Skip to main content

Equality by degrees

Disability Disability Rights

Equality by degrees: a place on the


April 2000

Deputy Disability Discrimination Commissioner
Human Rights And Equal Opportunity Commission

Graeme Innes

Members of academic staff, Guests, and most importantly new Graduates:

honoured to give this address. I completed my law degree at this university,
and well remember the December day in 1977 when I received it. It was
the culmination of four years of hard work, experiencing the pleasures
and trials of campus life, and acquiring - as well as a reasonable amount
of legal knowledge - a much broader appreciation of the world around me,
warts and all.

I can
imagine your feelings as graduates - relief, the glow of satisfaction,
and the excitement and trepidation of putting your knowledge to work in
the world outside academia. I can also imagine how proud those of you
who are family members and close friends must feel. You know that now
there is family life after a university degree.

a Sydney University graduate, I am allowed a short time for reminiscing.
However, the vice-chancelor's hand is poised over the buzzer, so I'll

was Rosa Parkes? Perhaps recollection would improve if I said that she
refused to sit at the back of the bus? In the 60's various governments
in the United States spent millions of dollars providing a public transport
system, but in many places if you were black you could only ride at the
back. Rosa Parkes  action was the catalyst for the the civil rights

the 60s and 70s Aboriginal people were allowed to drink in hotels, but
only in the public bar. Sadly, in more isolated areas, this continued
well into the 80s and 90s.

the 50's and 60's women were not allowed in to the public bars of hotels.
They could go into the lounge, or the ladies lounge.

last century, and in some places during this century, women were not allowed
to vote. And again in some places it is less than 100 years since women
have been allowed to receive a university education.

course, if these things occurred today we would be outraged.

types of discrimination have been stopped by changes of community attitudes,
reinforced by State and Federal legislation.

example of women's access to the public bar is an interesting one, though,
because unlike most of the others it was often justified on the basis
that "ladies" should not have to put up with the indelicacies
that occurred there. In other words, it was "for their own good"
and done as a very patronising form of exclusion. This is exactly the
type of exclusion which people with a disability have suffered for many
years and sadly, unlike gender and race discrimination, we still have
a long way to go to redress it.

me tell you a story. Bradley Kinsela, like many of you today, completed
his degree in human services, in the social sciences school of Queensland
University of Technology in 1997.

conducted its degree ceremonies in the Brisbane Concert Hall. It is a
tiered venue, and the graduands walk down steps to their seats in the
front row at the commencement of the ceremony. They then walk up steps
to the platform where they receive their degrees, and back down steps
when they have finished. There is no other access to the hall or the platform.

uses a wheelchair. The only way in which he could participate in the ceremony
was to sit backstage whilst his colleagues walked in and sat in the hall,
come on to the stage to receive his degree, and then go and sit backstage

course co-ordinator wrote to the university in 1994 pointing out that
if the university wanted to fully include students with a disability this
issue would need to be addressed. The Commonwealth Disability Discrimination
Act had been passed in 1992, and similar Queensland legislation followed
several years later. No action was taken.

lodged a complaint under the Disability Discrimination Act. In her decision
on that complaint, hearing commissioner Roslyn Atkinson said in part:

end product of any university education is expected to be a degree or
diploma, undergraduate or postgraduate, and universities have traditionally
had degree awarding ceremonies to recognise the students. ..  The
ceremonies are usually very moving for the family and friends of the graduating
students, and the last opportunity where the student group is together
as a student group."

went on:

the venue is changed Mr Kinsela will be able to participate in the processionary
and recessionary marches. He will be able to sit with his fellow graduands
during the graduation ceremony, and he will be able to progress with his
fellow graduands from the body of the hall to the stage for the actual
presentation of the degree. These, for the reasons I set out earlier,
are not trivial matters, and all go to the undoubted goals of the Act
- inclusiveness, accessibility and availability."

Atkinson found the complaint substantiated, and directed QUT to provide
facilities for the complainant s graduation ceremony that would enable
him to participate in the same way that any able-bodied person would participate.

by now you understand why I am speaking from this level when everyone
else has spoken from up there. I could, if I chose, walk up these stairs
in the same way as most of you. But I am not prepared, as a matter of
principle, to speak from a platform which excludes people with mobility
disabilities. I cannot support an attitude which means that Rosa doesn't
just sit at the back of the bus but can't get on it.

