance stops, and at the end of a long hard day for her, I put my arm around her in a supportive cuddle, I become a lifter.

I prefer a more positive, and less judgemental society, where everyone’s contribution is accepted and valued. I want entrances where everyone- not just people who use steps- can come in. I communicate with Auslan, so everyone – not just hearing people – can understand. This makes a more inclusive, and more sustainable society.

But many in society force people with disabilities to live within that leaner-lifter rubric. And we would be lifters, if there were not barriers in society which cause us to be leaners. I have challenged that rubric all my life, and will do so in this address.

Others demonise people with disabilities – or Disability Support Pension recipients – as slackers, shirkers and rorters. I also reject that, and will return to it later, with a solution in the form of a “jobs plan”..

So join me now on the past nine years of my life journey- yes, I’ve been a Commissioner for most of this century, and if you count the deputy role as well for all of it. Since Phillip Ruddock’s phone call to appoint me to this role, while I was buying the family fish and chips in December 2005. I vividly remember throwing my eight year old daughter high in the air, as I celebrated getting the best job I have ever had. Luckily, I caught her on the way down.

As I usually do, we’ll travel the path of assessing policy change through the stories of Australians with disabilities- Elliot, Judy and Amy. And sprinkled throughout will be references to such human rights icons as Cyndi Lauper, Dr Seus, and the Captain Matchbox Whoopee Band. I bet that’s the first time they’ve cracked a mention from the Press Club stage.

First Elliot. Elliot is a thirty-something tax accountant. He has worked for the same firm for eight years. He uses a wheelchair.

Let’s look at two days in Elliot’s life- in 2005 as he starts this job, and in 2014.

In 2005 Elliot lived with his parents, in a wheelchair friendly home in the suburbs. He wanted to live independently, but it was impossible to find a suitably accessible apartment, let alone one in his price range, near transport. He doesn’t drive, and buses in his area were among the more than 75 % not yet accessible.

Each morning, Elliot travelled in his wheelchair to the station. Stairs made the ticket office inaccessible, but he bought an annual pass, and entered the platform via an accessible gate. That works going in, but not coming home- coming home steps barred him from being on the right side of the tracks.

Lack of kerb cuts frequently prevented him from accessing a footpath or shop, and extended his journey to the office from 300m to 500m. He has to settle for bad coffee, as the good stuff, though close enough to smell, is up a step.

His employer made minor office adjustments, widening a corridor, and installing a height adjustable desk. A small ramp was needed for Elliot to wheel into the building, but the owner said it would look out of character. There were no mandatory requirements to provide access to buildings, unless a complaint was lodged under the Disability Discrimination Act. Elliot lodged his complaint, and a successful conciliation by the Human Rights Commission ensured access through the front door.

On this day in 2005, Elliot left the office early to fly to Melbourne to attend an evening seminar. Usually Elliot booked flights early, since most airlines only allow two wheelchair users per flight. But dates were changed the week before, so Elliot caught an earlier flight. This meant hanging around Melbourne for two hours before the seminar. Or maybe not, depending on whether his pre-booked accessible taxi turned up -
Like most places in Australia, demand for accessible taxis far outstripped supply.

The picture is clear. In 2005 Elliot, a well-educated, successful accountant, struggled to overcome basic accommodation and access barriers. Being a lifter was not impossible, but it was hard.

How about employment? Did Elliot face the challenges I did? Initially, he found it hard. Work force participation by people with disabilities in 1998, the year after his graduation, was 53,2 %, compared to 80,1 % for people without disabilities, ranking Australia third last among OECD countries. Eventually, he accepted a job with a firm run by a friend of his father’s, although his pay was 17 % less than the other five accountants, due to his inexperience, or so he was told…

Five years later, he landed his current position. We stay longer in jobs, take less sick leave, and claim less workers comp, but still we are under-employed.

In the mid 1990s 5,8 % of the Commonwealth government workforce were people with disabilities, but by 2005 that had fallen to 3,8 %.

