Category: Human rights

Hey Tony, I want to play for Team Australia

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

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

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

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 And in reality the statistics probably paint a more positive picture, because many of us have withdrawn from the labour market.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

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

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

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

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

So how do we make this dream a reality?

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

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

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

You Start Monday

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

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

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

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

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

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

2edd113

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

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

Let’s bust some of those employer myths.

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

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

guiddog_shoppingmall

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

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

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

MuQ5qBCblack-lab

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

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

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

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

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

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

Adopting The Bunny Approach

BUNNY

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

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

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

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

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

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

I read a book or document;

I browse the web;

I listen to the cricket from overseas;

I operate my home music system;

I read blogs;

I listen to podcasts.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Five Minute Flicks: part four

You’ve gotta love a movie with an excellent story line which you can watch in five minutes! I have twenty of them for you. Here are the last five.

One of the activities I led whilst Australia’s Disability Discrimination Commissioner was the production of Twenty Years: Twenty Stories, to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Disability Discrimination Act.

Watch these stories with me, because they show how the actions of the main characters changed their lives, and the lives of thousands of other Australians with disabilities. I’ll give you my review, then you can watch the movie.

Rockwheelers:
A man’s struggle to take control of his life, and live it positively, is assisted by being accepted as a member of a sporting team. http://www.humanrights.gov.au/twentystories/video-rockwheelers.html

A school in the bush:
Scarlet just wanted to go to school. But she needed all of her seven-year-old tenacity, and the support of her parents, to challenge the discrimination she experienced. http://www.humanrights.gov.au/twentystories/video-school-in-the-bush.html

Building better lives:
Far too many Australians with high support needs are stuck in nursing homes. These stories show how better lives can be built. http://www.humanrights.gov.au/twentystories/video-building-betterlives.html

Presumed guilty:
Marlon Noble is one of a small number of Australians who are in prison but never convicted of a crime. This law must change. http://www.humanrights.gov.au/twentystories/video-presumed-guilty.html

Let me win:
Sekou loves to race, and all he asks for is an equal chance of winning.

http://www.humanrights.gov.au/twentystories/transcript-let-me-win.html

These are the final movies in the series.

Which ones are your favourites? Comments are very welcome.

Ahoy me hearties

One-eyed Jack the pirate chief
Was a terrible fearsome ocean thief.
He wore a peg upon one leg,
He wore a hook, and a dirty look.
One-eyed Jack the pirate chief
Was a terrible ocean thief.

What thoughts does this anonymous poem evoke for you?

Child-hood memories?
Scary pirate stories?
The sea and sailing?
Olden days criminal activity?

For me it says “Just another person with disabilities at the top of his profession.”

He’s the chief, he’s in charge.
He is fearsome, which is definitely part of the skill set when you are a pirate. He’s obviously stolen a lot of “pieces of eight” so he’s successful.
And his marketing plan has worked so well that he is notorious, and someone has written a poem about him.

On this “talk like a pirate day” we should celebrate these ancient villains whom we have turned into folk-heroes. These Ned Kelly’s of the sea.

Pirates were very inclusive of people with disabilities. Missing eyes, hands or legs were clearly not a factor when the recruitment agency was culling pirate candidates. Being deaf was actually a situational advantage with all that cannon firing. There treasure maps included such things as footprint markings, rhyming treasure clues and X marks the spot for people who could not read as a result of cognitive disability.

The business system was clear and direct, which benefited everyone- but particularly people with intellectual disability- find ship, stop ship, steal treasure, sink or take over ship.

Prisoners were given a clear two-option choice for career advancement- walk the talk or walk the plank.

So, is the pirate model one which we should all follow in our progress towards diversity?

We could certainly do a lot worse.
Disability was not a bar to promotion- take one-eyed Jack, captain Hook and peg-leg Pete as three examples.
Pirate leaders were genuinely elected- so others in the work-place clearly looked at the person and their skill set first, and the disability second.
Stolen treasure was equally shared, including shares for those injured in the course of their employment activities. And companion animals- particularly parrots- were acceptable in the work-place.