I am
particularly saddened to be making these remarks because I too am a graduate
of this University. And I do not suggest that the university has made
no effort to make its facilities accessible to people with disabilities.
I know that in this year s budget three quarters of a million dollars
was spent on making campus facilities accessible. I know too that a disability
liason officer is employed to ensure that these issues are addressed.
But these ceremonies are the public face of the University, and the celebration
of students ultimate achievements. To prevent students from accessing
the stage, and to single them out as different by having them receive
their degrees down here, and not up there, is to not fully include them
as part of the university community. To not include students with a disability
in this part of the process is just like banning them from the public
bar, or keeping them off the bus.

right, you might say, as new graduates, what's this bloke on about. He's
made his point about access, but what has that got to do with us? The
university's tardiness is not our fault?

my answer to you is that, as graduates in the school of health and leisure
sciences, the message of inclusion has got everything to do with you,
and it is that message that I would like you to take away from this ceremony,
along with the well justified pride and pleasure you have in obtaining
your degree.

and how a person receives their degree is just one example of the much
broader problem of exclusion that people with a disability face every
day of their lives. It is often done with the best of intentions, but
the way to hell is paved with good intentions.

with disabilities have been institutionalised for years - and some still
are - with the justification that "it is the best place for them"
or "they wouldn't survive in the community".

with disabilities have been sent to work in sheltered workshops, receiving
in a week what some of us receive in an hour, because "they are happier
with their own kind". When national unemployment sits around 7% the
rate for people with a disability is about 70% : 10 times the national
average. People with disabilities are described in conversation and in
the media as sufferers, as incredibly brave, or as achieving against the
odds. These perceived bestowings of praise are compromised, because they
are patronising and reinforce the charity mentality.

power of people with disabilities is constantly taken away, and we have
to fight to retain it. We are often prevented from taking what others
perceive to be dangerous risks in the name of our own protection; limited
in our expectations in the guise of reality;  and given narrowed
alternatives for the rest of our lives in the guise of good professional
advice. And if these things are  challenged then we have a chip on
our shoulder, or we're not professionally qualified so we wouldn't know.

may say this is extreme: I don't think so. I was amazed last year - when
Bruce Maguire lodged a successful discrimination complaint against SOCOG
for not providing the Olympic ticket book in Braille - how many people
said to me "why would you want the ticket book in braille anyway- what's
the point of you going to the events if you can't see them". As an avid
cricket-goer all of my life I found this view incomprehensible. If you
just wanted to see the games you'd get a much better view on television.
After all, isn't the SOCOG message "there's nothing like being there".

I agree
that attitudes are changing, but the  pendulum has a long way to
swing. You can help to increase the momentum of that swing.

of you have already started in that direction. Some of you have, in your
last year, spent time working in India and Fiji with community groups
- using your knowledge and training to support and empower both individuals
and the communities in which they live. Others in the area of aged care,
have worked in the  community to develop people's leisure needs within
that community - further empowerment. Some of you have chosen to apply
your knowledge and experience, as the holders of human movement, education
or psychology qualifications, to the masters degree in occupational therapy.
Such skill mixes can provide you with the capacity to both empower your
clients, and change the attitudes of those around them, so that less limits
are placed on the clients with disability who you support. Some students,
as part of their course, have - through the NSW sports council for people
with disabilities- buddied themselves with people with brain injury to
participate in community leisure activities.

positive role modelling can have very beneficial effects.

A course
such as yours now goes beyond rehabilitation and provides you with the
skills to support people to do better, and to do the things that they
would like to do. This, too, provides you with a unique opportunity to
become agents of change. You will also have the chance to be proactive
in supporting the need for physical and other access to all aspects of
community life. 

course these opportunities are not without their difficulty.

will need to seriously consider balancing the issues of service provision
and advocacy, and your personal stand will probably have an impact on
the direction your career will take. The two are not always mutually exclusive,
but the line between them, and the placing of allegances day by day to
clients, employers, and your profession will probably cause as many sleepless
nights as the study you had to do to get this degree in the first place.

conclude my remarks now, because I know that there are many family members
and friends who can't wait to bestow on these newly qualified people the
congratulations your achievements have justly earned. And may I take this
chance to add my good wishes.

I'd like to throw out some challenges. I challenge Sydney University to
make the changes necessary to fully include all of its students in the
ceremony which celebrates the peak of their  learning achievements
- let Rosa on to the bus.

I challenge you graduates to set as one of your professional goals supporting
people with a disability gain full participation and equality. Meeting
these challenges will not just benefit people with a disability. As with
the progress towards race and gender equality they will improve the quality
of the whole community.