Let’s fast forward to the present. The debate over the National Disability Insurance Scheme has moved disability more into mainstream conversation. Elliot now lives independently, in livable design housing, thanks to the Livable Housing Australia initiative. There isn’t much of it yet, but more than there was. And greater government and industry support needs to occur fast, if the aims of the NDIS are to be achieved. A voluntary model was agreed as a Rudd government initiative, but most of industry and government are still on their way to the party. As the current Deputy Chair, I plan to ensure that they arrive, and figuratively BYO.

Community support is starting to become available through the NDIS. I congratulate the Abbot government on continuation of the rollout in full and on time. It is providing people with disability with choice and control, and the capacity to move from leaners to lifters. And it must continue to roll out, if community participation is to become a reality. There have been some glitches around the edges, but the surveys of people with disabilities now on the scheme overwhelmingly indicate high satisfaction.

Building and footpath access have certainly improved. The Access To Premises Standards commenced in 2011, revised to meet the objectives of the DDA. Any new building, or existing building undergoing significant renovation, must comply. So Elliot now gets that great skinny latte, and has a shorter journey to work.

When he visits his parents, both sides of the railway station are now accessible. The Accessible Transport Standards, passed in 2002, are arguably the largest infrastructure change, and the biggest spend, in Australia’s history. And, as Cyndi Lauper says “Money changes everything.”

Accessible buses are well ahead of the timetables in the Transport Standards, although expensive rail and tram infrastructure is not keeping up across the country.

After dragging a recalcitrant Sydney Trains to the Federal Court, I now get told where I am on the train, and despite our worst fears, Maureen and I did not have to sell our house to pay the $800’000 Sydney Trains spent to defend its discriminatory stand. Why they didn’t just spend it on fixing the announcements remains one of life’s mysteries.

But the transport picture is not all rosy. Airlines, apart from Qantas, still practise wheelchair apartheid, with the two wheelchair policy. Whilst he may have starred on harmonica in such well-known classics as “My canary has circles under his eyes” by the Captain Match-box Whoopee Band, yes you remember them! Jim Conway learned recently that if you can’t move yourself from your wheelchair to your seat you can’t fly with Jetstar. Market forces have failed to deliver for people with disabilities in the budget airline industry. And despite loud calls for equal treatment by the disability sector and myself, government have failed to act. Regulation, similar to that in Europe, Canada and the US, is necessary to give us access to the skies.

In most States, apart from Queensland, you might wait 2-3 hours for a wheelchair accessible taxi, and people are regularly rejected from taxi travel because they use a guide or assistance dog, or have cream on their face due to their skin condition. We want to be lifters, but we have to lean, and wait til the taxi turns up, or the airline lets us onboard.

And whilst Elliot has a job, most of us do not, and 45% of us live in poverty, last among OECD countries. Government, far from leading the way in an area desperate for positive change, has only 2,9 % of its workforce as people with disabilities, when we make up 15% of the working age population. And while the recent budget makes welfare harder to get for us, re-assessing some disability support pensioners, there is no plan to get us off welfare and into work. Changes proposed just last weekend will place people with episodic disabilities on a different – probably lower – allowance, but there is still no effective jobs plan. Again, we are blocked from being lifters.

We need a jobs plan. We need to learn from the Westpacs, ANZ, Telstra and others, all the members of Australian Network on Disability – the employer representative body.

The Department of Health and Ageing – bucking the trend – are at 10 %, so it can be done. Westpac are at 13 %, so it can be done. We need to listen to employers, and meet there needs. We need to make it safer to venture off the DSP and into work. We need to offer every politician an extra staff member if they employ a person with a disability- as is done in the US. We need to give willing employers some KPI’s and some funding, and twelve months to see if they can meet their planned targets.

Because, apart from the benefits these actions would bring to people with disabilities, if only one-third of that disability-jobs gap moved off welfare and into work, the NDIS would run at a profit within a decade.

Many private employers are willing to commit to these processes. I have worked with many of them during my time in this role. But they need to learn from their peers, and be resourced to get on with it, not be surrounded by government red tape. Limiting rules and bureaucratic disincentives are, to paraphrase Missy Higgins, a danger government are addicted to. The various services contracted to find jobs for people with disabilities are not giving us value for money.

