Dealing with disability discrimination: Our destiny is in our hands

Presentation to Access Arts conference

Chatswood, 28 October 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3 thoughts on “Dealing with disability discrimination: Our destiny is in our hands

  1. Thanks for your advice and I am grateful that have informed me of the action I could take. Your experience and knowledge is very helpful.

  2. Everytime I read your speeches and tips, I get a huge burst of inspiration. Thank you. Thank you for keeping us informed amd sharing tips that could create change.

  3. Excellent ten tips Graeme. I would add one more –

    11. Watch out for the lies that the Respondents tell, because they usually lie. Call them out on the lies. Shame them on their lies.

    An example or two of the lies:

    I said in Conciliation and in my Complaint that the stickers which said “This space must be vacated when required for a wheelchair” were disappearing. They said that they always replace them if they get torn off. I said they were not replacing them. They said they did. About 15 minutes later they sighed and said “OK we will make sure that the stickers are there. It may be some weeks however because we will need to get some more printed”

    I pounced. I said “you said 15 mins ago that you DID AND WERE replacing them. How can you be doing that if you have NONE?”

    The man looked sheepish. Caught out a liar.

    Also:
    Able bods pouring onto the train while the railway staff stuffed around with the ramp. by the time they got the ramp in place they told me the train was full so I couldn’t get on. I argued with them. I told them to get some of the able bods off cos they had gotten on AFTER I wanted to get on. They said in a shocked tone “We CAN”T do that”

    I got really angry and stuck my foot in the doorway of the train so they could not close the doors and leave me there. I continued to argue. Eventually the Guard looked like he was going to call the police to report me for obstructing the passage of a train (which is against the law) so I removed my foot and moved away.

    I complained using the DDA about this incident. In the Conciliation the train people had a written statement from one of the Platform Staff saying that “I pulled her wheelchair away from the train”

    Now this was an UTTER LIE because I use a powered wheelchair and NO ONE can move a powered wheelchair by pulling or pushing it.

    Caught out in another lie. Shamed again.

    So watch for their lies and pull them up on them.

    And I thoroughly agree with claiming financial compensation for the discrimination I/we suffer cos until they suffer in some way (ie financially) they will not stop being discriminatory and ableist.

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