The human rights approach: 1970s onwards
From the 1970s onwards, there was a shift in the understanding of disability issues from one of welfare to one of rights. In 1971, the United Nations General Assembly proclaimed the Declaration on the Rights of Mentally Retarded Persons. In 1975 the Declaration on the Rights of Disabled Persons outlined a number of social, economic and civil and political rights for people with disability.
The United Nations declared 1981 as the International Year of Disabled Persons. This year called for a plan of action which would allow people with disability to have equal opportunities and to participate fully in society. A major outcome of this year was the formulation of the World Programme of Action Concerning Disabled Persons adopted by the General Assembly in 1982. This programme outlines a global disability strategy aimed at preventing disability and realizing the full participation of people with disability in society.
To implement the World Program of Action Concerning Disabled Persons the United Nations proclaimed a Decade of Disabled Persons which ran from 1983 to 1992. In 1991, the General Assembly adopted the Principles for the Protection of Persons with Mental Illness and for the Improvement of Mental Health Care. The resolution's twenty-five principles define fundamental freedoms and basic rights of persons a psychosocial disability. Among the major outcomes of the Decade of Disabled Persons was the adoption in 1993, by the General Assembly, of the Standard Rules on the Equalization of Opportunities for Persons with Disabilities.
In 1992, the General Assembly proclaimed that 3 December be observed annually as the International Day of Disabled Persons.
Building upon these international texts, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (‘the Convention’) was adopted by the General Assembly on 13 December 2006. The Convention is the product of 4 years of negotiation over 8 Ad Hoc sessions (from 2002-2006) – representing the fastest negotiated human rights treaty to date – in which the Australian delegation, including current Disability Discrimination Commissioner Graeme Innes, played a major role. After the Convention opened for signature on 30 March 2007 (with a record 82 opening day signatories, including Australia), it entered into force 3 May 2008 after which Australia ratified the Convention on 17 July that same year. As a party to the Convention, Australia agrees to protect the rights of persons with disabilities from discrimination, ensuring equal treatment under the law and the universal enjoyment of human rights and fundamental freedoms.
1986: Australian Human Rights Commission Act 1986 (Cth)
The Australian Human Rights Commission (‘the Commission’) (formerly called the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission) was established by the Australian Human Rights Commission Act 1986 (Cth) (‘the Act’) (formerly known as the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission Act). The Commission's goals are to foster greater understanding and protection of human rights in Australia.
The Act provides the Commission with the power to hear and respond to complaints of discrimination.
In addition, the Commission has the following functions under the Disability Discrimination Act 1992 (Cth):
1980's - 1990's: Development leading to the Disability Discrimination Act 1992 (Cth)
The Disability Discrimination Act 1992 (Cth) was not the first piece of legislation to prohibit disability discrimination; in fact, it was preceded by state and territory anti-discrimination legislation. Such legislation varied across jurisdictions leading to different definitions of disability across Australia.
Throughout the 1980s the Commission and disability organizations called for stronger protection of human rights for people with disabilities. In 1991, the federal government agreed to consider the enactment of a federal disability anti-discrimination legislation and subsequently commissioned reports to obtain public comment. The Ronalds Report (published in 1990 and 1991) indicated that 95% of people with disabilities surveyed supported such legislation and recommended the legislation cover a wider range of areas to include education and transport as well as employment.
The Shelley Report (published in 1991) also found strong support by participants for the concept of federal legislation and noted concerns that state legislation did not provide comprehensive coverage against disability discrimination.
July 1995: Geoffrey Scott v Telstra Corporation Ltd
Geoff Scott, who is deaf, complained that Telstra indirectly discriminated against him because they had not provided him with a telephone typewriter (TTY) in the same way it provided standard handsets to other customers. A TTY allows a person to type their message, and sends it down the phone line where it is received on the screen of another TTY, in real time. The Australian Human Rights Commission found that Telstra had discriminated against Geoff and other people in similar situations. Telstra was directed to provide a TTY to Geoff and to all other Australian households that required the service. From this, Telstra with the support of the federal government established a voucher scheme to assist people who required a TTY and has benefited thousands of persons with a hearing impairment in Australia. This case was significant, for people with disability as it changed company and industry practices and influenced the definition of a standard telephone service under the Telecommunications Act 1997 (Cth).
February 1997: Bradley Kinsella v Queensland University of Technology
Bradley Kinsella filed a discrimination complaint against his university, Queensland University of Technology. Bradley uses a wheelchair and he was not able to fully participate in his graduation ceremony as it was scheduled to take place in an inaccessible venue. The particular venue required the procession of students to walk up a set of stairs before reaching the stage. Brad would be required to enter from the side of the building, segregated from his fellow students and unable to participate in the traditional procession of graduands. Commissioner Atkinson ordered that the graduation ceremony be moved to an accessible venue despite the inaccessible venue having been the traditional venue for these ceremonies noting that, ‘the legislation has changed, and the rights that are expected by and afforded to persons with a disability have changed and so expectations must themselves change.’ (Bradley Kinsella v Queensland University of Technology)
The Sterilization of Young Girls and Women in Australia
The sterilisation of girls and women with disability is an often under-reported issue, so the Australian Human Rights Commission (‘the Commission’) published the 1997 and 2001 updated report: The Sterilisation of Young Girls and Women in Australia. These reports focus on the current situation in Australia, in regards to why girls and women with disability are being sterilised, how this is occurring and what decisions have been made. In particular, the reports provide recommendations including legal reform and more accountability between the government and doctors performing these sterilisations.