So ahoy there me hearties. Today, let’s not just talk like pirates. Let’s celebrate the contribution which people with disabilities can make by saying those really powerful words to someone with a disability- “You start on Monday.” And I’m sure that the person won’t mind very much if you say it in a pirate accent.

Invisibility out of my control

I have an invisibility cloak. You think I’m joking, but I guarantee it. I will show you how it works any time you like. The only problem is, I can’t control when it operates – someone else always does that.

Let me tell you about it.

My brother Brian and I had just bought our first car. It was a blue Chrysler Galant. It was five years old, with a few miles (yes they were miles when that car was made) on the clock, but we thought it was the best thing since sliced bread. We never missed an opportunity to take it for a spin.

I had been asked by a social club in Wollongong to give a presentation to their afternoon meeting on people with disabilities. So Brian and I decided to drive. For him, four or so hours behind the wheel of our little beauty was worth the tedium of listening to one of my presentations.

I spoke about the importance of including people with disabilities in all aspects of society, and how disability was just one part of our lives. I encouraged people to focus on the person, not the disability, and to ask if assistance was needed rather than making assumptions (often negative) about what we couldn’t do, and acting on those assumptions. During question time I reinforced these points, and commented how critical it was to talk to the person themselves rather than about them.

At the end of the meeting we were invited to afternoon tea, and were happy to partake of the excellent cakes and biscuits on offer. One of our hosts approached me, and said to Brian who was standing right next to me, “Would Graeme prefer tea or coffee?”

I winced in disappointment, given that my presentation had referred to talking to the person, not about them. However, “coffee” was Brian’s calm reply.

“Does he take milk,” she asked.

“Yes,” Brian replied.

“And what about sugar,” she continued.

“Two sugar’s please,” was his calm response.

In contrast my temperature was rising, steam was beginning to trickle from my ears, and I was planning the tongue-lashing he would receive during the drive home.

“By the way,” Brian said with a wry smile, as our host was about to leave with the coffee order “would you like me to drink it for him as well?”

Suitably chastened, she apologised to me, and my recompense was an excellent cup of coffee, and an extra lamington. She worked out the way to my heart.

My invisibility cloak had been in evidence. She had switched it on as she walked up to Brian and I.

This is a regular occurrence. It happens in shops. I walk up to the counter with my wife or daughter, indicate to the sales assistant what I want to purchase, and they immediately start talking to the person with me. Or often, they will hand my goods or my change to that person, despite me standing there with my hand out.

It happens in restaurants – when the only advantage of my invisibility cloak is that the bill usually gets delivered to the person with whom I am dining rather than me.

It happens on aeroplanes. On one memorable occasion my wife was scolded by a flight attendant for letting me use the business class rather than the economy class toilet.

And it happens to people with other disabilities as well. People who use wheelchairs often find themselves being discussed – in their presence – as if they were a package or simply not there.

I’m told that this invisibility cloak is also worn by women of a certain age, who can stand in shops for ages waiting for attention, whilst men and younger women are served.

I wouldn’t mind having an invisibility cloak if I could switch the damn thing on and off myself. It would be pretty useful when I wanted to walk between my family and the television screen, or to pop across to the bar or buffet table for that second cake or fifth beer.

But I’ve lost the remote control. It’s attached to the cloak somehow, but always seems to fall into the hands of the person with whom I am seeking to deal, rather than into my hands.

Why does this happen to people with disabilities? We’re not any more difficult to talk with than the rest of society, once you get started. In fact, some of us are quite engaging people.

It’s really a demonstration of the way people with disabilities are viewed by society. Either people are afraid to talk to us because of the stigma that goes with our disability. Or they just can’t be bothered; viewing us as less than equals. Not everyone does it, but my invisibility cloak is regularly in evidence.

What do you think are the reasons for this behaviour? How might we change it? I would welcome your comments.

Graeme Innes is excited by the possible alternative uses of his invisibility cloak if he can only find that remote control, and is geeky enough to think that someone might have developed an app. by which he could control it. He can often be found wandering the corridors of the app. store carefully reading product descriptions.

