TIC TALK Podcasts

Exploring personal experiences of inclusion

TIC TALK 3: Graeme Innes

A podcast with Graeme Innes
May 2013
Graeme Innes

Graeme Innes

Former Disability Discrimination Commissioner

Graeme Innes is the Federal Disability Discrimination Commissioner, former Human Rights Commissioner and Race Discrimination Commissioner. So he knows a thing or two about inclusion and human rights! He’s an active sportsman too. Graeme currently is on the Board of the Attitude Group, including AttitudeLive.com, their innovative web platform delivering high quality short-form and long-form documentaries, live-streaming of Paralympic Sport, video and written blogs, and connecting you to all things relating to disability and chronic health – http://attitudelive.com

 

 

Transcript TIC TALK with Graeme Innes

Peter:

Welcome to today’s Tic Talk. It’s a great pleasure to introduce Graeme Innes. Graeme is currently the Disability Discrimination Commissioner, former Human Rights Commission, former Race Discrimination Commissioner. Graeme was also instrumental in drafting of the United Nations’ Convention on Rights of Persons with Disabilities and its ratification by Australia. But more importantly he’s a keen sailor and a follower of the cricket, which is where we might start, Graeme. So welcome to Tic Talks.

Graeme:

Thanks, Peter. Great to talk with you.

Peter:

What do you think about the upcoming Ashes series? I couldn’t help but ask you about this.

Graeme:

I actually think it’s going to be a fascinating six to nine months, the next little while. I’m looking forward to it. I think the contests will be tighter than people think. I hope I’m right about that. I think the Australians are strong favorites. I think we’re probably the underdog in the contest. But I actually think that the English side has dropped in focus a bit over the last 12 months. I’m hoping that if Australia can play really well, we’ll have a competitive double series. It’s fantastic. We’re going to have a series over there and a series over here.

Peter:

Back to back. We’ll have Ashes overload.

Graeme:

Yeah, yeah. And I hope to actually get to see one of the tests in England later this year.

Peter:

Awesome. Nice, nice, nice. You used to play, Graeme, didn’t you?

Graeme:

I did. When I was younger, I played blind cricket. Played for New South Wales, quite a lot of games for New South Wales. And was in the first team to tour overseas for Australia. We went to Sri Lanka in 1981. I love playing cricket, but now I’m just a spectator.

Peter:

How was that, touring? Could I ask just for a couple of seconds? How was that, touring Sri Lanka in 1991 as the first playing cricket team?

Graeme:

No, 1981.

Peter:

81, sorry.

Graeme:

It was before a lot of the problems in Sri Lanka. And Sri Lanka’s a lovely country. We got a really friendly reception, a very warm reception. Had a lot of fun over there. We spent about three weeks in the country. And I have some very fond memories of the tour.

Peter:

Great, great stuff. And now you’re into sailing.

Graeme:

Well I’ve been sailing at a club level for quite a while. But in the early 90s, there was a first world blind sailing championships, took place in New Zealand. And because they were getting the numbers up, they allowed Australia to have state teams in the competition rather than a national team. I sailed for the West Australian team. I was living there at the time. We got a silver medal in the class that we’re in. We were sailing 536s. Really nice fleet of match racing boats that they had there in Auckland. It was great fun. I was a mainsheet hand.

Peter:

I don’t know too much about sailing, so that last expression didn’t mean that much to me. But it’s a great spot to be sailing.

Graeme:

It is. Auckland’s a lovely harbor asylum. And these boats were all exactly the same boat, so it was very much a contest of the crews.
There’s two sails on the boat, Peter. There’s the mainsail, which is the one behind the mast that swings on a boom. And then there’s the sail that’s at the front of the boat, called various names: the headsail or the foresail or the genoa. And so I was basically in charge of the mainsail, the bigger sail.

Peter:

Now in recent years—I might pick up on this a little bit—in recent years in the Sydney to Hobart yacht race, we’ve had quite a few profile boats for athletes with disabilities.

