Seminar on equal opportunity in higher education
Dr Sev Ozdowski OAM
Introduction: who do we want to be?
Allow me to begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land on which we meet.
As you know, I was also here yesterday giving a public lecture on the future of human rights protection in Australia. It struck me that Remembrance Day, 11 November, was a good day to reflect on what sort of country we want to be.
I want to continue that reflection today, more specifically regarding people with disabilities.
Do we want a country for all of us? Or only for all of "us", meaning not for "them", excluded by gender or race or religion or by disability?
In this country, our Australia, exclusion of people by race or religion or gender is hardly a thing of the past in practice.
But it is something that as a society we have rejected in principle.
Few people would now argue that women should not have the right to choose to be in the paid workforce, or for example that women should still be required to resign from the federal public service when they marry, as was the case into the 1960s.
Despite concerns, which I share, about a reappearance of racial and religious intolerance in recent years, I think there is still broad community acceptance that we are a diverse society. I have not seen any widespread overt support for reintroduction of the kind of institutionalized racial segregation which was once common.
Law and community attitudes
The role of the law in changing attitudes is a complicated subject, and
I do not think you want me to give a lecture here on the sociology of
law. But it is clear enough that laws against discrimination have been
an important part of the changes in Australian society over the last few
Even if we do not have constitutional guarantees of equality and human rights like the United States or Canada or New Zealand or now the United Kingdom, we do have national legislation against discrimination.
We have had racial discrimination legislation since 1975 and sex discrimination legislation since 1984.
Since 1993 we have also had national legislation against disability discrimination. In some parts of Australia there was State legislation against disability discrimination some years earlier.
The Disability Discrimination Act was passed in October 1992 and came into force in March 1993.
What impact has the DDA had?
So what impact has the Disability Discrimination Act had so far?
Perhaps it is like what Chou En Lai is reported to have said when he was asked in the 1970s about the impact of the French Revolution : "It's too soon to tell".
Still, I think that after ten years it is time for some assessment of what has been achieved, and what remains to be achieved, in eliminating disability discrimination.
I think it is clear that, as with race and sex discrimination, we have seen some major shifts in social and institutional attitudes about disability.
Segregated life is no longer thought of by most people as the best and inevitable thing for everyone who happens to have a disability - even if the resources to make community living a success have not always followed this change in attitudes.
One of the big changes which I take particular pleasure in, because the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission contributed directly to it, has been that public transport systems now accept that people with disabilities are part of the "public" that they should serve, rather than either ignoring disability or arguing that it should be dealt with by someone else.
Standards for accessible public transport under the Disability Discrimination Act were formally approved by the parliament last month. But since 1996 when these standards were approved in principle, they have already been guiding large scale changes in practice by many transport providers across Australia, including large investments in new vehicles and infrastructure.
Another area of change is that building design increasingly emphasizes universal access, instead of either ignoring and excluding people with disabilities, or maybe providing an inconvenient and undignified entrance around the back, with the only accessible toilet being in the basement.
Some of that change has been because of a general change in social attitudes and awareness.
Some of it has been the result of tireless campaigning by people with disabilities across the country, through local access committees and through use of complaint processes.
Some of it has been through changes at the level of national regulation. We have been negotiating with the Australian Building Codes Board, the property industry and the disability community for some time to upgrade the access provisions of the building code and associated laws. We expect that within the next 12 months those processes will be complete with the adoption of a standard on access to premises under the Disability Discrimination Act.
Changes in building regulation and in design philosophy can take a long time to make a difference in practice across the board. The reason for that is that mostly we expect buildings to last much longer than a bus or a taxi and that access defects of an old building can be expensive and difficult to change.
Still, there is increasing acceptance across Australia that the point of our built environment is to serve Australia's people and that this includes people with disabilities. Buildings which are meant to be serving the public cannot be kept unchanged as museums of inaccessible construction - even for those universities with heritage sandstone buildings.
Wide range of issues to consider
Of course, there is more to access and opportunity for people with disabilities than physical access to buildings and transport.
As well as physical disabilities the legislation covers sensory disabilities, intellectual disabilities, psychiatric disabilities and a range of conditions which might not easily fit into any of those categories.
The legislation also covers a wide range of areas of life - employment, education, access to premises, accommodation, and goods and services from transport to insurance to banking and retailing.
This wide coverage means that assessing the impact of the legislation is not a simple matter.
Anniversary publication on achievements
I do not think it would be a good idea to spend all of the Commission's limited budget on trying to achieve a fully scientific evaluation of what has been achieved - we could spend years trying to count ramps installed, pages published in accessible forms and so on.
But as in any activity, in the business of seeking to eliminate disability discrimination it is important that we do have some idea of what an acceptable degree of success would look like, and some idea of whether we are getting there.
Last month, I announced that for the tenth anniversary of the Disability Discrimination Act, I will be releasing a publication on achievements so far: achievements in moving towards equal opportunity and access for people with disabilities.
This publication will include information on outcomes where HREOC has
been directly involved, through the complaint process and also through
other avenues provided by the legislation, such as standards development,
exemption processes and public inquiries.
But of course a small national human rights commission cannot be involved
in every activity across Australia, or even know about these activities,
unless people tell us about it.
We cannot and do not know about every issue still to be addressed, without
input from people closer to the action - as people with disabilities or
as service providers or as both.
I would very much welcome any views and information you have on where
we have got to so far.
