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Launch of Illawarra Shoalhaven Local Health District Action Plan

Disability Rights

I acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we meet today.

Sarah - not her real name - studied law at university. Not only did she earn a good law degree, she won the university medal. She also won competitions for mooting- conducting mock trials for those of you smart enough not to have chosen law as your profession. She could not get a job - or even an interview - with the Australian public service because she has a significant disability, including using a wheelchair, and some verbal communication issues.

Damon is a great computer programmer. He has written programmes which have won competitions, and has helped develop apps which have got to the top of the app store.  But - as a result of his Asperger’s syndrome - he is just not a good communicator, and doesn't really like people. He can write great programmes, but can't get a job because he can't get through the job interview.

Graeme went for jobs in thirty different legal firms during the year after he got his law degree. He got none of them. Finally he took a job as a clerical assistant- the lowest level in the NSW Public Service. He used to joke that he was the only clerical assistant in the public service with a law degree. His first job was answering the phone, and telling people the winning lotto numbers. He was made redundant from that by an answering machine. He now stands before you as Australia's Disability Discrimination Commissioner.

You would think that someone with these people's qualifications would walk into a job with most organisations.

These stories - which are real - are backed up by the statistics. People with disability are 21% less likely to have completed year 12 than people without a disability.  Of people with disability who have completed year 12, 9.7% less of them will have completed a Bachelor’s degree or higher qualification.

The labour force participation rate of people with disability is 54.3%, and for the general population it is 82.8 %. Around 15% of the population of working age has a disability.  The rate of people with disability employed in the Commonwealth public service is 2.9%, less than half what it was fifteen years ago.

These stories and statistics are all good reasons for having a DDA Action Plan. We need to greatly increase awareness of people with disability, and the issues we face.  That's one good reason why you need a DDA Action Plan.

Further, there are a number of legal responsibilities and liabilities under Federal discrimination laws that can be addressed through the development of a plan. While Action Plans under the DDA are a voluntary provision, developing and lodging them with the Commission provides some protection from successful complaints.  This is because the progressive identification and removal of barriers reduces the chances of complaints, and because in the event of a complaint being lodged an Action Plan can form part of a defence should the complaint proceed to the Federal Court.

Also there is the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, the Disability Convention or DisCo as I like to refer to it. The Australian Government ratified the DisCo in July 2009, which means that all levels of Government have a duty to act in a way that furthers progressive realisation of its Articles. This includes an obligation to remove barriers to the provision of a quality health service to people with disabilities, a very relevant facet of the work of this organisation.

Thirdly, Federal and State governments - through COAG - have developed a National Disability Strategy which uses the Convention as its reference point. It strengthens obligations across Government to develop pro-active approaches to barrier elimination.

The Commission has no approval or monitoring functions in relation to Action Plans.  But we have gained valuable experience in understanding the sort of factors that lead to effective plans, and not so effective plans. We have acronyms for some that don't work so well.

Firstly, there is The NAP or Nobodies Action Plan. It tends to take a nap at the back of a filing cabinet.

There is the STRAP or Someone's Taken the Resources Action Plan. It is the sort that is high on rhetoric, but low on outcomes, often because it is strapped for cash.

There is the FLAP or Floundering and Lost Action Plan. It is the sort that struggles to integrate itself into the organisations general business activities. It tends to flap around like a fish out of water.

I also note the Created Reluctantly Action Plan - think about the acronym - which fails to get organisational leadership endorsement.

Joking aside these acronyms do point to a very real set of difficulties which have an effect on the development and implementation of action plans.

Here are some of these factors that I believe lead to more effective action plans:
First work to get senior management commitment. If you have commitment from senior management for the development of the plan, then you are more likely to ensure that meaningful timeframes and financial and human resources are allocated for implementation of the plan. The Federal Department of Health are star performers on employment of people with disability - they employ something like twice the average percentage across federal government. That's because they appointed a Deputy Secretary as their Disability Champion, and she ensured that employment of people with disability was embedded across the department. This is the fifth priority of your plan, but it won't happen without real commitment to implementation.

Unfortunately it is often the case that senior management commitments arise from an obligation rather than a passion to do things well. I and my staff regularly talk to people charged with responsibility for implementing action plans who clearly just don't "get it".