Graeme:

Yep.

Peter:

Liesl Tesch, I think competed.

Graeme:

Yeah, yeah.

Peter:

Kurt Fearnley has competed, too. Do you think that’s raised the profile and acknowledgment and human rights issues for people with disabilities, just by having that kind of profile each year?

Graeme:

Inevitably a greater profile of people with disability doing stuff like that—and Kurt is an excellent example of that—inevitably that raises the profile and, if you like, challenges a lot of the negative attitude that there is in the community towards people with a disability. So I think it’s great to have athletes like Kurt doing the Sydney to Hobart.
One of my dreams is to do a Sydney to Hobart. Unfortunately there’s a lot of pre-race training required. I’ve just been in very busy roles and not in a position to commit the time to doing that training. But I’d love to have sailed the Sydney-Hobart race. Not sure that I’ll achieve that dream at this stage. We’ll have to see how it goes.
I think any athletes with disability doing that—and the Sail Ability boat, which has sailed now for—it must be a decade—in Sydney to Hobart races, been a regular competitor and that’s also a raised profile. And that’s great.

Peter:

Yeah, I know. It seems to raise even more profile each year. Graeme, I want to go back to—I was thinking about this particular podcast. I want to go back to something that Elizabeth Hastings said. Who was, I think, the original, you might correct me if I’m wrong, the original disabilities discrimination—

Graeme:

The first disabilities discrimination—

Peter:

The first—

Graeme:

The first Disabilities Discrimination commissioner, you’re absolutely right.

Peter:

She was in 1995. And I was launching the program in Canberra. And she said, the exact words, which I’ve used very often, “To talks about inclusion is a fine and admirable thing. But to talk about inclusion is a bit like your body saying to your arm ‘You can tag along if you want to.’ People with disability are already part of society. It’s society who ought to stop excluding.” And I’ve used that quite often in workshops over the years. You have any thoughts around Elizabeth’s saying?

Graeme:

As in most things Elizabeth said, I agree with her. Sadly she’s not with us any longer. But I think she’s right. The barrier to people with disability being included in or participating in society is, in the main, people’s attitudes, people’s negative attitudes towards people with disability. It’s described by one writer, and this is a quote that I often use, as “the soft bigotry of low expectations”. And I think that’s a very powerful way to express it because it’s saying people are stopped doing things, people with disability are stopped doing things, because people in the community make a whole lot of assumptions. And I have to say, Peter, I see this every day. Every day it happens to me. I travel around Australia and people just assume that we need to catch the lift because I won’t be able to walk down stairs. Now, nothing could be further from the truth. I’ve lived most of my life in houses with staircases in them. My legs work fine, it’s my eyes that don’t work. But I’m not even consulted on that. People will just go to a lift rather than use a staircase.

Now that’s just a minor example and it doesn’t bother me much. But it demonstrates the sort of thing that we’re talking about. And in taking away our choices and limiting our opportunity, it’s a huge barrier to inclusion and participation in society. We need an attitude change, a mind shift, to get people focusing on the person, not the disability. The first thing that you should do before you make any decision like that is say, “Is it okay if I use the stairs?” And a person with a disability will say yes or no or is it okay to do this. Don’t take our decisions away. Ask us by all means, if you think there’s an issue. But don’t take our decisions away.

Peter:

Do you think we’re a bit soft in educating about this? Because you touched on some really strong points. I’ve been involved in a lot of education awareness programs over the years, and we really need to be very stark and honest about the sorts of things that exclude people on the basis of their impairment, if you like.

Graeme:

I think we do need to be. And I actually think the disability sector, for a range of reasons, hasn’t pushed back on those sorts of things. And I have for the last few years, both as an individual and as a commissioner. So I will challenge negative assumptions. And I try and do it in a positive way, but I will challenge them. Sometimes people find that quite confronting. Someone will praise me for doing something which I think is a fairly ordinary task. You know? Walking up the aisle of an aircraft to go to the bathroom. And someone will congratulate me for doing that. And I’ll say to them, with a smile on my face, but I’ll say, “That was a pretty patronizing comment.” And a lot of people find that quite confronting. But I just have a view that we need to challenge these things.

