Disability: the untold story of the NBN

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Wednesday, 8 May 2013 13:22pm

We sat down with Graeme Innes, Disability Discrimination Commissioner and National Broadband Network Champion, to talk about how high-speed internet can benefit people with disability. Interview by Eliza Cussen.

GI: I’m one of a group of champions in a whole range of areas as to how the NBN is relevant to Australian society. I wasn’t in the original group and I kept going back to the minister, Stephen Conroy, and saying “Look, disability is the untold story of the NBN. I think you should have someone telling these stories.” He came back to me and said, “That’s great, will you do it?”

I’m a passionate supporter of the NBN. I just don’t understand the politics around it. I think in a decade we’ll all look back and say, “What were we thinking about? Of course we need this infrastructure.” It’s a bit like single gauge railways, there was a lot of opposition to it at the time but people weren’t thinking broadly about how important a role it was going to play in Australia’s future. So I’m very happy to support the NBN publicly.

MAA: How is the NBN important for people with a disability, specifically?

There’s a range of answers to that. I think the way to look at it is look at particular groups of people with a disability. For people like myself who are blind or vision impaired, the NBN means we can get alternate format materials, particularly audio books, downloaded in minutes rather than waiting for days for them to arrive in the snail-mail. More and more we’re relying on audio content and the faster broadband speeds will facilitate that.

For people who are Deaf or have a hearing impairment, there’s some huge benefits. The first being the facility for video Auslan which will not only mean that Auslan can become more available because you can take it with you on your iPad essentially.  But also it will remove some of the pressure on Auslan interpreters because they won’t have to travel as much. And Auslan interpreters are in short supply.

MAA: So almost like a visual equivalent of the relay service we have now?

Yes, that’s exactly, right. Which for people who use Auslan it’s going to be far quicker, far easier. Because Auslan is their first language.


View a captioned version on YouTube

Then there’s the whole issue of live captioning and real-time captioning and organisations like Ai-Media are turning around captions in real time and that’s the biggest advantage for people who are Deaf or have a hearing impairment, right through all areas of life. Starting in the classroom, teachers can effectively wear a microphone around their neck and kids in the class can have captions almost immediately.  And that doesn’t just benefit kids who are Deaf, it benefits kids whose first language is not English, kids with other disabilities who are helped by the visual along with the aural representation of the lesson so there’s huge benefits there.

Then when people move through to work it will mean captions at meetings, when you go to have a meeting with the bank you can bring in your tablet and have real-time captioning there, in fact, anywhere where that sort of interaction and communication needs to occur. Real-time captioning is quite limited by broadband speeds.

MAA: Do you see the NBN helping to reduce the cost of live captioning?

I’m not sure about that, although it may. But what it will do is increase the speed and the availability and that may have an impact on reducing cost as it becomes more ubiquitous.

The third group of people are people with a disability who, for whatever reason, choose not to navigate or deal with the physical environment and the physical barriers in our society. People in that group, particularly those with a mobility disability but not exclusively, for them teleworking is an incredibly valuable option and an option that will open up more and more as broadband speeds increase.

The last group of people with disability who will benefit from the NBN are those who have ongoing health needs and need to have continued consultation with medical and allied fields. And those kind of consultations done virtually will mean that such people, doctors, occupational therapists and so on, will have more time as they won’t need to travel nearly as much. The NBN makes this more and more possible and makes these virtual interactions more and more viable.

Organisations such as the Royal Institute for Deaf and Blind Children and Vision Australia are both rolling out pilot programs that use the NBN to deliver services in regional and remote areas.

But you know, the NBN just benefits people in all areas of life. I know myself I’m travelling less because I’m having more virtual meetings using things like Skype.

MAA: Infrastructure projects like this are a long time in the making. Has it been a struggle to get to this point?

Well I think it has. I mean what it’s taken it some real visionary leadershipfrom people in the government and the department to push through this infrastructure change – it’s not cheap. There’s been some arguments, not about whether we should have it at all, but about how it should be delivered. And that’s unfortunate because it brings it in to the political spectrum and takes us away from the broader vision and the value of the NBN will bring. Hopefully those arguments will disappear as the roll-out continues and as technology develops.

Faster broadband speeds are just going to mean that our whole economy and infrastructure work more effectively. Just like any access benefit, ramps aren’t just used by people in wheelchairs, audible traffic signals don’t just help people who can’t see the traffic light. That’s true in education, employment and every area of life. The benefits the NBN will bring to people in more isolated situations are very large. Being able to communicate with family members who aren’t nearby, being able to communicate with older people who are still living independently.

MAA: There’s been a lot of controversy over the Coalition’s rival plan. Would this alternative do the job?

The reality is, fibre to the node is just not going to be as effective as fibre to the home. We’re trying to bolt on to an old copper network which is getting older and deteriorating. It’s a flawed approach. It’s like putting very fast railways to go so far, and then having very slow railway lines taking different kinds of trains into the station. So I do think there are problems with the Coalition’s plan and I think people are beginning to realise that. And the more the roll-out continues, the actual benefits of the NBN can be seen and more people will come to realise that.

MAA: One of major differences between Labor and the Coalition’s plan, besides speed, is the placement of the burden of cost from the public purse to the consumer. Do you see this having an impact?

Well of course it will have an impact. One of the decisions we all take, whether it’s in our personal budget or the broader societal budget, is that we look to improve the infrastructure. We buy a new car that comes at a cost. We renovate our house, that comes with a cost. But when we make those decisions we assess our capacity to pay those costs and we assess the benefits that change will bring. The NBN will bring huge benefits and they will far more than warrant that cost.

In fact one of the things the NBN will do we don’t even know yet. This is really moving Australia up to where we should be in terms of internet infrastructure for a country in the developed world.

MAA: With the fibre to the node plan, it’s my understanding that if you want to connect a cable from a node at the other end of your street to your home you would have to pay a connection fee of a few thousand dollars. With reduced workplace participation that’s obviously a higher burden.

Well it will be because the correlation between disability and poverty is very high – I think it sits at 45 per cent – so that will be a problem. Why run a range of fibre cableswhen if you connected the fibre to the home in the first place it would all be there. It just doesn’t make any sense to three-quarters roll-out infrastructure and then stop it there.


Commissioner Innes was interviewed about this issue on Vision Australia Radio. The audio and transcript are available.

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