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.