We need to say, “Oh, I’m happy to use the stairs. Do you not like stairs? Or would you prefer the lift?” We need to say those things to people who choose to take us in a lift rather than the stairs. And the reason that I do that—and I say this to people all the time—if I don’t tell you, if I don’t challenge that assumption, you will continue not to know. So I think, as a sector, people with disability do need, in a positive way, to challenge those sorts of assumptions. Now I don’t want to set people with disability up to being Captain Grumpy, so I’m suggesting that we do it very positively. But sometimes those sorts of challenges can be confronting. And I’m prepared to have those discussions with people because I want them to go away and think about what they’ve done and think about the impact that it’s had on the person to whom they’ve done it.

Peter:

Yeah. If I relate this back to a sport team environment, in my mind, I’m a bit biased, but sport is an extremely powerful way to showcase some of these things because it’s so physical, it’s so emotional, all those sort of issues. In your experience in the sporting sphere, you’ve seen that work?

Graeme:

I have. And sport is so much part of the Australian culture, the Australian ethos, that it is a very powerful way to sort of challenge those assumptions. And I think we need to strike a balance. I think we need to be very careful to praise and support and recognize our athletes with disability at all levels, not just at elite levels. At all levels, whether it’s athletes competing in mainstream sports with a disability or whether it’s athletes competing in sports which are specifically set-up for people with disability. It’s really important to recognize and praise their efforts.

However, what we have to be careful about is that we don’t set people up as superheroes. So we don’t set up the Louise Sauvages and the Kurt Fearnleys, and whoever else you might want to name, as these amazing people who participate in sport in this way. Because if we do that, we’re sort of separating them a whole raft of other people with disability who may not have either the inclination or the physical capacity to participate in sport or to participate in sport to the level that those people do.
So we need to recognize the Kurts and the Louises of the world as great athletes in the same way we do Adam Gotch and Peter Siddle and whoever else. But we need to also recognize Graeme Innes for sailing at his local sailing club, which is what I do now. Or someone else for going out and having a game of cricket, who might have some other physical disability. We need to recognize that participation, as well. And support that participation, as well.

Peter:

We had a discussion group in The Inclusion Club around the superhumans tag that was given to London Paralympic games. There was a massive advertising campaign around the London Paralympic games, around superhumans. And there was quite a discussion around exactly the same issues you’re doing. What’s interesting is that we on one hand want to applaud and celebrate our champions. Which is all very right. But we don’t want to disenfranchise the general population at the same time.

Graeme:

Well, we don’t. This is the huge dichotomy for me, Peter. And it’s really demonstrated in the campaign that we’ve had in Australia recently for the National Disability Insurance games. In the support of Paralympics and Paralympians, we’re right up there. And we’re supporting and resourcing our athletes to bring home gold and silver and bronze. As we should. I don’t suggest we shouldn’t. But the comparison I often make is that, while we’re doing that in sport, in the race of life we’re 27th out of 27 in OECD countries in terms of the level of poverty and disadvantage experienced by people with disability. And we’re 23 out of 29 in terms of our levels of employment of people with disability. So we’re getting it right in sport, but we’re getting it very wrong in terms of the broader areas of life.
I think we can use sport to change that. But we need to recognize that one needs to translate across to the other.

Peter:

Just predicting ahead a little bit, you mentioned the National Disability Insurance game. Now it’s a very big topic to talk about in this podcast. But if you’re projecting in five years, time, do you think that would have made that significant difference in those areas you mentioned? Around employment? Do you think it’s going to make those expectations very high? What do you see happening in maybe five years’ time?

