I was not surprised when I read in the Australian government budget papers this week that one Commissioner position at the Australian Human Rights Commission would be cut. The papers indicated that the measure would take effect from July this year, when one position became vacant. My term at the Commission ends on 4 July, so it is not difficult to conclude that the reference is to the position of Disability Discrimination Commissioner.
I was not surprised, but I was angry and profoundly sad. Because Australia clearly needs a full-time Disability Discrimination Commissioner, and it must be a person with a disability. We would not appoint a white person to the role of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner. Nor should we appoint a person who does not have lived experience of disability, and an understanding of the disability sector, to this position.
Some people have asked me why we need a Disability Discrimination Commissioner. The statistics speak for themselves. 37 % of complaints lodged with the Commission – more than one third – relate to disability, and this figure has been constant since the passage of the Disability Discrimination Act. 45% of us live in poverty. We experience 30 % lower employment participation than the general population. Completion of Year 12 high school is at 50% for the general population, and 25 % for people with disabilities. A higher proportion of us are in prisons. We experience a higher level of domestic violence. By any measure we are significantly disadvantaged.
Let me tell you of just one day in the life of a Disability Discrimination Commissioner. It’s yesterday, and I woke in Darwin.
iPhone ever on hand, I checked Twitter for budget reaction and other news. As I took my guide dog for a walk, and grabbed coffee and a quick breakfast, I read more news articles. I read of the young people with disabilities, including some in my family, who will continue to be disadvantaged in education, and not be able to remain in regular schools, because the extra funding for kids with disabilities in the Gonski proposals had been cut.
Tears came to my eyes at the memory of the many stories I have heard from kids with disabilities bullied in school playgrounds, and the distraught parents I regularly talk to. What could I say to the parents of kids with disabilities with whom I am meeting this Sunday on the Sunshine Coast? Suck it up – there’s no more money? Of course not – I’ll strategise with them, and try to empower them to find a way.
My first meeting was with people from the National Aboriginal Justice Centre. They told me of the high proportion of Aboriginal people with disabilities in the prison system. They talked of people in prison like Rosie and Malcolm, who had not been convicted of a crime – they had been found “unfit to plead”, and prison was regarded as an acceptable accommodation option. We talked about justice diversion, and how people with disabilities would be better off supported by disability services in their communities. Corrections budgets would also be better off, as this would be a cheaper option.
I left seeing little hope of change, but admiring the passion and commitment to carry on in their work. I was able to provide some hope by noting the on-time and in-full rollout of the National Disability Insurance Scheme in the budget.
I then met with the NT Public Service Employment Commissioner. Unlike the Federal Government, who have a welfare plan in their budget, Craig has a jobs plan. He is committed to increasing the number of people with disabilities employed in the NT public service. In the federal system it is a shameful 2.9 %, and probably similar in the Territory. But he was happy to strategise about how this might change- using plans and targets, strong senior leadership, a link through Australian Network on Disability to other committed employers, and the establishment of peer support networks. I was encouraged- he has the will to create change.
I then spoke at the lunch with which the NT Law Society celebrate law week. I told many stories of how people with disabilities cannot access the criminal justice system- stories set out in the Equal Before The Law report. My speech, and this report, are both on the Commission website at http://www.humanrights.gov.au I encouraged the Territory to follow the example of South Australia, and develop a Disability Justice Strategy.
Following some quick TV interviews where I spoke of the need for a full-time Disability Discrimination Commissioner who has a disability, I met with the Chief Minister and Minister for Disability Services. I talked to them of the need for a diversity of services in the justice system, more jobs for people with disabilities, and the benefits to be gained from the rollout of the NDIS.
I then hurried back to my hotel, to catch up on the many emails, texts and tweets. I continued the planning for the delegation of young people with disabilities being sent to the meeting of countries who have ratified the Disability Convention in New York in June. I have not talked to a more excited bunch in a long time. It is a great way to develop leadership capacity in the disability sector.
I planned for my meetings next week with representatives of government to discuss the review of the Transport Standards. There has been progress getting people with disabilities “on the bus”, but recent experiences show us we still have a long way to go. Sam – who cannot bend his leg – was recently forced to stand for most of a Perth-Brisbane flight because staff would not let him have an appropriate seat. An international airline was prepared to carry Peter but not his wheelchair. And a Darwin taxi would not pick me up because I travel with a guide dog.
I communicated with Josh who has autism, very concerned about re-assessment of his Disability Support Pension, but no real jobs plan to move him off welfare. Jess was very pleased about the rollout of the NDIS, but worried that co-payments in the medical system for her ongoing health issues would eat away at her small income. I talked with Eliza, concerned about how the sector would now have a more muted voice, because the ABC Rampup site would not be funded by the government, and the ABC could not pick up the funding. And I heard from Sharon, who shared my views about the need for a full-time Disability Discrimination Commissioner, who has a disability, and who wonders what will happen to people like her when my term ends.
I also talked with people from government, about developing a jobs plan, and supporting employers to find jobs for people with disabilities through use of targets and financial incentives. I pointed out – as I have for several years – the waste and ineffectiveness of the current system.
And I talked to large and small private employers, and tried to encourage them to find jobs for people with disabilities. I strategised with Jocelyn at one major employer about setting targets, and planning how to achieve them. I thanked John for the fact that 50 % of his workforce of 20 people are people with disabilities. And I congratulated Dominique for ensuring that her online business had an accessible website.
I did this because my job is not just about throwing rocks. It’s about working co-operatively, with government and private sectors, as well as people with disabilities, to remove the barriers constituted by those rocks. When we have an accessible path of travel, people with disabilities will fully participate in, and contribute to, our community; and the Australian community will reap the benefit of that diversity and extra strength. Without a full-time Disability Discrimination Commissioner, who has a disability, the path will be that much rockier for that much longer.