Your greatest achievement as Disability Discrimination Commissioner?
It is hard to choose one particular achievement as there have been a range of issues over the past 15 years as Commissioner and Deputy Commissioner. I think the drafting and passage of The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and the drafting of various regulations on access to premises and public transport were highlights. But the development of the 20 years/20 stories short film series probably stands out. This is a series of five minute films that celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Disability Discrimination Act and show how the Act has changed the lives of people with disability.
The biggest disappoint or something you wish had come off but has not?
There are always disappointments when you are working on policy and policy development. I was disappointed at how long the regulations on premises and transport took – these should have been in place years earlier. Probably most of my disappointments relate to delays and the sluggish process of government. There was a treaty passed last year that amended copyright law to allow books in alternate formats for people who are blind or who have print disabilities to be shared across borders. The Australian government only signed that treaty last week but it could have happened six or eight months ago. This is typical of government, not just of the present government but of the government process. The biggest disappointment for me however has been the lack of change in the job market for people with disabilities. The difference between the participation rate of people with disability and those in the general population is about 30 per cent and it has stayed at this level during my tenure at the Commission. We have worked very hard to change this but the situation is not improving.
What are your views on the changes to the Disability Support Pension that have just been flagged?
The problem is there are constant reviews and toughening up of the criteria for the Disability Support Pension but what we don’t have is a jobs plan. Of course we want to move people with disability off welfare, but there is no point in making welfare harder if there are no jobs available. Government has been a shocking exponent of that. In the late 90s participation in the public service was 5.8 per cent for people with disability and it’s now down to 2.9 per cent. Clearly it has gone the wrong way in the past 15 years yet government makes welfare more difficult to receive. I don’t think a legislative measure is the answer either. I think what is needed is commitment to the employment of people with disability by setting targets in organisations and it can be done. Westpac employs 13 per cent of people with disability in its workforce. The Department of Health & Ageing employs 10 per cent of people with disability. So it is achievable. It needs the establishment of targets and initiatives to make middle managers more prepared to employ people with disabilities.
What are your plans when you depart the Human Rights Commission?
I am building a portfolio of board directorships and I will also be doing consultancies in the disability and human rights sectors. I plan to continue to work on some issues that are very important to me. Probably the main one is the negative attitude of some people towards people with disability and the need to change that.
The most challenging thing about your life?
The negative attitude of people towards those with disability – I call it ‘the attitude barrier’ which is the biggest barrier that all people with disability face. The attitude in Australia towards disability is significantly negative and limiting. A lot of people make assumptions about those with disability usually regarding the things we are unable to do, which affects the attitude to employment and most of these assumptions are wrong. Added to this is the media who in some instances demonise people with disability. One media organisation recently referred to them as ‘slackers or shirkers’ and unfortunately that re-enforces the negative perceptions about people with disability. What we need to do as a society is change those attitudes and this is going to take work. It is something I plan to get more involved with when I leave the Commission.
Which living person or persons would you like to meet and why?
I think Barack Obama and Nelson Mandela were he still alive and Julia Gillard. What I admired about all of them was their capacity to positively lead change for groups that are disadvantaged. For example people of colour in terms of Mandela and Obama and for women with Julia Gillard. That is what I have worked towards in the disability sector. There are many others who lead change throughout the world and work hard to create a better society and recognise the need to remove disadvantage in it. That’s what has driven most of my career – wanting to challenge that disadvantage.
What makes you laugh?
Satire makes me laugh, particularly political satire. Some of my favourite comedians are Clarke and Dawe on the ABC, John Oliver from The Daily Show in the US and going back to Monty Python, who all show the foolishness in society by satirising it.
In your spare time you like to…?
I follow cricket pretty avidly and share-own a yacht and love to sail whenever I can. I also enjoy reading and spending time with my family.
Your most treasured possession?
I think it would be my iPhone because it allows me more independence. It gives me access to a huge range of material on the internet and lets me communicate and interact with people in many ways as well as waking me in the mornings. Possessions are not things that are high on my agenda as I am more interested in people, the quality of life and experiences.