Q&A: Former Australian Disability Commissioner, Graeme Innes

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Thursday, 24 July 2014 09:40am

Media Access Australia spoke to former Australian Disability Commissioner Graeme Innes about his time in the role, web accessibility, disability employment, and the need to change attitudes towards disability in the public and private sectors.

Could you reflect on your time as Disability Commissioner?

My time in the role is enhanced by my lived experience of disability and having an understanding of the access that people who are blind or low-vision have to deal with every day. Really, the role of Commissioner gave me the opportunity, on a broader scale, to raise the sorts of issues I had to deal with, and find ways to resolve them. I’m not only talking about issues of access to websites—which I had to deal with every day—but also the availability of audio description on television, for example. As a blind person, going through the process of getting a trial for those [on the ABC], then that not going forward. That not only gave me a very strong position from which to advocate in my own case, but also gave me a perspective from the point of view of people who have other disabilities, such as the need for captions. In lots of ways that made my advocacy in these areas much more real.

Is lived experience of disability an essential criterion for the Disability Commissioner role?

I think it is. You wouldn’t have a Sex Discrimination Commissioner who wasn’t a woman, or an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commissioner who didn’t come from that background, and we shouldn’t have a Disability Discrimination Commissioner who doesn’t have lived experience. Not only does it inform you so that you can be a better advocate, but when you go into a room to advocate on behalf of people with disabilities you are just in a much stronger negotiating position if you have lived experience. It just gives you so much more insight into the issues.

What do you view as your major achievements in that role?

I don’t think that anyone in that role has successes on their own. The successes that I had were in conjunction with disability organisation and other lobbies. In terms of the area which Media Access Australia works I think there have been some real successes. The significant increase in captions on television, for example, was a big achievement. The trial of audio description wasn’t a success in that it didn’t go ahead, but it was a success in that we demonstrated that it could be done in Australia. It will make future work in that area easier. The deal negotiated to get captions on cinema screens across around Australia and also provide audio description in cinemas was a real success. I think the work in government to make the internet more accessible was progress without quite getting to where we want to be—there are still websites that are still significantly problematic. But there has been progress there, though sadly I do think it has slipped back in the last 12 or 18 months. The case that Bruce Maguire ran against SOCOG at the time of the Sydney Olympic Games was a great success and really a wake-up call for webmasters around Australia, in terms of the administration of websites. The two other things I’d mention are the progress in the development of apps for smartphones and other devices which are just so much more accessible, and the making of the Twenty Years: Twenty Stories to celebrate 20 years of the Disability Discrimination Act included success stories about access to the internet and access to captions and to audio description. Those stories celebrate those successes but also reinforce the need for advocacy and the effort to change the environment so that it doesn’t include barriers to people with disabilities.

[Read Graeme Innes’s speech launching Media Access Australia’s web accessibility service, Access iQ]

What are the areas in which more progress is needed?

I think any good advocate has areas in which you haven’t achieved as much as you’d hoped for; that you wanted to do better than where you got to—that is part of advocacy. Definitely there are areas where I feel that not enough was achieved: audio description—we only got a trial; access to the internet—particularly government access, where government has had some progress but there is a lot more to do there. There are areas where more work could be done but that is the task of a new commissioner, and more importantly, is the job of the disability sector. I include myself in that sector and I’ll be advocating from a different space.

To focus on web accessibility, what do you think the strengths and weaknesses of the National Transition Strategy (NTS) are?

I think the weakness of the National Transition Strategy is that there is no real process for follow-up and implementation. It is really largely left to people with disabilities to say that this or that department is not complying. That is disappointing because it is the same problem people face with the Disability Discrimination Act in that people have to lodge complaints themselves in order to get change. I think we need to have a think about that system because it really puts a lot of pressure on a group which is already a disadvantaged group and that is not the best way to get towards equality.

With the NTS winding down at the end of the year, what successor to that policy would you like to see?

I think that there should be far more activity directed toward ensuring that government departments comply with that and finding ways to reward government departments that do comply, so that there are some incentives. That could be done through the use of things like efficiency dividends. There are plenty of processes in the public service to recognise efficiency and compliance. But those things tend not to be used around access issues, and I think we need to change that.

The other thing that government needs to do is employ more people with disabilities, and one of the many benefits of doing that is that there will be more people who need better access, and that will create momentum for change.

The Government is considering welfare reform at the moment. What are your thoughts on disability employment in the context of that reform?

I don’t think supporting people with disabilities is a big enough focus of the welfare reform. Government seems to have a welfare plan but not a clear jobs plan. There are only 2.9 per cent of the public service employed who are people with disabilities. That is just not enough. Government cannot go out and tell employers that they need to do better when they are doing so badly themselves. Government needs a jobs plan, and needs to sit down and look at this issue. One immediate initiative government could do is offer each parliamentarian an additional member of staff if they employ someone with a disability. That would be a very valuable first initiative. But they need to sit down with the heads of each department and make serious plans to change the employment of people with a disability, because what we have now is just not acceptable.

Is that where your new Attitude Foundation comes in?

The Attitude Foundation is slightly different, though certainly relates to that. It is about changing attitudes toward people with disabilities—using television and the media more broadly to change attitudes to people with disabilities. It follows on from an initiative in New Zealand where there has been a half-an-hour program on mainstream New Zealand television for about seven years. There is recognition that that has had a significant impact on the way in which people with disabilities are viewed in New Zealand. I want to encourage the same thing to occur in Australia.

What’s your view on the conciliation process for claims made under the Disability Discrimination Act? Does there need to be more ‘naming and shaming’ of organisation who do discriminate?

The model that we have has been successful—you only need to look at the Twenty Years: Twenty Stories films to see that. Lots of complaints that are conciliated are done on a confidential basis. The model doesn’t require that—that is a decision individuals take when they do agree to conciliation. In my role I constantly encouraged people not to settle complaints on a confidential basis because then you don’t get the flow on effect of other people becoming aware of the settlement and the changes.

One of the things that I did when I lodged a complaint was to also put out a media release stating that I had lodged the complaint. That way, from the outset I put the matter on the public record. What that meant was that when the organisation for whom the complaint had been lodged against said, “We’ll talk to you about a settlement but it has to be private,” you’re then in the position to say that it is too hard to make it private because the complaint is already public. That way you start to diminish the restriction of complaints to private settlements. But I think there should be more naming and shaming for organisations because it is a very effective tool—particularly using social media. We don’t necessarily need the law to change; you can just use social media, which has been used to name and shame on a number of occasions. I think it is an important advocacy tool to get social change.

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