Five minute flicks part three

You’ve gotta love a movie with an excellent story line which you can watch in five minutes! I have twenty of them for you. Here are the second five.

One of the activities I led whilst Australia’s Disability Discrimination Commissioner was the production of Twenty Years: Twenty Stories, to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Disability Discrimination Act.

Watch these stories with me, because they show how the actions of the main characters changed their lives, and the lives of thousands of other Australians with disabilities. I’ll give you my review, then you can watch the movie.

Driving change:

Greg’s height prevented him from using most accessible taxis. So he checked the measurements, and found that they were not complying with the relevant standards. He drove change for himself, and hundreds of others. http://www.humanrights.gov.au/twentystories/video-driving-change.html

A call for support:

Parenting duties should not continue into your seventies, but the system is letting down two adult sons with mental illness. http://www.humanrights.gov.au/twentystories/video-call-for-support.html

Dee’s place:

A fantastic story of living life “just like my brothers” and the plans for getting to Gracelands. http://www.humanrights.gov.au/twentystories/video-dees-place.html

A Grand entrance but not for all:

Two queenslanders buck the system so they can share the grand entrance with everyone else. http://www.humanrights.gov.au/twentystories/video-grand-entrance.html

Graeme Innes v Railcorp:

All I wanted was for Sydney Trains to tell me the next station, just as their signs did for everyone else. Three years, and hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees later they do. http://www.humanrights.gov.au/twentystories/video-graeme-innes-railcorp.html

Tune in for more movies in future blogs. Or if you just can’t wait, watch them all now.

Which ones are your favourites? Comments are very welcome.

Kicking an own-goal for Team Australia

Mitch Fifield is one of the best ministers in the Abbot government- you would have to be to have piloted the National Disability Insurance Scheme unscathed through the tsunami of the recent federal budget. But he has been badly advised if he blames the situation of employees with disabilities in sheltered workshops or Australian Disability Enterprises on the Australian Human Rights Commission.

Let me tell you the real story.

This government, and the previous two, have continually dragged their feet on this issue. In the late 90s, when the Business Services Wage Assessment Tool was being developed, representatives of the Commission told the government that the tool was probably discriminatory. As Deputy Disability Commissioner (1999 to 2005) and Commissioner (2005-2014) I regularly reminded them. They chose to take no action.

Mean while, about half of Australia’s ADE’s have operated, and continue to operate, using other wage assessment tools which were not discriminatory. Most of those come out with assessments which result in employees being paid higher wages than those assessed using the BSWAT.

When the Federal Court found the BSWAT to be discriminatory in 2012 I encouraged the government to support ADE’s to begin transitioning to other wage assessment tools. Instead of doing that, they sought leave from the High Court to overturn the Federal Court decision.

When the High Court did not grant leave I suggested that they apply to the Human Rights Commission for an exemption from the DDA while the transitioning took place. They took almost twelve months to lodge that application.

Minister Fifield said last week that the Commission denied the exemption application. That is not correct. The Commission granted the application, but for a period of twelve months rather than three years.

In granting a twelve month exemption, the Commission balanced the threatening of jobs against the very low wages received, and weighed the time government and ADE’s had already had to act on this matter. The Commission was not persuaded that more than twelve months would be necessary. The government had indicated in its submissions that the transition process had commenced. Other non-discriminatory assessment tools exist. The Commission wanted to ensure that the conduct which had been found to be discriminatory continued for the shortest time realistically possible.

The assertion that “there was very little consultation with the people who would be affected by the decision before it was handed down” is not true. As Commissioner, I made sure that I met with parties on all sides of the exemption process- government, National Disability Services representing the ADE’s, and organisations representing employees with disabilities. I also visited a number of ADE’s themselves, and spoke to many employees with disabilities.

In the last few years the government did economic modelling on ADE’s. This showed that some of them were not economically viable, and would be unsustainable whether the BSWAT was discriminatory or not.