Let’s go back to 2005 with Judy – a fifty-something woman of no-fixed address. She spends some nights with her partner, but when the abuse and violence get too much she sleeps rough, or couch surfs. Judy has an intellectual disability. Like many with intellectual disabilities, she also experiences depression.

Judy is one of the 45 % of Australians with disabilities living in poverty. She would like a job, but like 19 % of people with intellectual disabilities, she cannot secure one.

Violence against women like Judy is hard to quantify in 2005. The ABS doesn’t disaggregate statistics on violence, women and disability. But we know that 90 % of women with intellectual disability experience sexual assault at some time during their lives. We know that if Judy reports the violence, the justice system will deal with it inadequately. And we know that a higher than average proportion of the population with intellectual or psycho-social disability have prison as their accommodation option.

Judy loves pretty greeting cards, and helps herself to her favourite ones from local shops. She is frequently in trouble with the police, and charged with summary offences. The Magistrate is told of her intellectual disability, yet it is rarely given consideration. She has never been offered a support person in court.

Judy doesn’t comprehend the court process, and acquiesces just to get it over with. She is encouraged to plead guilty when she is overtly unfit to do so.

Judy’s lack of access to appropriate court support programmes are a barrier to justice. They are a social cost to her, and an economic cost to the community.

So how is Judy faring in 2014? Sadly, no better. We have a long way to go to address levels of violence, particularly against women with disabilities, and to ensure all people with disabilities are treated equally before the law. And this applies particularly to Aboriginal people, and people who are culturally or linguistically diverse. That’s why the Commission’s report, which I launched this year, called upon every jurisdiction to implement a disability justice strategy.

My last story is of Amy, a diligent year 11 student in 2014, just like my daughter. She loves English and history, and stands up for what she believes in. As a member of the Deaf community, Amy uses Auslan for her learning.

Amy takes Auslan for granted, and finds it odd that another young student, Jacob Clarke, had to take his ACT school to Court in 2004 to be provided with an Auslan interpreter. So Amy appreciates that many before her have fought for their, and her, rights.

One of them was Sekou Kanneh. A year or two younger than Amy, in 2012 he took his complaint to the Commission for conciliation to level his playing field, or his running track. He’s a champion sprinter, who broke the Queensland record for his age group last year. He, too, is deaf, and just wanted a flashing light when the others got the starting gun. His actions won him, and others like Amy, an equal chance.

Amy enjoys movies with her friends. Thanks to the discrimination complaint of John Byrne, and negotiations with industry which I led, the latest movies are captioned on 230 cinema screens around Australia, so Amy sees the dialogue her friends hear.

This is also true for captions on television, which have increased significantly in the last eight years due to positive use of the Commission’s exemption process. But although I, as a blind person, get audio description in the same cinemas, I am still waiting for it to be more than a short trial on the ABC.

Amy, of course, is a digital native. Her Smartphone, like mine, is never far away. I’m probably live-tweeting this speech right now. You think I’m joking, don’t you?

Apps remove significant barriers for Amy and I. In 2012 Media Access Australia, a not-for-profit social enterprise, launched Access IQ, advocating for media that is accessible for people with disabilities. The site helps those launching video content to include captioning, or to make the content accessible to blind users. SOCOG may have prevented Bruce Maguire from enjoying the full olympic experience in 2000, but the 2012 London games were accessible for all.

So let’s consider the broader picture of significant reforms to the disability rights framework. Transport Standards passed in 2002, while I was Deputy Commissioner.
Access to Premises Standards finally passed in 2009, after significant delays in the Howard era.
Australia ratified the Disability Convention in 2008, which COAG then used as a foundation to a National Disability Strategy in 2011. For a time, our own Professor Ron McCallum AO – senior Australian of the year and a definite disability lifter, chaired the convention expert committee, although sadly we did not put forward another nomination when his term ended recently.
Just last week, Australia signed the Marrakesh copyright treaty, which will help to end the world-wide book famine experienced by people with print disabilities.
The NDIS commenced a year ago yesterday- and we are now paying 0,5 % more Medicare levy to help resource it- the most popular tax in Australia’s history, with support by 78 % of us, but not by Bernie Brooks and his friends. It will represent a seismic shift in choice and control for 500’000 Australians with disabilities.

