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Disability Disability Rights


Dr Sev Ozdowski OAM,
Acting Disability Discrimination Commissioner

Hyatt Hotel, Canberra
Tuesday 26 October 2004

Sev Ozdowski

Acknowledgments and introduction

Heather Ridout, Chief Executive Australian Industry Group;

Thank you for inviting me to speak today.

Allow me to begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land
on which we meet - the Ngunnawal people.

I make this acknowledgment in all my public presentations around Australia,
not only because I believe that it is good manners to do so, but also
because recognising the indigenous history of this land is an important
element in recognising the truth of our diversity as a people.

Last night I enjoyed speaking with many of you during the conference
dinner. I understand that you are very interested in the Government's
proposed industrial relations reform agenda.

This is not my area of authority or expertise. But I would like to caution
against any assumption that the Human Rights Commission will always automatically
be against measures just because they are supported by employers.

Speaking quite personally for a moment I still remember my surprise,
not to say anger, at being required to join the student union at the University
of New England in the 1970s and pay some $200 out of my $4000 scholarship
for something I did not want or need. But, I was told, no ticket no PhD,
so I paid.

Of course as you all know there is more to freedom of choice than absence
of direct coercion. In the context of measures to increase workplace flexibility
I should mention that the Commission remains very interested in seeing
further development of flexible work practices in the direction of work
practices which accommodate workers with family or carer responsibilities,
and workers with disabilities.

I will not comment further today on the industrial relations agenda,
other than to say that I know that our own Minister the Attorney-General
is strongly committed to equality of opportunity, as witnessed by the
recent introduction of age discrimination legislation, and the continuing
support of the Minister and the Government for development of standards
under the Disability Discrimination Act in the areas of education and
access to premises.

Employment a major focus of HREOC resources

You have invited me here to speak on disability issues in my capacity
as Acting Disability Discrimination Commissioner, and I will move on to
those issues in a moment.

As you would be aware, though, the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity
Commission also deals with other aspects of workplace diversity, in areas
such as race, sex and age discrimination. I have also started to work
on guidelines relating to discrimination in employment and criminal record.

In fact employment will become a more major focus for HREOC resources
with the launch of a range of new resources for employers in November

The 'Good Practice, Good Business' Employer's Pack will provide employers
with a range of resources to assist them in addressing discrimination
and harassment in the workplace, including:

  • outlining their responsibilities under anti-discrimination law
  • developing effective workplace policies and best practice guidelines
  • establishing and implementing complaints procedures in the workplace,
  • links to useful publications and websites, including our own newly
    updated 'Information for Employers' website available online at

Disability resources

The Commission also has a range of materials relating more specifically
to disability. These are available on and I have
also made some available in their paper forms for distribution at this

At a general level these include a review which I published last year
of the operation of the DDA in its first ten years, and an introductory
pamphlet on the DDA.
We have tried to make available material which explains the law in simple
and non-technical terms: for example the pamphlet summarises discrimination
and disability as follows:

"Discrimination happens when a person is treated less fairly than
a person without a disability. It also happens when someone is treated
less fairly because they are a relative, friend, carer, co-worker or
associate of a person with a disability. ... The definition of disability
used in the Act is broad, It includes physical, intellectual, psychiatric,
sensory, neurological and learning disabilities. It also includes physical
disfigurement and the presence in the body of disease-causing organisms
such as the HIV virus. The Act covers disabilities that people have
now, had in the past, may have in the future or which they are believed
to have."

The pamphlet also includes some material on equal opportunity for people
with disabilities in the workplace. We have a range of much more detailed
resources in the employment section of the disability rights area of the
Commission's website.

But I do not want to talk today about the details of the law so much
as about day to day realities.

Disability and diversity

Recognition of our diversity is particularly important in discussing
issues in relation to disability.

Because there still often seems to be a lack of recognition that people
with a disability are an inherent part of the diversity of the Australian
community, including in the workforce.

In discussions with people engaged in diversity and equal opportunity
policy and practice, there is often a focus on cultural diversity - and
people with funny accents like mine; or on issues affecting women and
workers with family responsibilities; but much more rarely on disability.

