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.

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