Thanks to those changes, and a number of DDA cases brought by disability legends, some recorded in the Commission’s Twenty Years, Twenty Stories five-minute film series, of which I am very proud, it’s a different landscape.

So what might the future look like for Elliot, Judy, Amy, Graeme, and many others like us.

Disability is a normal part of the diversity of the human experience, and the life of our community. But it’s not viewed that way. Fuelled by sensationalist journalism such as that of the Daily Telegraph, running front pages comparing slackers AKA Disability Support Pensioners to slouch hats AKA Ausie soldiers, calling us shirkers and rorters, we are demonised and diminished. The pictures of so-called slackers were actually south american backpackers on holiday, and of the 45’000 “slouch hats” who returned to Australia, 20 % experience mental illness. The Tele gets it wrong on so many counts, and trashes the disability brand, but people with disabilities are the ones who pay the price and wear the damage. The Tele pushes us back into the leaners corner, despite our best efforts to leave it.

We see retail chains who think its ok to sell t-shirts with “retarde” across the front, when “nigger” or “slut” would not pass muster. Such language diminishes us, and we are viewed as either victims or heroes, when we should be viewed as agents of our own destiny. The soft bigotry of low expectations limits what we can achieve. Stella Young, who until two days ago was the editor of the ABC’s disability portal Rampup – closed down due to lack of funding by the Abbot government and the ABC – gets it right when she talks of “inspiration porn”. Watch her on TED Talks – now there’s another lifter.

That’s why one of my post-Commission activities will be to chair the board of the newly-established Attitude Foundation, following the New Zealand example of using television, film and the internet to change attitudes about people with disabilities. We need to find $200’000 by September to cover the cost of the first programming on the ABC.

Another indirect consequence of the NDIS, as well as providing us with much more choice and control, is the uniting and strengthening of the disability sector. Once divided and somewhat ineffective, the NDIS campaign has shown the benefits of a united stand, and now “the force is strong in that one”. And it will need to be, to combat the challenges ahead- to contest the “lifters and leaners” paradigm, to continue to challenge the negative and limiting view of disability, to ensure that the NDIS delivers real change, to continue to use the DDA to challenge systemic discrimination, and to lobby for a jobs plan for people with disabilities. The sector can do this, but it will need to ensure that more young leaders are nurtured, that technology, the internet and social media are harnessed, and that the faster political and media cycle are used to our advantage.

Sector participation will also be critical because the role played by the Human Rights Commission is diminished. This is not because I am leaving, but because the resourcing for the Commission has been on a downward slide, in real terms, since the mid 90s, and the capacity to produce continued positive results through the passion and commitment of Commissioners and staff is not sustainable. The Commission will do its best with the hand it is dealt, but that is becoming a weaker and weaker hand. When I began as Deputy Commissioner in 1999, there were four policy staff dedicated to disability issues, and a significant programme budget. The passion and commitment in that team, and what we achieved together, was outstanding. The down-grading of the Disability Discrimination Commissioner’s position, about which my views are well known, will mean that there is only one person in the policy section with significant disability expertise, and she is moving to another role. This reduction in the disability area reflects Commission-wide experience. Another voice to advocate for our move from leaners to lifters has been diminished.

I love this job. It’s the best job I’ve ever had. And, to paraphrase Roy and HG, too much work as a Commissioner is never enough. I still have the passion and the stomach to advocate for the rights of people with disabilities. And I will continue to do so in other roles. What I don’t have is the stomach to advocate for the rights of bigots. So perhaps its time for me to move on.

The position of people with disabilities has improved significantly in Australia in the last few decades. There is still, to quote then NSW Premier Maurice Iema “more to do, but heading in the right direction.”

On the up-side, there has been significant progress in making transport and buildings more accessible. On the down-side, as a community we are failing at finding jobs and delivering equal justice for people with disabilities. As I leave this role, I urge government, the community and the disability sector to commit to more jobs, more equal justice, and a community attitude which celebrates and enhances the contribution of people with disabilities.

