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The critical task of changing community attitudes towards disability

Disability Rights

The following speech was an opening presentation delivered by Disability Discrimination Commissioner Ben Gauntlett at a workshop on community attitudes towards people with disability convened by the Victorian Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Disability, held in Melbourne on June 28, 2019.

Ladies and gentlemen, distinguished guests, I too acknowledge my deep respect to the traditional owners of the land, the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin nation. I pay respect to their Elders past, present and emerging and acknowledge their continuing connection to the land. I also acknowledge any other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Elders or community members who are here today and acknowledge their presence. 

I would particularly like to commend the Victorian Government, the Department of Health and Human Services, the University of Melbourne Disability Institute and the Victorian Disability Advisory Council for collaborating and organising this important workshop and I was delighted to receive an invitation to speak. 

This forum addresses a significant issue; that issue is to understand and be aware of the negative perceptions that pervade community views in relation to people with disability. It is to promote new dialogue and use best practices to try and move forward to understand the issues and to make sure we reach sustainable change. We need to address the barriers to inclusion for people with disabilities in all parts of society and we also need to understand how we may go about changing or reducing those barriers.

While the National Disability Insurance Scheme or NDIS was undoubtedly discussed at the recent Federal Election, really two key alternative themes emerged. One was the issue of housing, and taxation relating to housing, and another was infrastructure spending and the importance of infrastructure spending in the economy. 

Both policies are undoubtedly economic, but both policies have a complicated interrelationship with other policies which makes us have to be aware of how a number of moving policy parts link together. In discussing the NDIS, where there was silence, was an understanding of the role of the National Disability Strategy. The NDIS should be seen for what it is, which is a subset of the National Disability Strategy and it is the National Disability Strategy which informs how Australia should operate to ensure that we have a collective policy or policies for people with disability that reflects our human rights obligations. 

In terms of the outline of what I'll present to you today, I will start off by giving a human rights context which relates to disability in Australia and in particular awareness-raising. I will then relate the CRPD, or the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, to the National Disability Strategy. I will outline a little bit of what I know about current community attitudes relating to people with disabilities. I don't want to overstep the mark and talk about Professor Anne Kavanagh's really important work but I can say it is ground-breaking and it is important. 

I will then give a few tentative views about what works and what perhaps doesn't work but again I will let the panel who are experts give their views as to what they think is important. And, finally, I will round off by giving what I think a targeted campaign should look like and outline three critical issues which are considered in the sector in terms of changing the perception of how people with disabilities are viewed in Australia. 

As some of you or perhaps all of you are aware, Australia has international obligations in respect of people with disabilities relating to the Convention of the Rights of People with Disability, that was ratified in 2008. As part of that Convention, Article 8 requires States who are party to it to deal with the issue of awareness-raising and in particular, and without reading the article in full, what it asks society to do is to raise awareness to challenge stereotypes and promote awareness and the capability of people with disability. 

These measures include positive perceptions, greater social awareness, recognition of skills, fostering levels of the education system including children from an early age an attitude on the rights of persons with disabilities and encouraging all organs of the media to portray persons with disability in a manner consistent with the purpose of the present convention. 

Australia's response to entering into the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities was to enter into the National Disability Strategy. It was entered into in 2011 between Federal and State Governments and had six foundational elements or policy areas. In broad terms, they were that we have: 

  1. inclusive communities (relating to the physical and the built environment and also civic life); 
  2. rights protection, justice and legislation (being statutory protections - that includes anti-discrimination measures for parties); 
  3. economic security (being jobs, business opportunities and financial independence of people with disabilities); 
  4. personal and community support for persons with disabilities (including their active participation in society with a person-centred model being adopted); 
  5. learning and skills (relating to early childhood schooling, further education and vocational education); and 
  6. health and wellbeing. 

It is obvious there that the National Disability Strategy, when it was entered into, sought to raise awareness. It sought to raise the issue of the acceptance of the rights of people with disability in the community. However, a review of the National Disability Strategy undertaken by the UNSW Centre for Social Policy in 2019 found that the public awareness of human rights of people with disability was critical to the strategy but the strategy had only been adopted in a piecemeal fashion, that is, there was no coherent overall approach to how the strategy should be adopted. This is perhaps obvious. 

At the Human Rights Commission we receive a number of complaints relating to different areas of discrimination. But the overwhelming area of complaint in terms of discrimination is on the grounds of disability. Over the last five years, substantive complaints have been disability-related. In 2017-18 it was 42%. These statistics indicate that there is an ongoing need for education, awareness and social change. 

There are also unresolved questions as to whether the Disability Discrimination Act 1992 (Cth) at a Commonwealth level is fit for purpose. And the Australian Government should ensure that the next iteration of a National Disability Strategy incorporates policy directions to try and deal with this issue. There is an overwhelming need for the next iteration of the National Disability Strategy to focus on the National Disability Strategy as a whole and not just the NDIS. 

The NDIS will only be applicable to 10% of persons with disability and does not deal with the interrelationship of people with disability in society. It is that interrelationship between people with disabilities in society which can bear very strongly on the success and efficacy of the NDIS and when we look at issues such as infrastructure and tax policy and we look at how Governments implement it, they are aware of the interrelationship between a piece of physical infrastructure and tax and the outcome for society. 