People with disabilities are part of your workforce

Even without discussing disabilities acquired through workplace injuries,
just the high rate of mental health conditions now increasingly recognised
as occurring in the community - as many as one in five of us during our
lives - makes it almost inevitable that every employer at some point will
deal with, or fail to deal with, disability issues.

Similarly, there are recent indications that the rate of significant
hearing loss in the community may be as high as 20%.

Add to this the increasing number of people recognised as having difficulties
in learning or reading, and it should be clear that we are not only talking
about smaller groups of people with more readily recognised disabilities,
such as people who are completely deaf or blind or who use a wheelchair
or have an intellectual disability.

So in talking about disability in relation to any employment issue, we
are really talking about recognising and dealing with the diversity of
the workforce and community as it is now, not proposing some untested
radical social experiment.

Under-investment in people with disabilities as employees

Of course, advocates of equal opportunity are interested in achieving
change, in the direction of increasing opportunities - as a matter of
human rights as well as in terms of sustainable and long term economic

Unemployment rates for people with disabilities are twice those for the
rest of the community, while workforce participation rates are 30% less.

The ABS figures for 2000 indicate that when the general unemployment
rate was 6%, the unemployment rate for people with disabilities was 13%.
The general labour force participation rate for people of working age
was 80% but the corresponding rate for people with disabilities was only

Mr Mark Bagshaw, that tireless proponent of the economic rationalist
case for an inclusive society, has estimated that on these figures government
was spending over $11 billion on paying people not to work - while the
Australian community was losing $41 billion of lost potential productivity.

At the same time, he was only able to identify half a billion dollars
spent on targeted measures to increase employment of people with disabilities
- including frankly quite tiny amounts on the workplace modifications,
wage subsidy and supported wage schemes.

More recently ACROD, the disability services industry association, has
advised me that for every dollar spent on disability support payments
there is five cents being spent on disability employment assistance.

Media coverage

Media coverage of these issues is disappointingly hard to achieve. But
allow me to quote for a moment from an article in last week's Canberra

"There are few examples of social exclusion so glaring as that
experienced by people with a disability and their exclusion from the
mainstream is reflected in many parts of the Australian community. It
is time for a renewed effort to combat that segregation.

The Productivity Commission has found that people with a disability
were less likely to finish school, to have a TAFE or university qualification
and to be employed.

They are more likely to have a below average income, be on a pension,
live in public housing and in prison. The average personal income for
people with a disability is 44 per cent of the income of other Australians.

There are laws in place to discourage discrimination and room to improve
those laws. But laws on their own will not be enough to reach the goal.
We need to transform structures and attitudes to achieve a real integration
and acceptance of people with a disability in our community.

The issue the re-elected Howard Government should address is how to
improve the inclusion and participation of people with a disability,
to help them fulfil their potential. The focus should be on helping
people live better lives, not on budget-cutting exercises like reducing
the Disability Support Pension. …
Part of the change needed is to adapt workplaces to better accommodate
the employment of people with a disability. Work is important for self
esteem and well being. A community's success is often measured in terms
of employment levels and productivity. So improving the employment rates
of people with a disability - where unemployment rates are 70 per cent
higher than the general population - is very important."

Those remarks were from one of our longest serving parliamentarians,
Senator Brian Harradine.

I do not think that he is a person whose opinions could easily dismissed
by any politician, media commentator or other participant in our political
processes as one of the trendy left wing "usual suspects" agreeing
with the party line emanating from the Human Rights Commission.

Welfare reform and participation costs

Senator Harradine's article referred to possible changes to disability
support pensions.

A number of commentators on the recent election result have noted that,
with the changed composition of the Senate, welfare reform in relation
to disability pensions may now progress.

Clearly there are real issues for government to address in this area.

But, like Senator Harradine, I am concerned that there is a risk of the
issue being approached only in terms of pushing people back to work by
reducing or taking away benefits for those assessed as capable of working.

