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An Ambitious Advocate

22 June 2015 at 12:07 pm
Xavier Smerdon
A tireless advocate for people with disability, Graeme Innes has spent his life fighting for fairness. The former Disability Discrimination Commissioner is this week’s Changemaker. He spoke to journalist Xavier Smerdon.

Xavier Smerdon | 22 June 2015 at 12:07 pm


An Ambitious Advocate
22 June 2015 at 12:07 pm

A tireless advocate for people with disability, Graeme Innes has spent his life fighting for fairness. The former Disability Discrimination Commissioner is this week’s Changemaker. He spoke to journalist Xavier Smerdon.

A lawyer by trade, Innes told Pro Bono Australia News that being born blind meant he had to start his career at the bottom and work his way up.

He has used this experience the shape the way he advocates for other people with disability.

In July last year he finished his term as Disability Discrimination Commissioner, but he has remained active as an advocate for the rights of all Australians.

In this week’s Changemaker, Innes shares what inspires him, what frustrates him and his views on equality in Australia.

Since finishing up as Disability Discrimination Commissioner you have remained active as an advocate for disability rights. What do you see yourself doing in the future?

I guess one of the reasons that I’ve continued to be significantly active in this space is that my position wasn’t filled when my term ended.

I introduce myself as the former Disability Discrimination Commissioner but someone at a conference the other day said I should actually call myself the de facto Disability Discrimination Commissioner.

Because whilst Susan Ryan is doing the best that she can as Aged Discrimination Commissioner, she’s doing that on top of a full time job and she’s doing it without lived experience of a disability so it makes it difficult for her.

And because the Commission has had its resources so reduced, they just no longer have much capacity in the disability space and added to that they’ve been asked to do an inquiry on employment of people with disability, which is really just using up more of their resources when we know what the issues are around employment of people with disability. The employers serious about change are actually getting on and doing it, it’s just Governments that aren’t doing it and they’ve delayed the process further by just running another inquiry.

We did an enquiry on that in 2005 and you could dust off that report and all of the recommendations would be pretty valid, just change the date and most of them would still be valid. That’s just unfortunately an exercise to suck up more of the Commission’s resources.

So whilst there is no Disability Discrimination Commissioner do you feel that it is almost a duty of yourself to fill that role?

I think that there are issues that need to be addressed that the Commission doesn’t have the capacity to address and to an extent I do and I’m not averse to doing that when I have the opportunity to.

But the Commission should have that capacity and it’s very concerning that the Government didn’t fill that role.

It will be interesting because Susan said she would only do that job part time for 12 months and that 12 months is almost up. So it will be interesting to see what they do about it after that time.

I hope they reverse what was a very flawed decision and put a full time person in there. And I should say the person needs to have lived experience of disability because that’s very vital.

You’re writing your memoirs at the moment I understand.

I am, and I’m also building a Board portfolio, so I’m looking to obtain directorships on Boards because I think I’ve got sufficient experience in strategic leadership and I can add value in that regard.

So you don’t see yourself stepping away from the Not for Profit sector?

No, I’m committed to social justice and social change, I have been all my life.

I don’t see that I’ll be performing that role somewhere else. I am looking for Boards that are for profit and Not for Profit but I’m now on the Board of a major Not for Profit service provider and really enjoying the opportunities that it gives me.

You were born in Sydney in the 1950s, and I understand you were born completely blind. What was it like growing up in that era in Australia and being blind?

I was very lucky with my parents and family and the support they provided. They did sort of throw me out there, but put supports appropriately in place, by not treating me any differently to my siblings.

They really gave me a much more real experience of life as a person with a disability and very much had the approach that there weren’t limits. I could do whatever I wanted to do.

One of the problems that we have as a society is that we have a very negative view of people with disability so we set the bar significantly low. Of course by doing that, for most people, if you set the bar low those expectations will come to pass. We limit the possibilities for people with disability by making a whole lot of assumptions about what they won’t be able to do. That’s been a theme that I’ve talked about a lot in my role as Disability Discrimination Commissioner.

Did you go to a regular school or a special school?

I went to a special school for a while and then I finished my education at a regular school.

And look, the special school that I went to was a great school and had teachers that were committed and passionate and it had a significant amount of resources. But it was half an hours drive from my home so I never grew up with friendships in my local community, and if I had my opportunity over again I would want to go to a school in my community where my neighbours and friends went to.

I know you trained and practiced as a lawyer, that’s an impressive achievement for anyone, but being blind, how difficult was it to make it in that field?

There were barriers. I spent a lot of time once I qualified as a lawyer struggling to find a job. After about a year of going to interviews and not being successful I took a job as a clerical assistant in the public service because I just worked out that I needed to prove myself far more than other people so I decided to go into an organisation at the bottom of the ladder and work my way up, and that’s really what I did.