They don't get why it is that a ramp without handrails on both sides, and kerb rails, is dangerous. They don't get why it is that glazed doors need to have colour contrast strips across them. They don't get why it is that a PDF document on a website is inaccessible to blind readers. They don't get why it is that staff attitudes are less likely to change without some leadership being shown at the highest levels.

My office has produced a free CD called The Good, the Bad and the Ugly which can be used as part of a staff awareness program to inform people about how people with disabilities move around in, and use, the built environment. Better access is the first priority of your plan, so I have brought ten copies with me today to assist in your audit processes. We can send more if you need them.

Second, promote a sense of ownership through celebrating the achievement of milestones. The actual process of development or review of Action Plans can be used to promote a sense of ownership among staff and managers, and consequently a commitment to effective implementation. A Disability Network amongst staff is one good example.

Third allocate Action Plan implementation responsibilities to specific individual positions.  Responsibility for implementation should be delegated to a position of some authority, such as a section manager, to ensure that it is viewed as a high level activity.  Preferably responsibilities should be written into the job description or Performance Assessments of the delegated position rather than allocated generally to a Branch or section. How many of you here can name three items in this Action Plan for which you are responsible?

Fourth, allocate priorities and don't over commit. An Action Plan may include a large number of strategies and tasks to be performed. Some will be big ticket items involving considerable resource allocation over a period of time while others will be cost neutral.  It is important that some system of prioritizing is included in the plan. It may sound obvious, but the commitments made in a plan have to be carefully budgeted for, and receive appropriate budget committee endorsement.

Fifth, develop objectives that can be measured in terms of real outcomes for people with a disability. One area I know many organisations have difficulty in is that of developing an evaluation strategy that does more than measure the number of tasks that have been completed. For example, while producing accessible information on the services an organisation provides is important, the successful production of that information says nothing about whether or not the service has become more accessible to people with a disability. This is your second priority, so it’s important to get it right.

Far too often an evaluation strategy takes the form of ticking boxes to ensure tasks are completed rather than measuring whether or not all your tasks have resulted in better outcomes for people with a disability. It is relatively easy to develop an evaluation strategy around whether or not the organisations website is accessible to blind people as a result of completing a number of tasks. It is much more difficult to develop an evaluation strategy around something more global such as "Promoting inclusion and participation in the community of persons with a disability".

When faced with this difficulty the best action plans I have seen have been those that break down global objectives into a series of outcomes that are within the sphere of influence of the organisation and which can be measured. For example, this organisation might not have many opportunities to influence public participation for people with a disability, but it may have a community consultative committee on an issue, and could develop strategies to ensure that suitably qualified and experienced people with a disability participate in such a committee. It's all about getting the whole of the organisation thinking about the Action Plan.

Finally make sure you recognise the importance of continuing consultation by building it into your Plan's strategies. For example, strategies to consult with people with disabilities when developing or amending policies and practices; strategies to include people with disabilities in the evaluation and review of your Plan and strategies to provide existing employees with disabilities opportunities to continue to contribute their ideas and experiences.

The key thing about an Action Plan is that it makes you think about including everyone, rather than just those people without disability. It makes you think about agreeing to reasonable accommodation for employees- whether that's an adjustable height desk, a negotiation of part-time work or different hours for someone experiencing a dip in their mental health, or the use of a stool for someone who cannot stand for long periods whilst serving customers.

It also encourages you to find opportunities. Let me use some examples very relevant to this organisation. Do your policies or guidelines on making and changing appointments include communication by text as well as by phone? Does all of your procurement- for equipment and recruitment of employees- require your suppliers to take disability and access into account? Do your tender processes - for instance for catering etc- focus on organisations which employ people with disabilities?

The ABC recently made an access mistake- releasing an iPhone app which was not accessible to people using voice output on phones. They have rectified it now, but not before a grumpy call from the Disability Discrimination Commissioner who could not use it, and not without extra cost because they did not build access into the tender in the first place.

The development and implementation of an effective action plan relies on the ability of an organisation, and its leadership, to embrace the need to address barriers to participation and to actively welcome the contribution people with a disability can make.  You play a vital role in facilitating change in your organisation, so that the contribution of people with disability can be recognised, elevated and celebrated. Don't lose the chance to have participation from 20% of the community.

I am pleased to launch this Action Plan, and encourage you to make its commitments a reality throughout this organisation.

Thanks for the chance to speak with you today.

Graeme Innes AM, Disability Discrimination Commissioner