Quality of life for Australians with disabilities will continue to improve, and one day we will have another full-time Disability Discrimination Commissioner with lived experience of disability. In the mean time, I’ll follow the dictum of that great human rights advocate Dr Seus, “don’t cry that it’s over. Smile that it happened.”

Thanks for the chance to speak with you today.

A Matter of Public Importance in Parliament

On Wednesday, 18 June Senator Lisa Singh (Tasmania) spoke in the Senate on a Matter Of Public Importance. This is what Senator Singh said:

“He (Graeme Innes) works tirelessly to advocate on behalf of people living with a disability, which accounts for 39 per cent of the Australian Human Rights Commission’s caseloads – the largest component of the commission’s work, which continues to increase each year – yet soon his role will no longer exist.

“Graeme Innes has been the Disability Discrimination Commissioner since 2005 and, as well as undertaking roles as the Human Rights Commissioner and Race Discrimination Commissioner during his tenure, he has been the full-time Disability Discrimination Commissioner since 2011. In that time, he has been an advocate for individuals and communities affected by discrimination, engaged Australians in a national conversation about human rights and worked with the public service and the private sector to break down barriers to people with a disability.

“At budget estimates, he told me that he spends at least 60 hours on average each week working in his field – no wonder, when you consider that complaints on the grounds of disability account for about double the next highest category; at about 39 per cent of the work of the Australian Human Rights Commission. Mr Innes believes that complaint levels that high indicate the level of issues and concerns the disability sector faces. Along with helping manage this enormous caseload, Mr Innes has also been an integral part of shaping the new National Disability Insurance Scheme.

“The position of Disability Discrimination Commissioner was established in 1993. For more than 20 years, commissioners have been at the forefront of securing access to work, education, premises and services for people with disabilities. But the fight for the rights of Australians with disability is set to become a group effort after changes announced in the Abbott government’s first budget. It was revealed that each commissioner has agreed to take a share of the disability workload as it relates to their existing portfolios-as it is the only choice they have under this budget constraint. So, in addition to their current full-time workloads, each commissioner will take a slice of the 39 per cent of the Australian Human Rights Commission’s caseload.

“It remains to be seen how they will juggle already full-time roles alongside disability discrimination responsibilities-an additional 60 hours a week, the current workload of the Disability Discrimination Commissioner-without compromising the current quality of their own work. The promised appointment of a spokesperson with a lived experience of disability at a downgraded level from commissioner does little to compensate for the loss of Mr Innes in that role. The commission has been dealt a devastating hand and is making a genuine effort to deal with this blow; however, integrating this role should never have been an option.

“As the NDIS rolls out across the country, it is more important than ever for there to be a federal advocate devoted to those the scheme is assisting. Equally, people forced over and over again to go through reassessment for their disability support pension as a result of the budget deserve to have a commissioner looking out for their rights.

The last time the Abbott government altered the arrangements for commissioners, the Attorney-General, Senator Brandis, gave the new commissioner a courtesy call ahead of the announcement. Mr Innes has been in contact with Senator Brandis’s office and the department since the start of this year trying to discover the fate of his position, but the very first Mr Innes heard that his contract was not going to be renewed was actually on budget night. Buried in the budget papers is a line that callously notes that the dismissal of the Disability Discrimination Commissioner ‘will achieve efficiencies within the Human Rights Commission’. Mr Innes is entitled to be a little angry, I would think, but he is surprisingly philosophical about things. As he noted at estimates:

‘The first that I knew about this issue was when I read it in the budget papers. That was a bit surprising to me because it has been the normal practice in my experience at the commission for there to be discussions when these things are going to occur. I had been contacting the minister’s office and the department for the past three or four months, for several reasons. Firstly, obviously I was interested to know what plans I should be making or whether there was any consideration of the possibility of reappointment. Secondly, and more significantly, the previous appointment process, in my view, put the commission at significant risk of losing its A status under the Paris principles, because there was not an open appointment process and I was keen to encourage the department and the minister to appoint a disability discrimination commissioner through an applications process – which has been the practice-and through an open process because I was concerned, from the commission’s point of view, about the risk to our A status. So I was not provided with the opportunity to have those discussions and, as I say, the first I knew that the position was to be downgraded was when I read it on the night of the budget in the budget papers.’