I would hope that we might see a more sophisticated approach which also
includes some discussion of how better to meet the costs of participation
for people with disabilities, and costs of disability related adjustments
for employers.

I would hope to see support from industry bodies for such an approach.

Possible public inquiry

You may be aware that I have been seeking views on the possibility of
the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission conducting an inquiry
on issues affecting employment opportunity and outcomes for people with

I hope to have a decision very shortly on whether and how an inquiry
might proceed but I can say that comments received so far have strongly
supported conducting such an inquiry.

I know that some employers may have more reservations about an inquiry
than some other stakeholders.

So I am very anxious to avoid an inquiry being seen as a negative exercise,
a witch-hunt to impose unjust financial burdens on employers or a venue
for re-hearing of individual complaints. It would be more appropriate
for an inquiry to examine systemic and structural issues rather than seeking
to inquire into individual instances or allegations of discrimination
- since these can be pursued through confidential complaint processes
under the Disability Discrimination Act and largely equivalent State and
Territory laws.

I would see an inquiry as an opportunity to identify instances or areas
of successful or promising practice, as well as areas of barriers and

It would also be an opportunity to examine and draw attention to any
matters in which employers are not getting what they need from governments,
in seeking to take better advantage of the skills and abilities of the
whole of Australia's workforce including people with disabilities - whether
that is in terms of

  • clearer definition of equal opportunity obligations;
  • better co-ordination between discrimination law and other laws;
  • better access to information and advice on practical issues about
    disability and employment issues;
  • more support in meeting costs of adjustments to accommodate workers
    with disabilities, or better information on support available;
  • issues about co-ordination of government programs, or between education
    and training and employment
  • or other issues that employers may have.

Some of these issues were discussed in the review by the Department of
Family and Community Services last year of the Workplace Modifications
Scheme. The process for that review included fairly extensive consultation
and its report made what I think are important recommendations on a wide
range of issues affecting employment of people with disabilities.

I would not want an inquiry to duplicate existing work but I believe
there is a role for an inquiry in giving more publicity and priority to
issues where there have been previous reviews but not always enough implementation.

I do not think that it is an option for us to carry on with business
as usual in this area when the statistical picture on equal opportunity
and participation appears to be so poor.

Indeed, in the Commonwealth Government's own employment the representation
of people with disabilities seems actually to have gone backwards in the
12 years since the Disability Discrimination Act was passed and since
the Senate Community Affairs Committee inquiry on employment of people
with disabilities.

I have already raised the possibility of an inquiry informally with Australian
Industry Group and with other employer bodies.

One important potential part of an inquiry process would be for representative
bodies - whether from industry or the disability community - to auspice
discussions on issues of interest to their constituencies. These could
be public or private, electronic or face to face, or a mix of each as
each organisation concerned thought best.

Productivity Commission inquiry

The proposed enquiry would follow on from the recent Productivity Commission
review of the DDA.

That review was broader - in that it dealt with all issues covered by
the DDA - but also narrower - in that focussed on the legislation rather
than on all the other factors which may affect employment in practice.

Speaking as a member of the Commission which administers the Disability
Discrimination Act, I am in agreement with Senator Harradine in thinking
it is all too easy to over-estimate the importance of legislation in achieving
equality or any other social goal. That is why we are looking at an inquiry
that goes beyond the law reform agenda which occupied most of the attention
of the Productivity Commission inquiry.

At the same time, the Productivity Commission did make important findings
and recommendations.

The Productivity Commission was asked by the Federal Government to review
the effectiveness of the DDA and its costs and benefits. The review found

  • the DDA had an important and continuing role in providing a fair go
    for Australians with disabilities;
  • in-built safeguards in the legislation helped to ensure that benefits
    to the community exceeded costs;
  • overall the DDA has been reasonably effective in reducing discrimination,
  • there is further to go before its objectives are achieved, in particular
    in the employment area.

I think this report confirms that a society which better includes Australians
with disabilities will benefit all of us by being more productive as well
as fairer.

Reasonable adjustment

I regard as particularly important the recommendations to make clearer
the duty under the DDA to make reasonable adjustments to accommodate people
with disabilities in employment and other areas, and also for governments
to share in the costs of making adjustments.

