Author

Gov2.0 Roundtable on Accessibility for People with Disabilities

Parliament House, Canberra
Graeme Innes AM
Thursday November 26 2009

I acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we meet.

Last year a blind colleague of mine decided he needed a pet dog to be company for him and his teenage daughter. After checking various pet rescue websites and talking to various people, he found an 18-month-old German Shepherd / red Cattle dog cross that this bloke was giving away. He even brought the dog over in his car.

Well, as they say, there's no free lunch, and the dog (whose name is Belle) may well have come straight from a Stephen King novel. She quickly chewed her way through two leather wallets (one of them a Calvin Klein), several shoes, and other articles of clothing. But her crowning effort occurred when, in the space of a couple of hours one night, she ate a box of 10 coffee pods, and then proceeded to eat all the keys of his mobile phone (he's thinking of putting the remnants of it in one of those pop art exhibitions). When my colleague found her, Belle was tired out by her hard work and was curled up on the lounge. She didn't stay there for long though, and I think she quickly cottoned on to my colleague's thoughts, which included things like “pound”, “needle”, “big sleep” and “kennel in the sky”.

Belle does have one good quality though: she only barks three times a day: once for three hours in the morning, a second time for three hours in the afternoon, and a third time for three hours at night. Being wise in the ways of the Web, my colleague did a Google search for “barking solutions” and “anti-barking strategies” and found a website that had lots of information. When he downloaded the files and opened them with his screen-reader software and refreshable braille display, he found that he couldn't read anything beyond the first page – the files had been prepared in such a way that they were pretty much inaccessible.

Easy to do if you're not thinking inclusively. Did my colleague feel socially included? You bet he didn't!

I relate this story for several reasons: the first is to illustrate that social inclusion of people with disability isn't a concept that can be brought about by proclamation, a few conferences, and a bit of a media splash on International Day of People with Disability (which is celebrated annually on December 3). Those things are important, but they're of little use unless we as a community learn to think inclusively in all our individual and collective activities, and unless we develop an “access state of mind” that becomes second nature to us.

The site that had all this potentially useful information about barking dogs was an Australian site, and was therefore covered by the Disability Discrimination Act. I am sure all of you here today are familiar the DDA, some of you no doubt know quite a bit about it, and a few of you may have used it to lodge complaints or respond to a complaint that has been lodged against your organisation. The DDA makes it unlawful to discriminate against people with disability in certain key areas of life, including access to premises, education, employment, public transport, the provision of goods and services, and the administration of Commonwealth laws and programs.

The DDA mainly operates through a complaints-based mechanism: if a person with a disability feels that they have been discriminated against, they can lodge a complaint with the Commission, and the Commission then investigates the complaint and attempts to help the parties reach a conciliated solution. If conciliation fails, the person lodging the complaint can proceed to the Federal Court, which has the legal power to make a binding determination about whether discrimination has occurred. It will assess factors like unjustifiable hardship and reasonableness in arriving at its decision.

The DDA was enacted in 1992, and I think it's true to say that most people with a disability in Australia know that it exists and that it can be used for lodging complaints. The latest figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics tell us that about 20% of the Australian population has some kind of disability – that's over 5 million people. How many complaints do you think we receive each year lodged under the DDA? If only 1% of people with disability used the DDA, then we'd receive 50,000 complaints; if only 0.5% lodged complaints, we'd receive 25 thousand complaints. In fact, we receive about 1,000 complaints a year lodged under the DDA. I'll leave it as a homework exercise for you to work out the percentage that this represents.

So what are we to make of this? One possibility is that there isn't much disability discrimination after all, and everyone is being socially included. Talk to anyone with a disability, read the report of the National Disability Strategy consultation titled Shut Out, and you'll very quickly realise that almost all people with a disability experience discrimination of one form or another on an almost daily basis, whether it's not being able to find a job, not being able to watch a movie because it isn't captioned, not being able to fill in a Centrelink form independently because it's not available in an accessible format, not being able to use a touch-screen based queuing system because it has been installed without thinking inclusively and has no audio output, or not being able to access information to help train a barking dog.

The reality is that while the DDA has been a very significant piece of beneficial legislation, it has limitations, and one of them is that lodging complaints requires a lot of emotional effort, time and commitment. If people with disability lodged a DDA complaint about every instance of discrimination they experience, they would need many more hours in the day than 24, and they would hardly be able to take coffee and sleep breaks. Even in the supportive and relatively informal atmosphere of a Commission-sponsored conciliation conference, it can feel very lonely for a person lodging a complaint when dealing with, say, government solicitor or HR officers. For the solicitors, it's just another part of the day's' work to be left behind when leaving the office, but for the person with a disability, it's a part of their life – part of who they are, and it affects their sense of dignity and feelings of self-worth.

I hear a lot about risk analysis these days, and I often hear organisations, including government departments, say things like, “well if there's only a small chance that someone will lodge a DDA complaint if my website is inaccessible or if I publish a report in an inaccessible format, then I'll go ahead and run the risk, and deal with it if a complaint is actually lodged – after all, we need to get the site up and the report out for the real people now”. This non-inclusive thinking is like saying that laws only exist when you get caught breaking them.