It is true that ADE employees are in receipt of the Disability Support Pension- an amount of less than $20’000 a year. This does not make an hourly rate of $1, $2000 a year on top of the DSP, irrelevant. I support the concept of the “dignity of work”, but it needs to be matched by the “dignity of a fair wage”.

To suggest that without ADE’s many people would just “stay home” is an over-simplification. As the National Disability Insurance Scheme which Minister Fifield did such a great job of protecting rolls out, people with disabilities will gain far more choice and control, and be enabled to participate in a wider range of community activities.

The way to give people with disabilities “the best chance possible for a fulfilling life through employment” is for government to have a jobs plan. They could begin, as I have also said since the late 90s, by improving the percentage of people with disabilities employed in the Commonwealth Public Service. This figure has dropped from 7,5 % to 2,9 % in that time, when there are 15% of people with disabilities of working age. by not developing a jobs plan to accompany its welfare plan, the government risks kicking a spectacular own-goal for Team Australia in the hard-fought game of economic success.

The Human Rights Commission was strongly criticised by both the government and ADE’s on one side, and employee advocates on the other side, for granting a twelve-month rather than a three-year, exemption. Rather than idealism, or misplaced eutopianism, I would describe that as a realistic path towards appropriate change, along which the government and ADE’s still appear reluctant to walk.

First published in The Australian. This is the unedited version.

Slip slop slap

Slip Slop Slap:
Avoiding the Disability Rap

Presentation to Society of Consumer Affairs Practitioners Conference Melbourne 19 August 2014

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

Come with me to an olive grove in northern Italy. Do you like olives? I think there’s nothing better than a bowl of olives and a glass of dry white on a warm summer afternoon.

Have you ever swallowed an olive pip- you know, eaten all of the olive from the outside and then swallowed the pip by mistake? Did you taste that pip?

You didn’t, because your saliva is prevented by the nature of the pip from dissolving it, and if saliva is prevented from dissolving something, then you can’t taste it. You probably wouldn’t want to taste an olive pip, so prevention is better than cure.

In your work, that olive pip is a little like disability. It’s best that you don’t taste or swallow the pip, and it’s best that you take actions to ensure that you don’t treat someone differently as a result of their disability. In that sense, too, prevention is better than cure.

I’ve been asked to talk with you today about dealing with people with disability. So perhaps I should first establish my credentials for doing so. After all, I am probably regarded as an expert in this area- you know X marks the spot, and a spurt is just a drip under pressure.

Until recently I was Australia’s Disability Discrimination Commissioner for about nine years, and deputy commissioner for six before that. I’ve chaired Australia’s Disability Advisory Council, and worked as part of the Australian delegation on the Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities. I have also been a disability advocate for most of my life, being the first chair of Disabled People’s International in Australia, and the first Chair of Vision Australia, Australia’s largest blindness agency.

But I haven’t just worked on disability. I spent some time early in my working life as a staff member at the NSW Department of Consumer Affairs. I worked as a clerk dealing with inquiries from the public, as a legal officer working on – amongst other things – the uniform credit code, and I was a member of the Consumer Claims Tribunal. I think I achieve the criteria required for that spurt of water.

Now that I have some street cred, let’s think about disability. How do we define it? What does it include?

In the human rights field, particularly in the Disability Discrimination Act, its broadly defined. It includes physical, sensory, intellectual or psycho-social disability, as well as organisms in the body which can cause disease such as the HIV virus. It can be in the past, the present or the future. And it can also be imputed.

So what percentage of the population do you think has a disability? The Australian Bureau of Statistics tell us that it is about 21 %- yes that’s one in five. So if there are 200 people in this room, 40 of us have a disability.

Many disabilities are not visible. It’s hard for me to hide my disability when I walk through the door with my guide dog, but you can’t see hearing impairment, intellectual or cognitive disability, autism, hepatitis, or repetitive strain injury.

I have described these issues as disabilities. But actually they are forms of impairment. And disability only occurs when society erects barriers which – combined with those impairments – prevent a person from interacting successfully in whatever form of society they choose. In school, in work, in sport, or as a complainant.

