Launch of disparity: a journal of policy, practice and argument

Dr Sev Ozdowski OAM
Disability Discrimination Commissioner

Australian War Memorial
22 May 2002

Sev Ozdowski


Allow me to commence by acknowledging the traditional custodians of the land on which we meet.

I also acknowledge ACROD Chief Executive Ken Baker; my fellow editorial advisory board members; Felicity Purdy, who I am delighted to see being recognised this evening with life membership; other distinguished guests, and all of you my fellow Australians.

ACROD has played a key role in and for the disability sector in Australia from its inception in the 1960s. When I joined the Australian Public Service in the 1980s, working in the Departments of the Attorney-General and of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, ACROD was well established as a major body to look to for well considered policy advice.

The roles of a peak disability service industry body such as ACROD, and organisations directly representing people with disabilities, are perhaps more distinct now than they were even in the early 1990s when ACROD played a leading role in working towards the introduction of the Disability Discrimination Act.

But I want to say publicly that the Human Rights Commission continues to value the expertise represented by ACROD and I hope we can find opportunities to work more closely together into the future - in particular in relation to employment issues.

I was very pleased to be asked to say a few words of congratulation tonight on the launch of the first edition of disparity.

But it occurs to me now that, as a member of the editorial advisory board, congratulations may seem too much like self-congratulations.

In my defence let me say at once that all the real work on this first issue was done by other people.

Diversity of views represented within disparity

I want to commend ACROD for the conception and delivery of this journal: a journal of policy, practice and argument, as the title says.

Referring to "conception" and "delivery" may seem a bit risky, at the inauguration of a journal whose first article of its first edition deals with "wrongful life" cases. Particularly when the editor openly admits in his first editorial to have knowingly set out to cause "disagreement", "even at times offence", "argument" and "annoyance".

You would not think it, just to look at the editor, Dr Sean Regan, would you? He seems such a nice fellow at first …

Seriously, I very much endorse the aims of presenting diverse and challenging viewpoints rather than a single "party line".

Australia needs public debate, on disability issues and more generally, which is sharp, which addresses real issues, and which is honest rather than taking the form of "proxy wars" - where slogans for or against simple positions take the place of proper analysis and debate.

This journal disparity has not been intended as a journal to push the position of ACROD, or of its members, at the expense of other perspectives on disability issues from within the disability sector or beyond.

As the editorial of this first edition says, the aim is to encourage informed debate by providing a forum for all shades of opinion.

I really think the first edition makes an excellent start in this respect. I look forward to the range and depth of debate expanding even further into the future, as a forum within the disability community and as a means for attracting wider public and political interest in disability policy.

Looking at the first collection of articles, we have views from

  • a priest and social justice campaigner,
  • a professional ethicist and academic,
  • a technology expert,
  • a community leader and activist,
  • a person with a disability, and more

- and all of that is just Christopher Newell!

Other authors share some of the same qualifications and others besides. Each brings their own distinctive perspectives and expertise.

Disability and technology

I am not going to tell you which bits, if any, of this issue provoked me to disagreement, or annoyance, or even offence. But for a moment I want to abuse my privilege as speaker by singling out one article in the first issue - not to criticise but to praise.

I was particularly struck by Margaret Verick's article on the contribution of disability to major inventions and technology. Some of the examples given I already knew about and in fact we have referred to them in speeches published on the Commission's own website. Another instance I found interesting when I was in the United States recently is the two wheeled, computer and gyroscope controlled "segway human transporter", being promoted as something which may replace cars for inner urban use - which originated with work on improved electric wheelchairs.

Other examples given in Margaret Verick's article were news to me.

I do not know whether this history is taught as part of engineering, design and related courses to emphasise the benefits of universal design. I would like to see it taught as broadly as possible because I think it might convince more people that disability really is an essential part of the diversity which makes for our success as the human species.

As discussed in the editorial, the view of much of the Deaf community of deafness as a positive, as part of cultural identity, may be too tough a concept for many people to chew on.

But consider this list of technologies developed in response to disability needs or using disability expertise: the typewriter; the telephone; text messaging including email. Or - one I was not aware of before - that the transistor which makes all modern computing and other digital technologies possible was developed at least in part as part of a search for a more efficient hearing aid.

Disability and human diversity

Disability issues occupy a different place in public perceptions to other issues which we are concerned with at the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission - racial discrimination, indigenous social justice, other human rights issues such as those regarding asylum seekers, even sex discrimination.

Compared with these issues, there seems to be broader public acceptance of the legitimacy of at least some measures to address the needs of people with disabilities. We have seen evidence of this in the strength of public reaction to current federal Budget discussions, and the recognition by the government of a need for further consideration in this area.

But the high moral ground and an appeal to needs is often not enough.

In the racial discrimination area, one of the positive sides of the anti-racist coin is the point that our diversity as a nation makes us stronger.

It is almost unheard of, though, in public debate to hear that kind of argument about disability as part of our diversity.

Disability is often discussed as an economic burden on society if it is discussed at all. But you could buy a vast number of disability pensions, and more besides, with even a tiny fraction of a percent as royalties on the economic benefits of any of those technologies just mentioned.

I don't expect that royalties like that will actually start being paid any time soon.

But I think that stories like this can help us to persuade governments and society that every person with a disability really does have a unique contribution to make which is worth valuing and supporting - and to remind us to believe that ourselves.

Thank you for allowing me to speak here and to be part of the enterprise of this journal, disparity. I declare it launched.