Of course, some people do have that view, and will, for example, only wear a seatbelt if they think there's a police car nearby, but I think the vast majority of us see the benefits to us and society of being law-abiding. The DDA makes it unlawful to discriminate against people with a disability, and trying to fall back on risk analysis won't get you out of it and it won't make discriminatory conduct lawful. What it will do is just perpetuate the inequalities and lack of social inclusion that people with disability still experience in Australia .

The Commission is very encouraged by the Government's emphasis on the social inclusion agenda, and we believe that governments have a crucial leadership role to play in advancing that agenda and making inclusive thinking a part of the way we operate as a community.

I welcome the focus being given to accessibility in the current Gov2.0 initiative and hope this means that access will not be an add-on. I also look forward the release of the Ministers report of the investigation into access to electronic media by people with vision or hearing impairments. The electronic media are an increasingly important vehicle for the communication of information, ideas, entertainment and culture, and yet people with disability are increasingly being excluded because of insufficient captioning, lack of verbalisation of on-screen text or emergency information, and failure to provide audio description of TV programs, movies and DVDs.

The free market has simply not delivered social inclusion in this area, and I hope that the report provides us with a roadmap of actions government and industry might take to make electronic media more socially inclusive. Technology is developing so quickly that social inclusion will never be achieved if we take a “let's wait and see what happens and think about it again in a few years” approach.

Now let's come back to my colleague and his keyless mobile phone. He didn't lodge a complaint under the DDA about not being able to access the barking solutions website. What was most important for him at that time was to get a new mobile phone. So he went into an Apple store and bought an Iphone 3GS. He was able to do this because Apple is one company that has recently started to think inclusively. Some of their recent products, including the Mac, several flavours of Ipod, and the Iphone 3GS have accessibility features such as audio navigation and text enlargement built in. So people who are blind or vision-impaired can now, for the first time, buy a mainstream computer product that is accessible out of the box.

If we're going to get serious about social inclusion, then we have to stop thinking about access for people with a disability as a kind of afterthought, as an add-on once the product has been designed or the website developed. People with a disability aren't a postscript – we're one in five of the population. That's hardly an add-on.

There are about 300,000 people in Australia who are blind or have a significant vision impairment. WHO estimates suggest that this figure could double in the next decade, mainly as a result of the ageing of the population. If you're going to do your core business, design your core websites, and introduce your touchscreen-based technologies so that they can be used only with good vision, then you're going to be contributing to social exclusion on a large scale. How does that make you feel. Thinking inclusively isn't something we practise like a musical instrument, only when we can fit it in or when there's a professional development opportunity – it's a way of thinking that we need to practise everywhere, everyday, and with everyone we encounter. I hope that makes you feel excited about the possibilities, because it should. If it doesn't, then you're probably part of the problem not part of the solution and you might be better off getting a job as a dog trainer.

I suspect that one reason that Apple have become interested in improving the accessibility of their products is so that they can be considered for government contracts in those countries that have accessible public procurement policies, notably the US, but also, at different stages of development and implementation, in Canada, the EU and Japan. Governments are large purchasers of goods and services, and by making accessibility mandatory for the equipment, software and other services they purchase or outsource, they can bring about significant and far-reaching improvements in accessible design and hence social inclusion.

The Commission sometimes receives inquiries from Australian companies who are proposing to do business in the US and want to know what they need to do to make their products compliant with the US Section 508 accessibility requirements. It's rather sad that these companies don't ask what they have to do to make their products compliant with Australian requirements. The reason they don't ask is that there aren't any.

I believe that the introduction of a Government-wide accessible public procurement policy in Australia is overdue and necessary if we are to move the social inclusion agenda from rhetoric into reality. That's not the only thing that needs to happen of course, but true social inclusion for people with disability won't be achieved without it.

The Government has made progress on the development of a comprehensive National Disability Strategy, and this is very welcome. I do hope, though, that such a strategy provides mechanisms for ensuring that new communications technologies are introduced when and only when their impact on people with disability has been assessed. Developments such as digital TV and digital radio, and the National Broadband Network, risk widening the disability divide if the hardware and software that underpins them is not accessible. I know that these issues were canvassed in a number of submissions made to the Access to Electronic Media investigation, and I'm therefore looking forward to learning how the Government proposes to address them.

Over the past 15 years we've witnessed the convergence of diverse communications technologies: broadcasting, computing, publishing and telecommunications. People email each other, they blog, they glog, and they Twitter (in fact some of you have probably been tweeting about this presentation). The world of the 21 st century is a communicating world, and that's one reason why the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities refers to access to communications and information, including access the Internet, as being some of the basic rights that people with disability have. The next presentation will deal in more detail with the Convention, but I just wanted to emphasise that you can't “do” social inclusion without understanding and assimilating the principles of the Convention.

The Convention basically asserts that disability is part of the universal human experience, and as such, people with disability have fundamental rights to participate in economic, political, recreational, and cultural life – in fact, the right to full social inclusion. That right isn't an add-on, and it's not something that operates only when someone lodges a complaint. It's a right that is asserted everyday, everywhere, and by everyone with a disability. The realisation of this right through the achievement of a society that is socially inclusive is a challenge, but it is a challenge that we must meet if we are to be a truly civilised and civilising society.

Thank you for the opportunity to address you this morning, and I look forward to the rest of today's discussions. Oh, and if anyone would like a dog who knows a designer wallet when she chews one, has a taste for espresso coffee, can make an art exhibit and only barks three times a day, let me know and I'll put you in touch.