Graeme:

I think it is going to make a difference. I think we have to be careful about expectations. I mean, we need a change in Australia. Our current system is broken and broke. I’m not sure that five years will be long enough for it to have made the sort of difference I’d like to see. I think it will have made some difference by then and we might start to move up those league tables in terms of correlation of disability and poverty and in terms of employment. But I think we might be talking 10 or 15 years before we’re up there winning the gold in the same ways we are in the Paralympics.

Peter:

I want to finally ask you about your experience in the United Nations, Commissioner of the Rights of People with Disabilities. Is that something that a lot of people who are listening to this podcast will—I know some people certainly had a lot to do with it over the years. What was that experience like, of going through and really being instrumental in that process?

Graeme:

I was incredibly honored to represent Australia in terms of the drafting of the convention. And I don’t want to overplay the role I played. There were hundreds of people who participated in that drafting process. But for me, as a proud Australian, it was an incredible honor. To sit, as I did on a number of occasions, behind the Australian flag on the UN committee, having input towards the drafting of the convention. And it was a very exciting and powerful experience to know that we were putting together a document which could improve the opportunities for, I think, 650 000 000 people with disability around the world.
It was a lengthy process. Those sorts of negotiations are never quick. This one occurred in five years, which sounds like a hugely long time, but actually it’s the fastest UN process for the drafting of an instrument ever. They’re never quick when you think about all the different cultures and issues around disability that need to be negotiated amongst almost 200 UN countries. But, as I say, I was very proud to have the chance to represent Australia in that way.

Peter:

To the average person, for the average person with disability, what difference do you think that has made or will make over time?

Graeme:

I think it’s making some difference in Australia. I mean, it’s sort of the bedrock beneath the National Disability Insurance game and some of the other changes. It provides reinforcement for our Disability Discrimination legislation. I think where it will make more of a difference is in developing countries around the world. So I always regard it as Australia making a contribution to those countries. Which doesn’t mean we don’t need to lift our game ourselves. We do. But we’re well advanced in comparison to many other countries.
And I’ve seen it making that change around the world in two ways. Firstly, the fact that there’s a United Nations instrument actually empowers a lot of people with disability to go out and look for more change in society. And secondly, the pressure on governments form other governments around the world saying, “You need to do better in this area,” as a result of signing onto a convention such as this is an incredibly powerful force.

Just to give you an example, Peter, next week I’m giving a presentation to a group of judges and magistrates from the Pacific Islands. Talking to them about the role that the Disability Convention, or the DisCo as I call it, should play in their work as judges and in their court decisions as judges and magistrates in their home countries. so that people with a disability ought to get an equal go in the justice system. And that’s a conversation I’ll be having with them. And that’s just one small example of the opportunities that the convention provides.

Peter:

Okay, fabulous. You kind of answered my next and final question about what’s a typical day in the life of Graeme Innes these days.

Graeme:

Yeah. I don’t think there is a typical day. I mean, that’s one thing I’m doing next week. Another thing I’m doing is talking to a bunch of people in Julong, one of the launch sites for the National Disability Insurance game, about how they might increase their opportunities to participate in employment. I talk with ministers and public servants about improving policy towards people with disability. I do a lot of public awareness/community education work about disability care Australia. About problems people with disability experience in different areas of our community. One of my focuses will be, has been for some time, on airlines. I’m conducting activities around access to the justice system for people with disabilities. Doing a tour around Australia, hearing what people’s experiences have been in that respect. So pretty busy and pretty atypical days, really. One day can be quite different from the next.

Peter:

It makes life interesting, doesn’t it?

Graeme:

Yeah, lot’s of fun.

Peter:

Yeah, it is. Well thank you. We’re very, very privileged indeed to get a bit of your time, Graeme. I do hope you get some time one day to do the Sydney to Hobart. That’ll be quite something.

Graeme:

Yeah, it would, it would. But it’s still a dream I have. We’ll see how we go.

Peter:

[Laughs] Well, on that note I’ll say, thank you very much, Graeme, for joining us on Tic Talks. It’s been a great pleasure. Thank you very much.

 

Graeme:

Pleasure to talk with you, Peter.