6th National Deafblind Conference

Dr Sev Ozdowski OAM
Disability Discrimination Commissioner

Friday 12th July 2002

Sev Ozdowski


Allow me to commence by paying my respects to the traditional custodians of the land on which we meet.

I acknowledge participants from overseas and interstate

As a former South Australian let me particularly acknowledge Arnold Cielens and other friends from South Australia

As well as our hosts from the NSW DeafBlind Association including volunteers and interpreters.

I am very pleased to have the honour of opening this sixth national deafblind conference.

I have two main themes in my remarks today:

  • I want to promote greater recognition of deafblindness issues as human rights issues.
  • I would like to seek opportunities for greater engagement between my organisation, the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, and deafblindness organisations and advocates.

Access to communication

One of the central topics of papers for this conference, and also of previous deafblind conferences, is the importance of communication.

This includes the importance of deafblind people being provided with the assistance they need to achieve effective communication.

Communication is central to our identity as human beings - for all of us as individuals, and as members of communities.

Communication is also increasingly important to the economy in modern societies.

Almost every day there seems to be some new development in information and communications technology. Technologies which did not exist a few years ago are now worth many billions of dollars each year in economic activity.

One exciting aspect of this is that digital technologies have opened up new possibilities for access to information and communication for people with disabilities.

In particular, email and the worldwide web have the ability to deliver information in a variety of formats - such as print, large print, audio or Braille according to the user's requirements.

For example I noticed on the web recently that some deafblind organisations are now conducting their meetings by email and so saving the cost of interpreters for face to face meetings.

But many people with disabilities are not benefiting as much as they could from these possibilities. Many people simply cannot afford the price of the technology required, particularly where they need specialised equipment like a computer with Braille input and output.

The valuable papers given at previous deafblind conferences have also emphasised that the communication needs of deaf blind people vary widely. So technology is not and cannot be the answer to all communication requirements.

Some deafblind people will still need intensive, one on one human assistance to achieve effective communication, whatever developments in technology there are.

But there is a clear message, from experts, advocates and the deafblind community, that deafblind people can communicate effectively - if they have access to appropriate assistance and supports.

It is also clear that many people are not getting this assistance and support sufficiently or even at all.

Human rights and communication

The rights to freedom of information and freedom of expression are fundamental human rights. They are recognised in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. They are also recognised in more specific legally binding treaties such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which have been ratified by Australia.

These are rights which the Australian government has agreed to respect and ensure for all people within Australia. That means all people, not just people who do not have a disability affecting communication.

Effective access to communication is a basic human right in itself. It is also the key to being able to exercise most other human rights.

Equitable access to communication essential if deafblind people are to have any prospect of equality of opportunity and access in

  • education,
  • employment,
  • access to citizenship rights including voting,
  • access to services such as health care or transport ; and
  • other areas of social and economic participation.

Human rights in practice or only in theory?

It is one thing to declare human rights in theory. It is another to achieve them in practice.

Let me take the very important area of employment as an example.

Accurate statistics on participation by deafblind people seem even harder to come by at present than for people with disabilities in general. But I note that research in Britain referred to in one of the conference papers at the national deafblind conference two years ago indicated that as few as 5 percent of deafblind people are in employment.

The DDA - a tool for equality

What can be done about this? Must equality for deafblind people stay in the too hard basket?

The Disability Discrimination Act (I will call it the "DDA" for short) is one tool for working towards equality for people with disabilities.

It makes discrimination unlawful in employment; education; provision of goods and services among other areas.

The DDA has been in operation for almost ten years.

It is clear that during that time the DDA has not been nearly as effective as was first hoped in dealing with equal opportunity in employment

On the other hand it has been an effective tool in addressing some accessibility issues including some communications accessibility issues.

Examples of successful use of the DDA

Here are a few examples of successful use of the DDA on communications access issues:

Access to telecommunications

A complaint under the DDA in the Scott v Telstra case succeeded in having access for TTY users included in the standard telephone service in Australia .

Accessibility of the worldwide web

Mr Bruce Maguire's complaint against the Sydney Organising Committee for the Olympic Games over the lack of accessibility of their web site for people using screen readers has had a major impact in raising awareness among providers of web pages in Australia about the need for accessible design. We will be following up this issue later this year with an access survey process and further awareness raising.

Accessible information formats in education

In response to several complaints from university students about problems with access to course materials in accessible formats we recently held a national forum which involved most of Australia's universities on this issue. The forum made substantial progress towards improved systems for ensuring that students get accessible materials without unreasonable delays.

More use of the DDA needed on deafblind issues

Some of the issues I have just listed will be relevant to deafblind people.

I am aware, though, that most information access issues under the DDA so far have come to us either as issues for blind and vision impaired people or as issues for deaf and hearing impaired people.

We have seen very little if any use of the DDA to address deafblind issues specifically as deafblind issues with the different dimensions that this could bring.

