The lawyer taking charge of disability advocacy in Australia
9 September 2019 at 8:33 am
Jeff Smith is the new CEO of People with Disability Australia, a national disability rights, advocacy and representative organisation giving the disability community a voice of its own. He is this week’s Changemaker.
Smith has led PWDA for less than a month, but has already had his eyes opened to the many systemic issues faced by people with disability in Australia.
Coming from a legal background, Smith has had limited exposure to the disability sector, but comes with extensive advocacy experience, previously working at the Environmental Defenders Office of NSW for 14 years.
Smith is also currently on the advisory committee for the Australian Centre for Climate and Environmental Law, and the board of the Haymarket Foundation.
He says he is coming into the role at PWDA not only with a fresh perspective on the important issues, but also with lived experience as a person with disability himself.
In this week’s Changemaker, Smith discusses the advantages of his legal experience, his priorities for the organisation going forward, and why all his personal reading has been set aside for now.
How have you settled into your new role?
It’s been great, I’ve certainly hit the ground running. There’s a lot happening in this space – lots of challenges and opportunities, so I’ve been very busy so far.
What’s your career background?
I’m a lawyer by training. I’ve worked in the environmental and social justice sector for about 20 years or so. Most notably I was the CEO of the Environmental Defenders Office of NSW, a community legal centre that specialises in public interest environmental law.
How does that background help you at PWDA?
Obviously I’ve previously worked in a completely different sector, but I think there are real advantages to that. I can come in fresh with a different perspective on issues. And many of the issues we faced at the EDO are similar to here.
We’re both community organisations, working at the grassroots, and the values and principles that guide our work are similarly about diversity, inclusion and equality.
How does your lived experience with disability influence how you approach your role?
Well while I don’t know all the major players in the sector across the board, I have that experience of living with a disability, so I’m aware of how that affects the way people treat you and the way disability intersects with schooling and friendships and sports and employment and those kinds of things.
So while I don’t have that formal awareness of the sector, I certainly have that personal experience of what people with disability face in their everyday lives.
Do you think your legal experience will help you in the role as well?
PWDA is a human rights focused organisation so I think my legal training is critical to the work we do, in so far as a lot of the work we do is based on the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and the principles embedded in there trickle down into the everyday lives of people.
Whether that’s in the workplace, whether that’s about equality of opportunity or access to justice, I think it’s a real strength to have that legal training. Certainly in the limited time I’ve been here, it’s informed my work on a daily basis.
Is there anything you’ve seen in the role so far that has shocked or surprised you?
It’s certainly opened my eyes to the systemic nature of the many issues people with disability face. We’re about to go into the disability royal commission and we’ll be talking to many people across Australia about their concerns.
And I’m just starting to be exposed to many of those stories as well.
How does a typical day look for you as CEO?
There’s a lot of work to be done, both internally and externally. A typical day for me involves a lot of media inquiries. We have our advocates working really hard and we’re involved at a grassroots level in a range of processes, so I’m trying to get across the extraordinary breadth of work we do.
I’m trying to understand the best role I can play to take the organisation forward.
What are your main priorities for the organisation over the next 12 months?
The real key drivers for us at the moment are the rolling out of the NDIS, the upcoming disability royal commission, and the next iteration of the National Disability Strategy – which will shape Australia’s response to improving the lives and opportunities for people with disability over the next decade or so.
What would you like to achieve during your time as CEO?
There’s two parts to what I’d like to achieve. Firstly, I’d like to be able to walk out the door as CEO having made this place more independent and more resilient.
And externally, I’d like to be part of the processes and solutions working through the National Disability Strategy and the next phase of the NDIS. I want to be able to say that the lives of people with disability have been improved and that people with disability are treated equally and given the same opportunities in their personal and professional lives.
What do you like to do in your spare time?
I’m quite an active person, or I try to be at least. I’ve played soccer all my life and try to do that when I can. I’m also involved in a number of other boards. And generally I just like to engage with friends and family, whenever I get the chance.
Are you reading anything at the moment?
To be honest, my personal reading has been set aside recently, and all my time has been spent getting across the briefs to know what is happening on the ground here.
So that involves reading around the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and getting across all the work that we’re doing. Once I’ve settled into the role a little bit more, maybe I can get back to my personal reading.