“That is the way that Mr Innes found out about the downgrading of his position – his position as a full-time Disability Discrimination Commissioner. That is no way to treat this Disability Discrimination Commissioner, who has been in his role since 2005. It is absolutely disgraceful.

“We know, of course, that the terms for individual commissioners are set in statute and Mr Innes understands that it is the prerogative of the Attorney-General to appoint commissioners by whatever process, or lack thereof, that he chooses; even if it contradicts the Paris Principles of an open application process. With characteristic vigour, however, Mr Innes has prosecuted the case for a full-time Disability Discrimination Commissioner and has spoken out against the downgrading of his role. As Mr Innes described in Senate budget estimates, people living with a disability in Australia continue to be disadvantaged. He said:

‘I have done major work in the last 12 months on access to justice-achieving, if you like, freedom of speech and equal access to the justice system for people with disabilities, where we are over-represented both as victims and as offenders and alleged offenders. We get half the educational outcomes: 25 per cent of people with disabilities achieve year 12 and 50 per cent of the general population achieve year 12. Also, 45 per cent of us live in poverty.’

“Forty-five per cent of people with disabilities continue to live in poverty, yet the Attorney-General, Senator Brandis, is taking away the person that can advocate for and represent them.

“Ahead of what the Abbott government had always foreshadowed was going a tight budget, Senator Brandis made the curious decision to add a commissioner while at the same time taking away more than $1.5 million of funding from the Australian Human Rights Commission’s budget. Clearly the Abbott government’s decision to appoint Tim Wilson as the freedom commissioner has come at the expense of Australia’s first full-time Disability Discrimination Commissioner. Clearly the Abbott government has prioritised freedom commissioner over having a Disability Discrimination Commissioner.

“The issues faced by the disability sector are complex and multifaceted. Disability transforms the perspective of those it affects-a point that Mr Innes made to the estimates committee when arguing for a full-time commissioner. But we know that when a former fellow of the Institute of Public Affairs, and a personal friend of Senator Brandis, Tim Wilson, became the freedom commissioner in February, it hit the Australian Human Rights Commission’s budget by around $700,000. Something had to give, obviously. To cope with the new budgetary constraints, the commission will be forced to relegate the disability discrimination role to a part-time role or a shared responsibility. I think it is absolutely shameful that there will no longer be a full-time Disability Discrimination Commissioner when I have outlined the weight of the caseload that the commission faces and the issues facing the disability sector in Australia. So many Australians living with a disability will no longer have a full-time advocate.

“During budget estimates Mr Innes described some of the issues that he dealt with as Disability Discrimination Commissioner. I quote:

‘I have dealt with issues of concern in Brisbane, where audible traffic signals are turned off at night; so there is effectively a curfew for people who are blind or who have low vision. I have dealt with a range of issues arising from the budget, both positive and negative. The roll out of the National Disability Insurance Scheme: I have been very involved in its development and roll out and the benefits that that will bring for people with disabilities; the impact of the budget in a range of other areas; the disproportionate impact of any medical co-payments on people with disability-related illnesses; the disadvantage for people on the disability support pension who are being assessed again when they have already been assessed for that; for people under 35; the problems with regard to employment for people with disabilities, where we work at a rate 30 per cent lower than the general population.

‘This is a significantly disadvantaged sector and I am dealing with issues that relate to that every day that I am in this role… I do not suggest for a minute that my colleagues and staff at the commission will not continue to work very effectively in this role, but that will be a significant disadvantage to them and to the disability sector in Australia.’

“That makes the impact of Senator Brandis’ decision, the Abbott government’s decision-reducing the commission’s budget and no longer having a full-time Disability Discrimination Commissioner-fairly clear.