I know that working out how to use legislation effectively can be a complex business particularly for community organisations.

That is why when the DDA was passed the Commission supported establishment of a network of DDA legal advocacy services in each state. I would like to see disability organisations, including deafblindness organisations, making more use of this network in making effective strategic use of the DDA.

At the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission our complaints staff are also ready and willing to discuss with you whether an issue you may wish to complain about fits within the legislation.

We would be particularly interested to have feedback on the accessibility of the complaint process. As you may know there is now provision for complaints to be made by email. Details are in the complaints information section of the HREOC website, www.humanrights.gov.au.

The disability rights policy team which I lead would also be happy to have further discussions with deafblind advocates and activists about effective strategic use of the DDA.

So I want to give a strong message to encourage you to consider using the DDA to advance issues of access to communication for deafblind people.

Limitations of the DDA

But at the same time we need to be clear that the DDA is not an all purpose tool.

As I have said, it covers many areas, such as employment and education, but it does not cover all of day to day life.

It does not cover communication needs before people enter education systems, in the crucial stage of acquiring language and effective ability to communicate.

It covers communication through the telecommunications system but it does not cover ordinary day to day face to face communication with friends or family.

Another major limitation is that DDA is a discrimination act, not an act establishing positive rights to receive whatever assistance and services may be required to secure equal participation and opportunity.

I have to say that this distinction can be confusing and unclear, even for lawyers.

The DDA does require wide ranging positive actions:

For example very large scale changes to make public transport accessible are being driven by DDA.

But there is a distinction between requiring accessibility of the services which are provided - which the DDA does require - and requiring services to be provided which are not - which the DDA does not require.

This is not a distinction which necessarily makes sense to someone who is seeking equality and access , but it is a distinction which is there in the law as we have it.

The DDA also has some practical limitations in dealing with the issues it does cover .

Some deafblind people require highly individualised communications assistance .

It is reasonable to expect that communications systems and technologies should apply universal design principles, to be useable by the widest possible range of people. And to some extent the DDA requires this to happen.

But where one to one interpreting is required, it is obviously just not possible that each shop you come to and each bus you get on will have available a person who can deliver each of the required skills for each different deafblind person.

How to advance a broader human rights agenda?

I do not mean by this that it is acceptable for us as a whole society to say we do not have the resources to provide equal access.

As a society we should be in a position to ensure that a person who needs full time communications assistance gets it ; and that a person who needs communications assistance only for particular interactions has effective assistance available for those interactions.

These are the sorts of needs which are all too commonly discussed in disability circles as "unmet needs". And all too commonly these needs are not discussed in wider public and political debate at all.

But if as a society we are serious about human rights then these needs must not remain unmet.

The numbers of deaf blind people have been estimated to be relatively small, with around 1500 Australians under 65. The proportion of deafblind people in the population over 65 is likely to be higher, of course, but the overall number is almost certainly no more than a few thousand.

The position of deafblind people as a small minority even among people with disabilities no doubt has contributed to concerns about deafblindness issues being overlooked.

The small numbers involved though mean that the overall costs of a national program to provide each deafblind person with adequate communication support and assistance would also be small.

There are quite shocking stories on the websites of Australian deafblindness organisations about the loss of human rights which is resulting from a lack of adequate communications assistance.

Stories of people not being able to have effective access to educational opportunities, despite all the promise of modern technologies - because of reduced funding for interpreting and other assistance.

Even more horrifying, stories of some deafblind people in institutions going for years without any effective communication at all.

This clearly constitutes cruel inhuman and degrading treatment as it is defined in Australia's international human rights treaty obligations. It would not be regarded as acceptable for the worst criminal in prison. Of course we should not tolerate such a situation for a person simply because he or she is deafblind.

Let me be blunt about this.

If we can afford overseas trips for politicians, or spending on elite sports, or other indulgences of a prosperous society, certainly we can afford to provide Australians with the means of exercising their right to communicate.

For example, our national government has recently received billions of dollars from the sale of national transport and communications assets - in the sale of part of Telstra and Sydney airport . Communications technologies generate tens of billions of dollars of economic activity each year.

Is it too much to expect a small dividend, a few million dollars perhaps to address the communication needs and rights of some of the most disadvantaged and isolated of Australia's people?

As I have said earlier in my remarks, I do not have legal powers to compel governments to make resources and programs available where they are lacking.

We do not have a legally enforceable bill of human rights in Australia. Even if a Bill of Rights is introduced in future, it is not at all clear that it would confer positive rights to equality, including a right to receive necessary resources, rather than only negative or defensive forms of liberty and non-discrimination rights.

But on behalf of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission I do want to offer what assistance and cooperation we can in pursuing deafblindness issues in Australia more effectively as human rights issues using the powers that w have available now.

Let us begin with more discussion of what issues the Commission may be able to assist you with, and how we can work together. Let us begin with better communication.

Thank you.