If “infrastructure” is viewed as a system or policy choice to achieve a certain outcome, what I want to say to you today is the next piece of critical infrastructure in Australia is the National Disability Strategy. We know that current community attitudes towards people with disability are not good. We know from the studies that Professor Anne Kavanagh will present that people with disabilities are viewed as sometimes not having a meaningful role in society. But we also know that there is room for improvement and some people hold very progressive and appropriate views. 

At an economic level we need to be realistic, however. In a 2011 study from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), Australia ranked 21st out of 29 countries in terms of the employment of people with disability. There is much room for improvement. 

So then how do we improve an issue when everyone can point to a problem but not necessarily a solution? Days like today are an obvious start. I am not a psychologist or a social scientist, I am sadly just a bit of a nerd. And I did a bit of reading in terms of this topic to try to understand what I was talking about. And what I realised was behaviour among people can be effective at three levels. 

There is a personal policy level which deals with human interaction, there is an organisational policy level which deals within a domain such as the education or work sectors, and there is a structural policy level where there is legislation or policy by Government such as building standards or legislation relating to discrimination. 

Any policy seeking to effect social change must deal with all three levels, and any policy looking to effect social change must be properly funded. It must exist for a sustainable period of time. 

An example of where we need to reconsider the change that may take place is in the area of education. There is no place for segregation in education. People with disabilities should be included in the classrooms of people without disabilities. There is no divide that should take place. It is important and critical to realise that how do you get a situation where we remove one aspect of the community for 20 years from dealing with another aspect of the community and then say, "Why don't you come together 20 years later?"  

The logic simply does not exist. I am aware that that would require a significant reform of the education sector. But it is a critical reform because if you want to build sustainable social change, you start with children and young people to have those changes for their lifetime. 

In being a nerd, I have also looked at what happens overseas, and I have been aware of a number of publicly available campaigns that have taken place. They principally occurred in New Zealand, the UK, and Scotland and related to mental health. In particular, they were the “Time To Change” campaign in the UK which was reviewed as being very positive, and the “Like Minds, Like Mine” campaign in New Zealand. All campaigns were seen as being effective because of the long-term commitment of Government. 

In a NSW Government rapid literature review undertaken by Family and Community Services in relation to this area it was noted that there was no overall campaign relating to the whole of the disability sector. It has instead been undertaken on a piecemeal basis relating to individual issues. Hopefully that will change. 

What we know from those campaigns and what works is that we need national exposure, we need to target different types of media, and we need to target different levels on which you can affect people's views. You need to consult with people with disabilities and their organisations to ensure that the messages broadcast are respectful and you need to understand that different aspects of the community will have different views as to what is appropriate and each individual aspect needs to be separately targeted. 

And perhaps most importantly and I thank the Victorian Government for undertaking the study, we need data. We need a clear data set of the benefits or the lack of benefit of certain campaigns taking place. And we need to debate the efficacy of that data and do so regularly. 

I want to now outline three areas where I consider that the media will have a critical role going forward relating to people with disabilities. 

First, in the upcoming Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability, there will be significant media coverage of the events giving rise to the Commission. However, there is a risk that the media may entrench negative stereotypes and protectionist attitudes towards people with disability. 

Representatives from the media and the Human Rights Commission are aware of this and are trying to act to prevent such attitudes. The media should not patronise or should not demonise, it should not normalise, and it should not victimise people with disabilities. Abuse is abuse. And it needs to be clearly articulated, much like violence against women, that that is what is occurring. 

Another area we need to be cognisant of is trying to get people to work in a sector relating to people with disabilities. The NDIS was set up on the basis that there are markets for certain services. That is at a pure economic level, that when a person was receiving a certain amount of funds they would be able to proceed into the community and obtain services at a certain price. It was assumed or hoped that those services would exist. 

I don't want to be unfair to the National Disability Insurance Agency because I am aware that they know about the issue but the numbers are concerning. We need advertising to ensure that people feel comfortable working with people with disability. We need an extensive economic shock to ensure that a supply side constraint does not exist in terms of making sure that the NDIS does its job. 

And finally, we need to make sure that people with disabilities have confidence in who they are. They need to be proud, and to be proud you need to be happy. And to be happy, you need to not have darkness about the sector being broadcast all the time. We need humanity, we need laughter, we need light. We need to normalise behaviour so that people feel comfortable and ultimately my hope as Disability Discrimination Commissioner is that we move from a situation where there is not an ‘Us’ and ‘Them’ but a ‘We’. 

We, the people of Australia, need good disability policy. We need it because it reflects our human rights obligation. We need it because it makes economic sense. And we need it most of all because it's the right thing to do. And we, the people of Australia, require an extensive intervention in terms of dealing with awareness issues relating to people with disabilities to enable the next iteration of the National Disability Strategy to be a successful one. 

I am delighted to be here today. I look forward to hearing the experts rather than the nerds but other than that I am happy to meet you all and hopefully we do come up with some good solutions by the end. 

Thank you.

Dr Ben Gauntlett

Dr Ben Gauntlett, Disability Discrimination Commissioner

Disability Rights