“I particularly want to draw on impact that Graeme Innes has had in his role. He has had such an impact in our Australian community in dealing with issues to do with disability from his own personal experience. I think he summed it up very well during budget estimates when he said:

‘I think there is little doubt in my mind, having been a commissioner for some eight years, and in the mind of the disability sector, that the disability sector is significantly advantaged by having a full-time disability discrimination commissioner with lived experience of disability and with knowledge of the disability sector. My lived experience of disability goes through all of my life. My experience in the disability sector started in my 20s, so I bring to the role 30 or 40 years’ experience. Whilst all of my colleagues at the commission are skilled and I have a lot of regard for them, none of them would be able to bring that experience to the role and, in my view, that would be a significant downgrading of the position.’

“I stand in support of the Leader of the Opposition, Bill Shorten, who has asked Prime Minister Tony Abbott to reinstate the Disability Discrimination Commissioner as a full-time role. What Australians with a disability have had for all of these years is someone who understands too well the challenges they face, who has empathy for their difficulties. What they need for the future is a full-time commissioner who can imagine an Australia without barriers for people who are born with or acquire a disability.

“Mr Graeme Innes was that man and will leave a lasting legacy. He has been an extremely powerful advocate for people with disability, working hard every day to ensure that people with disability have access to the same rights and opportunities as all Australians. That is the kind of society that we should want for all people, and that is the role that Mr Innes has been able to provide. Labor thanks Graeme Innes for the remarkable work that he has done at the Australian Human Rights Commission over the last decade on disability rights. He is leaving a lasting legacy. It is just such a shame that Senator Brandis is so short-sighted and is doing this terrible injustice for people in the disability community.” (end of quote).

 

Passing on the Baton

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, concerned citizens can change the world. Indeed it is the only thing that ever has.” (Margaret Mead. Used with permission)

Before leaving my position as Disability Discrimination Commissioner, I wanted to make an ongoing contribution to leadership in the disability sector in Australia. Planning for succession is one of the most important things we all have to do if we want a sector or movement to be sustainable.

I wanted to enhance the skills of young people with disabilities so that they would be better leaders in the future.

The Commonwealth Government has, for a number of years, provided a fund which the Australian Human Rights Commission administers, to enhance skills and knowledge in the disability sector by sending organisational representatives to international conferences relating to the Disability Convention or other similar activities. Normally we have received applications (usually from organisations in the sector sending their senior representatives) and determined which ones to support. Last year we significantly funded the NGO representatives at Australia’s appearance before the Disability Convention Expert Committee to assess Australia’s progress on compliance with the Convention.

This year, we decided to support a delegation of young Australians with disabilities to attend the Conference of States Parties, which is the annual UN meeting at which progress to implement the Convention is discussed. We contributed close to $50’000 from the Commonwealth fund to send six delegates with disabilities under the age of thirty. We also sent two mentors-
Rosemary Kayess and Therese Sands- who last year led the Australian NGO delegation during Australia’s appearance before the expert committee.

Further funds were contributed by the Melbourne Lord Mayor’s Charitable Foundation and the Ian Potter Foundation, as well as other disability organisations including My Place (WA) Pty Ltd, National Council on Intellectual Disability and Women With Disabilities Australia.

We conducted a preparatory workshop for the delegates at which we had senior leaders from the disability field participate. These included Professor Ron McCallum, the outgoing chair of the committee for the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, Maryanne Diamond, the Immediate Past President of the World Blind Union and the upcoming Chair of the International Disability Alliance, Colin Allen, President, World Federation of the Deaf and Samantha French Advocacy Projects Manager, People with Disability Australia.

Here are the delegates at that workshop, telling their stories, and what they hoped to learn.

The results were amazing. Here are their daily reports and other social media contributions.

This delegation was a glowing confirmation of the strength of our future leadership, and the importance of enhancing its development. I’m very pleased that the Commission did this.

Equal Before The Law

Australians who need communications supports, or who have complex and multiple support needs, are not having their rights protected, and are not being treated equally, in the criminal justice system. This must change.