So only having information in print prevents me from interacting with that information- but someone with low vision who corrects it with glasses is not disabled by that.
Having narrow entrances to a building only disables a person with mobility disability.
Having a flickering fluorescent light in a work-place is annoying, but it can also disable someone with autism.
Having printed signs and no pictograms may disable a person with intellectual or cognitive disability who cannot read. And for daleks, its stairs which prevent their plans for world domination.

So you can see why you should make your work-place, and the place where you handle your complaints – be it virtual or real –
disability friendly. And when you do, it will be a more friendly environment for everyone.

Ramped rather than stepped access will make it easier for parents with prams, and couriers with trolleys; clearer signage will assist everyone;
softer lighting in conference rooms – with no flickering lights – will also provide you with an atmosphere more conducive to conciliation.

Today I want to tell you three stories of how disability might impact on your work. I’ll tell you two, and the third will be told through a short dvd. Then I’ll draw out ways in which you can prevent disability-related challenges occurring, rather than having to cure them afterwards.

Let’s start with the first story. I want to conduct a transaction in a store, and use the EFTPOS machine. Pretty common occurrence you might say.

Now when you conduct such a transaction, you look at the screen on the machine to check that the sales person has put in the right total. Obviously, I can’t do that. Audio output would mean that I could. So I’m trusting that they haven’t made a keying error, or added $100 cash-out which they will put in their pocket.

Secondly, I have to put in my PIN to confirm the transaction. I can do this, provided that there is a clear raised dot on the number 5 so that I know which keys are which. This is a requirement in the relevant Australian Standards, but not always honoured.

As a sales person told me in that store which sounds like a piece of fruit and sells phones, the keys on their EFTPOS machine are quite “subtle”; so bloody subtle that I can hardly tell them apart, and certainly I can’t feel the dot on the number five.

Now I may have a discrimination complaint here, because the machine doesn’t announce the total, and because I can’t feel the dot on the five. But let’s put that aside- its not your area of expertise.

However, what is your area of expertise is whether this machine is fit for purpose. Because if it’s not, then perhaps I have a basis to complain to you.

Story two. Jane, who has cognitive or intellectual disability, and who is living independently in the community, wants a mobile phone. She visits Dodgy Dave’s Phone Deals because her friend has told her that the phones their are cheap. One of Dodgy Dave’s staff sells Jane an android phone very cheaply, but puts her on a contract where she is locked in for two years, and paying a call and SMS rate which is three times the average. She does what most of us do- signs the contract without reading it. Except in her case it’s because she can’t read, rather than chooses not to.

A month later, Jane gets her first bill which is very high, and her dad – who helps her deal with her bills – realises what has occurred. Again, they could go to the Human Rights Commission. But she and he come to you, alleging that the contract is harsh and unconscionable.

Story three. Let’s watch this DVD. It’s about action under the Disability Discrimination Act, but John could just as easily have walked through your door. http://www.humanrights.gov.au/twentystories/video-lights.html Now as I said, this is framed as a discrimination complaint. But could John argue that – because the movies are not captioned – they are not fit for purpose.

These three stories relate to problems in your area which have to do specifically with disability. But they are not the only times when those of us with disabilities might visit you.

My washing machine is just as likely to break down as yours;

Jane is just as likely to have a problem with her wedding dress or plans for the reception as anyone else;

And John could just as easily buy a Friday-Monday car.

So, whether it relates to disability, or just people with disabilities doing life, we will walk through your door, arrive in your mailbox, or your inbox, on one in every five occasions. High enough stats to do some serious planning to prevent problems.

Ok- do any of you check out Buzzfeed? Well, why not? My wife introduced me to it a couple of years ago, and has regretted it ever since. If I didn’t want you to pay attention to the last part of my presentation I’d say- get out your phones or tablets, and jump onto Buzzfeed right now. Its hilarious, addictive, and can become a black hole in your life.

I have followed the Buzzfeed model – and created nine neat notes for making your complaint handling processes more accessible for people with disabilities. Here we go.