I would also like to receive views on where we need to go over the next ten years in eliminating discrimination and achieving equality - both in terms of issues to address and in terms of the right processes for addressing them.
Achievements in education access
We do not have available anything like a comprehensive or scientific evaluation of progress even in a specific area such as education.
But we do know that what has been achieved through the DDA in the education area has been the subject of some debate.
Here are some comments from a paper for the disability community's Disability Standards Project in 1997:
"Compliance with the DDA in the tertiary sector is patchy at best. There are some outstanding examples of tertiary institutions that accommodate students with disabilities in an exceptional manner. However, these institutions are in the minority and have to stretch their resources as more and more students with disabilities gravitate to them. This gravitation takes place because other tertiary institutions discourage enrolment or continued participation by students with disabilities."
Let me say at once that was five years ago and even then was only one perspective.
Since then we have some encouraging pieces of evidence about Australia's tertiary education sector, although we also have some continuing questions.
Action plans: evidence of commitment
More than half of Australia's universities have provided the Commission with an Action Plan under the Disability Discrimination Act.
These action plans vary from high level frameworks for further planning to quite detailed action lists with specific timelines.
The sort of action plan appropriate for each organization varies with
the nature of that organization.
The best action plans are those which emerge from genuine processes between an organization and the constituency it serves, rather than being an off the shelf model imposed or copied from outside.
So I do not want to dictate what sort of action plan a university should have in place. I will say, though, that any plan is better if it does have some action in it and is not just all plan.
I have also been pleased to see how many organizations - although not many universities yet - have been providing us with reports on the implementation of action plans and revised plans incorporating further actions.
Although the take up of the action plan concept by the TAFE sector has not been as strong as for universities, it has also been increasing.
While an action plan is not a guarantee in itself of action or of the right actions, it is a public commitment to accountability for moving forward on access and equity.
The amount of vigilance from students and from committed staff in a university environment means that, more than for most organizations, a university action plan can be expected to be a more than formal commitment.
I want to emphasise again how important it is for action to occur within each institution to identify access and equality issues, as well as identifying actions needed to address these issues and monitoring progress in implementing these actions. No outside body can perform this role for you and certainly not the Commission or the Disability Discrimination Act by itself.
Legal remedies important but not enough
In some respects the power of the Disability Discrimination Act as legislation is very strong.
If the federal court upholds a complaint of discrimination, it can order essentially any action required to provide equitable access or to compensate for discrimination - subject to the limitation provided where access would involve unjustifiable hardship.
But at the same time, litigation and complaint processes are always going to be more limited in scope, and more expensive, than processes where education providers and students with disabilities work together to make the systemic changes that are needed.
Importance of standards
As a better foundation for systemic changes, the Commission regards it as important for disability standards on education to be developed, as well as on other areas as I have already mentioned.
Standard setting seems particularly important in the disability discrimination area compared to areas like race and sex discrimination because often equal access for people with disabilities is not simply a matter of removing discriminatory attitudes.
Not that I am saying that changing attitudes is simple - otherwise my colleague the Sex Discrimination Commissioner for example could simply say "Just don't do it!", and there you are, no more sexual harassment.
But I do think that with disability, there are more complicated issues of translating a desire to be accessible and inclusive into systems and facilities that people can actually use.
Whether someone can enter a building, even if they cannot walk or pull open a door, depends on a host of practical details not just on an organization proclaiming a commitment to equality as a matter of principle.
Whether people can receive information and participate in classes if they cannot see, or cannot hear, may depend on a complex mix of human service provision and appropriate use of technology.
Complexity of education issues
I think it is fair to say that setting standards for equal access and opportunity in education is more complex than for public transport or access to buildings - because education is a more complex set of interactions than getting on a bus or getting through a door.
Educational institutions also have to deal with these physical access
issues of course, but there are many other issues to deal with, such as
the accessibility of course materials, teaching methods and assessment
You may be aware that we recently ran a forum on accessibility of tertiary
education materials. A number of working groups on copyright and practical
issues have been formed to take forward the very co-operative discussions
which were had at that form between universities, students and publishing
I would welcome suggestions for any other issues in achieving equal access
in tertiary education where a similar forum might assist in making progress.
Any organization seeking to move to more accessible ways of delivering
its services faces financial and technical constraints and may need increased
staff training and information resources. Educational institutions face
particular issues in ensuring that changes made to achieve access are
consistent with the integrity of courses.
A single set of national standards cannot appropriately prescribe in detail how to do all of this.
But in my view the draft education standards which have been under consideration
by Ministerial Council on Employment, Education, Training and Youth Affairs
for some time now do add a useful level of explanation to what the very
general anti-discrimination requirements of the Disability Discrimination
Act mean for education providers and students.
Consideration of those standards stalled earlier this year when a State education authority raised legal concerns very late in the process, but I am hopeful that the process will move forward again soon.
I want to conclude these remarks by moving away from issues of legal
rights and responsibilities and standards, and back to the question that
I started with: what sort of society do we want to be?
I feel confident in saying that for Australia's universities and for
this universities the answer as a matter of principle is clear - we want
to combine a commitment to excellence with a commitment to inclusiveness,
to make the most of the abilities and potential of our diverse people,
and that includes people with disabilities.
And so since I think we agree on the destination I hope that we can keep
discussing ways that the Commission and the Disability Discrimination
Act can assist you towards getting there.