It’s not the standard career path for qualified lawyers, that’s for sure.

What was it that drew you to an advocacy role like Disability Discrimination Commissoner?

I’ve always worked in the advocacy sector. I’ve always had a thirst for social justice and fairness and equity and since I was a student advocating for the rights of students to get alternative format material, material in braille and audio. I’ve been an advocate not just for myself but for the broader communities where I see disadvantage.

So I guess with the high value that the Not for Profit sector puts on that sort of social justice I’m always going to be drawn to it. I’ve been a director on NFP Boards now for more than 30 years, so I’ve been in the sector long before I had the role of Disability Discrimination Commissioner.

How did it feel when you found out that you were going to be the Disability Discrimination Commissioner?

I was incredibly excited when I got the role. It was the best job I ever had. It was a great opportunity to make a mark on social policy in Australia and so I grasped that opportunity with both hands.

What do you consider your greatest achievement over your career?

I was involved in the draughting of the Disability Discrimination Act in Australia back in 1992. I think that’s one of the most lasting achievements that I’ve been involved with. I’m not claiming that I did it all by myself. No one person ever does those things on their own.

I suppose the other really great opportunity was to be involved in the development of the Convention of the Rights of People with Disability and to represent Australia at the United Nations. That was a great privilege.

But I think the most important achievement that I’ve been involved with has been the ongoing progression of the rights of people with disability. We have significantly better access to buildings and transport now than back when I started my advocacy career in the 70s. We have better access to communication and the internet has made a lot more things available.

I’m not saying we’re there yet but there’s been significant progress in that time and I’m very proud to have played a small part in that.

What challenges do you think the community still faces and what do we need to do to address in the near to long-term future?

I think the biggest barrier that people with disability face is the attitude barrier. The negative and limiting assumptions that get made about us as people with disability. If we could remove that barrier a lot of the other problems and challenges we face would be significantly addressed.

That’s why since I’ve left the Commission one of the things I’ve done on a voluntary basis is Chair the Attitude Foundation, the aim of which is to use television and the media to change attitudes towards people with disability. I think that a great deal of other things will flow from that.

That’s quite a difficult thing to tackle isn’t it? Do you think the community is receptive to issues like that?

I think it’s always been difficult in the past because we haven’t used the voices of people with disability. What I hope to do is have people with disability tell our own stories about doing work, about doing activities in the community, just about living life, and show the community very clearly that we just want to play our role in the community as taxpayers, as citizens as parents, employees. But unfortunately we’re blocked from many of these roles by negative assumptions and so we have to keep on challenging those assumptions.

What is it that inspires you to keep doing the work you do?

I think my passion for achieving social justice and social change. The thing that excited me most in the last month or so was the fact that Brisbane City Council announced that all of their buses are now completely accessible for people with disability. So that’s 100 per cent of their bus fleet and they’re seven years ahead of their schedule. that just says to me, if you can do it all the other transport providers around the country can do it.

Things like that inspire me and I’m a great believer in celebrating those sorts of successes because they are marker pegs along the path to inclusion and to full acceptance in society for people with disability.

Just recently the Senate passed a vote to hold an inquiry into disabled students and part of that will focus on allegations of abuse. We’ve also seen instances of abuse at Yooralla have a spotlight shone on them. Do you think we’re moving in the right direction and really facing up to a lot of these issues?

I think we are but on the question of violence and abuse we’ve got a long way to go. It’s a serious issue in the disability sector and just one example of the limiting attitudes that I talk about.

One of the topics that’s getting far more coverage in the last couple of years, which it absolutely should, is domestic violence against women. But what doesn’t get recognised by the majority of commentators on that issue is that violence against women with disabilities is significantly than amongst the general population.

There again we’re sort of sidelined if you like. I think that the education inquiry is a good step, but it’s not real progress, it’s just an inquiry. What we need is greater resourcing in the education area and better awareness of the way to treat people with disability.

Putting people in cages or in padded rooms, or dragging people across the floor by their feet is just unacceptable, whether it’s a person with a disability or not. We need an inquiry to shine a light on those things but more importantly, we need to change those practices.

What would be your ultimate dream going forward?

My ultimate dream is that people with disabilities have our rightful place in the community, as employees, as parents, as citizens, as full participants, so that disability is just taken as part of society, it’s not an exceptional thing, it’s just recognised as part of the human condition.

That’s the ultimate goal for any real disability advocate I think. If I’ve made some small contribution to that then I’m very happy.

Xavier Smerdon  |  Journalist  |  @XavierSmerdon

Xavier Smerdon is a journalist specialising in the Not for Profit sector. He writes breaking and investigative news articles.

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