Graeme Innes will deliver the keynote address at the Strengthening Disability Advocacy Conference on Monday 4 August. Graeme is the former Disability Discrimination Commissioner and is now Chair of the Attitude Foundation which works to change attitudes to people with disabilities.
Recently we spoke with him about what he has learnt in his years as an advocate and what he sees as the biggest challenges and opportunities for people with a disability in Australia today.
VCOSS: Are there key things you’ve learned about how people can do effective advocacy – both for themselves and on the behalf of other people?
Graeme Innes: The key thing about advocacy is that it is really important to be able to speak in the voice of the group that is disadvantaged. The best way to do that is for a member of that group, with strong links to other members in the group, to do that speaking. In a small minority of cases that is not possible or is very difficult.
If you’re going to speak on behalf of somebody else you really need to have instilled the voice of that person or that group of people in your mind. It’s very easy to think that you’re being appropriately representative of that group but it is much harder to achieve. And, frankly, in most cases it shouldn’t be done. The words and views should come from the group itself.
The next thing I’ve learnt about advocacy is the importance of support for anyone who is being an advocate, either as a spokesperson as an individual taking action, or as a member of a group taking action. I have very clear memories of the process that I went through when I took my action against Sydney Trains about announcements on trains. It was very important at all of my interactions with them to have a support person with me – someone who could take you outside, give you a bit of perspective, and remember the things that you hadn’t thought of.
When you are advocating for yourself, or for yourself and for others, the pressure and the emotion can run very high and sometimes even a really experienced advocate can get things out of sync or out of whack. So having that support is also very important. But I don’t just mean at those critical times at conciliation conferences.
It’s really important to gather around you a circle of people who are aware of what you’re doing and who are supportive of what you are doing. They can provide a broader perspective and say to you “do you actually think that this is the best way to achieve your overall goal?”
Sometimes it’s easy to lose that perspective so it’s really important to have that circle of people around you all the time and know who they are. You need to know that they won’t always give you what you want to hear, but they will give you the reality of the situation and it’s always very important to have that.
Another thing I would say is that you never should assume that you know the views of the people on the behalf of whom you are advocating. You always have to go back and keep refreshing and recalibrating that understanding just by listening to the voices of others that are with you and around you. As with all of us their views change and the nuances change and it is important you understand that.
Finally, you need to really think about which issues and which battles you are going to take on. You can’t take them all on and you can’t win all the battles. Sometimes you just have to give on a particular point just to get to your longer term goal. Sometimes you just have to say “I don’t have enough energy for this fight. I’m going to keep having this argument about this issue over here.”
These are probably the key lessons that I’ve learnt.
VCOSS: How do people get a good network of people around them? Disability can be a very isolating experience for many people and people can struggle to find or build those strong networks. The disability advocacy community has some strong networks, but not everyone in the community is connected into those networks. How do people who are not as connected begin to build some of those relationships?
Graeme Innes: I guess the process for building those networks is very similar to the way we build friendships. Good advocacy networks don’t come quickly because they rely completely on trust and you don’t develop trust quickly. Good advocacy networks are built slowly and they are built over time from working with people, seeing that they share you views and your passions and your approach. Or if they don’t share all of your views, that there is an important part of those that they do share that you can draw into your circle.
Fair weather advocates are easy to find. But the really committed advocates, the ones you rely on, require you to build those relationships over years.
VCOSS: Advocacy has never been more important, particularly so for people with a disability, as we head into the implementation of the NDIS.
Graeme Innes: The thing about the NDIS is that it is a huge change in giving people with disabilities choice and control we’ve never had before. The thing to accept about the NDIS is that it will be incremental change. People with a disability who are currently significantly disempowered won’t jump straight to that total-choice, total-control model. None of us make change that way. We make change by increments.
So I’m not personally concerned if some of the models in the NDIS are not what we’d regard as a perfect result, because I think people need to take a journey towards the different place they are going to live in. They can’t just be picked up and dropped into that place. That’s what has happened to people with a disability too often in our lives and we don’t want the NDIS to do that.
We don’t want the NDIS to take people too far out of their comfort zone, but I’m not saying we don’t need to encourage people out of their comfort zone. We sure do. We need to work with people to move them out of sheltered employment and into open employment and out of institutions and into living in the community. It has to be a gradual process and I think it ok for those things to happen in increments.
That doesn’t mean we don’t need to learn from what happens. We do, and we need to help people grow and develop.
One of the critical things we need is role models and we need peer support. One thing I know from my early life was the very large number of lessons that I learned from other people who were blind or vision impaired. Those lessons are a key reason that I have become the advocate that I have.
I grew up in Blind Citizens Australia (BCA), and we used to very publicly discuss and debate policy at BCA conventions. They were no holds barred discussions and some very free and frank discussions. I learned so much from seeing blind people operate and learning from the skills they brought to bear in those discussions. That’s one of the reasons I’m so prepared to pay that back, because I gained so much of it when I was younger.