I am not arguing, and I do not believe the Productivity Commission was
arguing, for burdensome new obligations on employers either in procedures
or in substance.

What I regard the inquiry as recommending is rather a clarification of
requirements for reasonable adjustment which are already there in the
DDA but not clearly stated or well defined.

The explanatory memorandum and second reading speech accompanying the
introduction of the DDA clearly indicate that the Act was intended to
require employers (and other parties with obligations under the legislation)
to make reasonable adjustments to accommodate people with disabilities
- subject to a range of important limitations, in particular by reference
to the concepts of "unjustifiable hardship" and the "inherent
requirements" of a particular job.

It must however be conceded that the drafting of the legislation does
not give effect to this intended purpose anywhere near as clearly as might
be desirable.

Section 5 of the DDA defines direct disability discrimination as occurring
where a person with a disability is treated less favourably because of
the disability than persons without the disability are or would be treated
in circumstances which are the same or not materially different. Section
5(2) specifies that for this purpose, the fact that a person with a disability
requires different accommodation or services circumstances is not a material

In the case of Purvis v New South Wales last year the High Court
found, among other things, that section 5(2) did not impose an obligation
to make reasonable adjustments.

HREOC did not consider this decision would seriously undermine the effectiveness
of the DDA - since our longstanding view has been that requirements under
the DDA to make reasonable adjustments arise from DDA section 6, which
(shortly stated) defines indirect discrimination as including any unreasonable
requirements which disadvantage people with a disability.

In the context of employment, relevant requirements also arise from DDA
section 15(4) which provides that it is not unlawful to dismiss or refuse
to employ a person who, because of disability, cannot perform the inherent
requirements of the job without additional services or facilities - but
only if providing those services or facilities would impose unjustifiable

Some comments made in the wake of the Purvis decision, however,
appeared to indicate a view that, because section 5(2) has been found
by the High Court not to impose a general duty to make reasonable adjustments
as part of the concept of direct discrimination, failure to make such
adjustments will not contravene any provision of the DDA.

This included remarks made in the course of two court decisions: Fetherston
v Peninsula Health
in the Federal Magistrates Court and Forbes
v Australian Federal Police
in the Federal Court.

I do not know whether many employers would have seen these comments and
been confused by them, or simply discounted them instead, taking into
account the number of previous cases where the DDA has operated as intended
and been interpreted to include a requirement to make reasonable adjustments
where necessary subject to limits based on unjustifiable hardship and
the inherent requirements of the job.

For example, in Daghlian v Australian Postal Corporation in 2003
the Federal Court found unlawful discrimination in requiring a counter
worker who had a disability to work without a stool to sit on.

In Cosma v Qantas Airways Limited, also in 2003 the Court confirmed
that there was a duty to make adjustments to enable an employee to perform
the inherent requirements of the job, while also confirming that this
did not extend to requiring permanent alteration of those requirements
to suit the capacities of an injured employee.

The recent decision of the Full Federal Court in Clarke v Catholic
Education Office
makes clear that employers should not be misled into
thinking that the DDA does not require reasonable adjustment.

All that the decision of the High Court in Purvis v NSW means
in this context is that the legal basis of reasonable adjustment is found
in the DDA's coverage of indirect rather than direct discrimination.

Clearly, though, it would be better for the legislation to spell out
more clearly what is and is not required instead of having to go through
these sorts of arguments in the courts.


I hope to see a response from government to this and other recommendations
from the Productivity Commission review as soon as possible now that the
election is settled.

But as I have said, reform of the details of discrimination law is clearly
not the whole story in working towards a society which provides for more
equal participation by all its members, and an economy which makes more
productive use of available human resources, by more effectively including
people with disabilities.

The public inquiry I am proposing is intended as I have said not as a
hunt for the guilty but as a search for new and better ways of working
together towards these goals. I would be very happy to take up any suggestions
for co-operation through this process or in other means of advancing productive
use of diversity and equal employment opportunity for Australians with

Thank you