1. There are no rigid rules about disability. Yes, I know this is a challenging first position, particularly for the lawyers amongst us. But, just like the rest of you, we are a diverse and different lot. Some women wear jewelry, some don’t. Some blind people use guide dogs, others canes. Some people are completely deaf, others have hearing impairment. Some people with intellectual disability read, others do not. So don’t make assumptions- ask questions- will this work for you is a good start.

2. If you want to communicate with everyone in society, you can’t just do it in print. Handing me a print brochure is about as helpful as having the Attorney-General explain metadata. You need to have alternate versions of your brochures- on your website, in audio or braille, in easy english, just as you have them in community languages. If you are sending out letters you need to consider sending them via email, not just in print. And don’t use PDF files- they are not accessible for people such as me using screenreaders.

3. If you have educational DVD’s they should be captioned- not just because it assists people who are deaf or hearing impaired (and you won’t always know that people are hearing-impaired), but because you will get better learning outcomes for everyone. And you should also think about the use of Auslan, both on your DVD’s and when a person who is deaf comes to see you. Just as you provide community language interpreters. And if you take phone calls you should also take TTY calls.

4. Your premises should be accessible to people with mobility disabilities. This means ramps as well as steps, doors of the appropriate width, and spaces in which a wheelchair or scooter user can turn. If premises are not accessible, then you should have an alternate meeting place close by which is, and ensure that your staff offer this alternative, and are happy to use it when necessary. Also, advertise this on your website.

5. Think about the way you provide your advice. Consumer law is complex, and your complaint process may also be to someone who has never used it before. It may not be very comprehensible to your clients, particularly those with intellectual or cognitive disabilities. So, as any good complaint handler should do for any client, confirm at the end of an advice session that the person receiving the advice understands it. And if they don’t, the problem is yours, not their’s.

6. How is your organisation equipped to deal with people with mental illness- as clients or as employees. If the answer is not very well, then perhaps its time for some “mental health first aid” training. Google it- it’s readily available.

7. Remember that there is a high correlation between disability and poverty- 45% of people with disabilities live in or near poverty. So the likelihood of your clients with disabilities falling into this category is higher.

8. These are not changes which you will be able to make all at once. So develop a DDA Action Plan, so that you can make the changes in an organised way. There are some excellent guides, and examples of plans, on the Human Rights Commission website. And it is always a good idea to consult with people with disabilities in the development of such plans.

Finally 9. Have a section on your website, or in your brochure, which sets out your accessible facilities. And when you are arranging community input, or advice sessions, encourage people with disabilities to indicate to you if they have any particular requirements.

These are not all the answers. There are numerous access consultants around who can provide you with advice. There are also many resources available, including some on the Australian Human Rights Commission website- the accessible meetings and events guide is a good start. But your search engine will find many others.

An alternate method is to get some people with disabilities on your management committee or as part of your feed-back process.

So let’s return to our olive grove. If you buy olives without pips, or spit out the pip before you swallow it, that’s prevention. And it has to be better than curing the problem once you swallow the pip.

It’s the same with disability. If you and your work-place are organised in a way which caters to the needs of the whole population, not just those without a disability, you’re going to provide a better customer experience for everyone.

Thanks for the chance to speak with you today.

[ends]

Benched from Team Australia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, let me return to those reasonable expectations with which I started. What do we need to get those expectations met? We need a jobs plan. We need to learn from the Westpacs, ANZ, Telstra, IBM, Woolworths and others, all the members of Australian Network on Disability – the employer representative body.

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

Because, apart from the benefits these actions would bring to people with disabilities, if only one-third of that 30 % disability-jobs gap moved off welfare and into work, the NDIS would run at a profit within a decade.

Many private employers are willing to commit to these processes. I have worked with many of them during my time as Australia’s Disability Discrimination Commissioner. But they need to learn from their peers, and be resourced to get on with it, not be surrounded by government red tape. Limiting rules and bureaucratic disincentives are, to paraphrase Missy Higgins, a danger government are addicted to. The various services contracted to find jobs for people with disabilities are not giving us value for money in terms of long-term outcomes gained for dollars spent. So we need to find another way.

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

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

Thanks for the chance to speak with you today.