VCOSS: How did you go about gathering the people around you to enable you to have the strength to have the fights you’ve needed to have?
Graeme Innes: Growing up in that politics was a major part of it. I was also very blessed with my parents who didn’t wrap me in cotton wool but who wanted my experience as a child to be the equal of the experience of my sister and my brother. That meant I learnt how to fail as well as how to succeed and how to deal with that.
They also had a good family friend who coincidentally was also blind and who was also a member of parliament. He didn’t actually teach me that much as a blind person, but what he did teach me was that if he can be a member of parliament I can do anything I want. So he raised the bar for me.
One of the things I said in my National Press Club address recently was that people with disabilities are significantly limited by the soft bigotry of low expectations and I strongly believe that. Now this can happen with young people and with kids. It can happen with anyone. But it does happen with people with disabilities.
If other people have low expectations of you, then they are the limits that you grow up with and you just don’t think you can do more than that. We have to raise that bar.
VCOSS: How do we do that? How do we end that bigotry?
Graeme Innes: I think we do it in the ways I’ve talked about. Through peer support and role modelling and by building networks of support around people with disabilities. And these networks need to say “why can’t you do that” rather than say “you can’t do that”. Wasn’t it Kennedy who said that most people look at things and ask why but the very few look at things and say why not?
VCOSS: Recently we’ve seen a number of proposed welfare reforms that are squarely focused on getting people off welfare and into work. Among these changes are proposals to force most people off the Disability Support Pension onto other payments. How will these changes affect people with disabilities?
The best thing for people with disabilities is to move off welfare and into work. This won’t happen for all of us and it won’t happen straight away. But that’s the goal that we have to set. That’s the mountain that we have to climb.
The problem with the welfare reforms is that the government have a detailed plan for getting us off welfare but there’s no jobs plan. There’s no plan for getting us into work. You can’t do the first thing without a plan for the second thing.
You can do that, but you are going to push further into disadvantage and poverty a lot more people with disability at a time when 45 per cent of us live in poverty. Frankly you’re just going to take Australia further towards the development of an underclass. We all know that this is not sustainable in the long term.
Doing this in societies is what causes disruption within societies. I don’t need to go through the countries internationally where that has occurred and point out examples of what it has done – not just to individuals but to societies. That’s the cause of revolution and real upheaval in societies.
We don’t need to do that in Australia. What we need to do is develop a jobs plan so that we work with people with disabilities to move of welfare and into jobs, but we do it with a carrot, rather than a stick.
We get government out of the centre of the conversation. We walk away from the current models where the job provision services are not, when you look at the figures, giving us value for money. It doesn’t work and it hasn’t worked for a long time.
I think what we need to do is a couple of things. Firstly the government needs to “do as I do” rather than “do as I say”. They need to have a look at their own back yard and fix up the public service. Less than 3% of people working in the public service are people with disabilities, when there are 15 per cent of us in the working age population. They need to address that by setting targets and making a serious commitment to working towards those targets.
The best way to do that is to make achievement of those targets one of the criteria for rating the performance bonuses of the Secretaries and Deputy Secretaries of the departments. If you have the leaders focused on what you want to achieve you will actually achieve it. So the public service needs to do that.
The next thing the government needs to do is say to employers what do you need to change the levels of employment participation of people with disabilities. They should then say to employers, here’s your KPIs, here’s a bucket of money now go away and in 12 months we’ll see if you can make your targets. Many of them will and we’ll learn from that process. Some of them won’t and we’ll learn from that process what the problem was.
This is entirely doable. The Department of health and Aging in the Commonwealth Public Service employs 10 per cent of people with a disability because they set a target and were committed to it. Westpac employs 13 per cent of people with a disability because they set a target and they committed to it. There are a range of other private employers who are in that same place – ANZ, IBM, Telstra. It can be done, it’s just all about will.
VCOSS: And is that will there?
Graeme Innes: Not yet. Clearly not, because if it was the government would have a jobs plan. The thing that government could do today – right now – is to say to every politician in Australia they can have an extra staff member if they employ a person with a disability. That would do a number of things. Firstly it would get 300 people disabilities straight into jobs. The second thing it would do is would be to provide a clear window to the world.
Politicians are making important decisions about our country. To increase the profile of people with disabilities in that way would be a very powerful message. That’s what’s happening in the United States and it is having an effect.
I’ve put this idea to the previous government and it hasn’t happened. I’ve put it to the current government and it hasn’t happened. Now that I’ve finished at the Commission one of the things I am very aware of is the negative and limiting attitude to people with disabilities – that soft bigotry of low expectations.
I’m now chairing an organisation called the Attitude Foundation and we want to use the media, – television and the internet to change the attitudes towards people with disabilities by showing positive role models of people with disabilities achieving, either in their jobs or their lives or in some way giving back to their community.
We want to show people with disabilities not as victims, not as heroes, but as agents of our own destiny, getting on with our lives.
Graeme Innes will be speaking at the Strengthening Disability Advocacy Conference on Monday 4 August.