Hence the work of the Australian Human Rights Commission in our report “Equal before the law: towards disability justice strategies”, launched in February. http://www.humanrights.gov.au/publications/equal-law Negative assumptions and attitudes, coupled with a lack of support services often means that people with disabilities are viewed as not credible, not capable of giving evidence or unable to participate in legal proceedings. As a result many are left without effective access to justice.
Since the release of the Commission’s report a number of state and territory governments have acknowledged our findings, and are considering how they might develop Disability Justice Strategies.

Last year we identified five key barriers for people with disabilities. We heard from victims, witnesses, those accused of crime and offenders.

The first barrier concerns programmes, assistance and other community supports addressing violence, prevention and disadvantage, which may not be readily accessible to those with disabilities. One submission told of Sarah, an Aboriginal woman with cognitive impairment, psychosocial disability and health conditions. Sarah began a long pattern of contact with criminal justice and human service agencies at age 12. What became obvious was that there is a lack of appropriate support outside the criminal justice system, and responsibility for addressing her needs was often left to the police and the juvenile justice system. At 18, she was provided with 24 hour supported accommodation through a Community Justice Program. If Sarah had had access to community assistance from an earlier age, she would not have had such continual interaction with the criminal justice system?

Police services are often the fall back position in times of crisis, rather than appropriate community and health services. One submission said ‘The police have become the emergency mental health response … for many individuals and families, and they are ill-equipped for the job.”

The second barrier dealt with the supports people may need, to participate in the criminal justice process. Maria, for example, has cerebral palsy and little speech. She wanted to tell police about a sexual assault, but there was no communication support worker to help with the statement. The police relied on Maria’s parents. Maria was uncomfortable giving personal details in front of her parents, so her evidence was incomplete. This caused problems for the investigation, and during the court process.

Barrier three concerns negative attitudes and assumptions about people with disabilities, which often result in us being viewed as unreliable, not credible or not capable of giving evidence, making legal decisions or participating in legal proceedings. we were told that “When I attended the police station, the police officer thought I was dumb at first, and he didn’t take it seriously.”

We were also told ‘a victim won’t even get their day in court, as the DPP won’t run the case.’

The fourth barrier deals with accommodation and programmes for people deemed ‘unfit to plead’. These people are often detained indefinitely in prisons or psychiatric facilities, without being convicted of a crime. The well-known case of West Australian Marlon Noble demonstrates this. It is one of the Commission’s Twenty Years: Twenty Stories films http://www.humanrights.gov.au/twentystories/video-presumed-innocent.html The last barrier concerns prisoners. Supports and adjustments may not be provided to prisoners with disabilities so that they can meet basic human needs, and participate in prison life. This can result in delays and difficulties exiting prison, or exiting with successful chances of re-integration.

Henry has an acquired brain injury. He wanted to apply for support from Legal Aid to appeal his conviction, and needed help to fill in forms. He found the language complex and difficult to understand. He did not receive assistance in prison to fill out the forms, and filled them out incorrectly. This delayed his application. By the time he filled out the forms correctly, his application was outside the time limit.

And the statistics back up what we heard. 90 per cent of Australian women with intellectual disability have been subjected to sexual abuse at some time during their lives. There are currently at least 20-30 people in our prison systems who have not been convicted of an offense, but have been found unfit to plead, and gaols are the only accommodation option. From 1989 to 2011 105 people were shot by police, and 42 % had a mental illness.

Women, children, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and people from a culturally and linguistically diverse background with disabilities, are even less likely to have equitable access to justice.

So what can be done? The justice system in Australia is large and complex. The Commission report recommended that each State or Territory develop its own Disability Justice Strategy, to deal with all of the issues raised in our report.

The Commission also put together a database of programmes and services which provide a more positive justice pathway for people with disabilities. http://www.humanrights.gov.au/our-work/disability-rights/current-project s/programs-and-services-assist-people-disability-criminal

Much more needs to be done so that Australians with disabilities are truly equal before the law.

These comments were made by me at an Australian Human Rights Commission RightsTalk entitled Balancing The Scales Of Justice on 16 June. The whole RightsTalk can be viewed at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lXvydqXU08I Captioning is in progress at time of posting.