Skip to main content

Speech:Advocacy Disability Ethnicity Community (ADEC) DVD launch "Can I do it my way" (2010)

Race Race Discrimination

Action on Disability in Ethnic Communities (ADEC) DVD launch "Can I do it my way"

Graeme Innes AM
Disability Discrimination Commissioner and Race Discrimination Commissioner
Australian Human Rights Commission

Parliament House, Melbourne

7 September 2010

I begin by acknowledging the Wurundjeri people, the Traditional owners of
this Land.

Good morning. I am pleased to be asked to launch the Action on Disability
in Ethnic Communities DVD, "Can I Do It My Way".

And the obvious answer, having
seen the stories featured, and to mis-quote the US President, is "yes we

One of the things that struck me when I watched this DVD was that, despite
cultural differences, many of the issues faced by these five inspiring people
are universal.

The need to live life with dignity, to have an education, meaningful
employment and adequate housing, these are basic human rights for all of us.
They are a real demonstration of the Australian Human Rights Commission
catch-phrase- "human rights: everyone, every where, every day."

Sadly, a lot of us with disabilities often struggle to obtain these rights in
our lives. To use Bill Shorten's words "disability is the last frontier of
practical civil rights". This DVD will assist to advance that struggle to obtain
practical rights, and I want to talk today about how that works, what lessons we
can learn from it, and what other methods exist to advance that struggle.

Those of us who work in the human rights sector struggle with the most
effective way to achieve significant structural change towards receipt of
rights, and equality of opportunity. The five stories in this DVD are individual
achievements to be celebrated. But, rather than being individual victories, the
DVD aims to use them as catalysts for broader change- both by encouraging other
individuals to pursue similar paths, but also by showing how our current
society, and service systems, are set up to restrict and narrow the lives of
Australians with disability. And this is often done with the best of intentions.
Susan Daniels describes it as the soft bigotry of low expectations. And such
bigotry needs to be challenged if practical civil rights are to be achieved.

Telling stories is an important element in this process. Stories can
challenge perceptions. They remind people that barriers still exist to an equal
society. And sometimes, stories inspire change.

I am sure that many of you in ADEC recall the story of Dr. Bernhard Moeller,
who was initially refused permanent residency in Australia because his 13 year
old son had Down's Syndrome. Fortunately, after some good advocacy, and the
media attention that this case received, the Minister intervened, and allowed
Dr. Moeller's family to remain in Australia.

This, and other similar cases, led to a Parliamentary Inquiry into the way
people with disability were treated in migration decisions.

The current Commonwealth Migration Act requires that all people who apply to
migrate to Australia must pass a health check. If a person has any pre-existing
medical conditions, their visa will be assessed on whether this condition places
an undue burden on the Australian health system.

The Human Rights Commission's submission to the Inquiry recommended that,
when making decisions about visa applications, greater emphasis should be placed
on the significant contributions that people with disabilities make to
Australia's social, economic and cultural life.

It was pleasing that in its final report, the inquiry also adopted this
position, and recommended an urgent change in the approach to processing the
visa applications of people, or families of people, with a disability.

This is an important step forward, and a recommendation we should be urging
Government to take up. However, remember that Dr Moeller's family was allowed to
stay in Australia because of the contributions that he had made as a GP in a
country town. No recognition was given to the important contribution that his
son could make to the Australian community in years to come.

Until people with disabilities are recognised as having equal value by the
wider Australian community, there is more work for the Commission, and for
organisations such as ADEC to do. This DVD is an excellent contribution to that

Another way that we can work towards a more just Australia is by telling our
stories when we are treated unfairly. As you may know, the Commission
investigates and conciliates complaints under federal anti-discrimination law.

The discrimination laws are not perfect. They rely on people, people like you
or I, to make complaints if discrimination is occurring.

I understand that there are reasons why people with disabilities, and people
from a migrant background, might have difficulty making a complaint.
Communication can be difficult for those whose first language is not English.
Discrimination is sometimes hard to prove, particularly in relation to accessing
services and employment.

We know that discrimination is chronically underreported. Data from the
Challenging Racism project, which surveyed 20,000 people across Australia,
indicated that around 85 percent of people believed that racism is a current
issue, and 20 percent had experienced race-hate talk.

However, these findings are not reflected in the Commission's complaints
statistics. In the 2008-2009 financial year, the Commission received only 396
race related complaints, and only 980 disability related complaints.

The sad reality is that, if a person who has been discriminated against does
not act, that discrimination will continue, against them and others.

It is partly for this reason that progress has come in slow increments. That
said, making complaints has led to many positive outcomes. Here are two of these

The first is about a complainant with a mobility disability, who had been
issued with a disability parking permit. The complainant said there were two
designated accessible parking bays outside his apartment building, but that the
body corporate discriminated against him by not ensuring that these parking bays
were for the sole use of people with disabilities.

After being notified of the complaint, the body corporate directed the
building security to ensure the accessible parking bays were only available for
people with disabilities.

The second story is about a complainant of Indian background, who claimed a
recruitment agency discriminated against him on the basis of his race. He said
an online job advertisement placed by the agency specified 'No chinkers or

The agency advised that the advertisement had not been
checked for accuracy before being loaded onto the website, and that the comment
in the advertisement did not represent the agency's views. The complaint was
resolved when the agency agreed to remove the advertisement, audit the website
for content, and issue a public apology.

These examples show that making a complaint can benefit the individual, and
the community.

Complaints mechanisms are not the only answer. We also need more human rights
education, so that when discrimination does occur, all Australians are equipped
with the knowledge and confidence to address it.

Education is vital to building strong, and socially inclusive, communities.
It also encourages respect for difference - whether on the basis of race, gender
or disability.

Since becoming Race Discrimination Commissioner, I have advocated for a long
term community strategy to promote understanding and respect.  We need
more leadership and resources invested in our vibrant and diverse cultural

We have heard a lot in recent years about a social inclusion agenda. I
commend the government for endeavoring to reduce economic disadvantage in
Australia. However, this is not the only reason that people experience
exclusion. More can, and should, be done towards understanding the multiple and
complex reasons why people become marginalised.

As Australia's population continues to grow through migration, we will
continue to encounter these problems, unless we address them in a systemic and
consultative way. Governments must listen to the lived experiences of
communities that they represent. I hope that they will watch this DVD, and
reflect on both the unique and the universal challenges that we can do more to

The Australian Human Rights Commission will continue to work toward improving
human rights protections in Australia, but we cannot do it alone. Please
continue to tell your stories, lodge complaints, and work to break down those
last barriers to practical civil rights. Follow the examples shown in "can I do
it my way" I'm pleased to launch this DVD.

Thanks for the chance to speak with you today.