Tag: consumer affairs

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.