Human rights for people with intellectual disabilities in Australia: where to from here?

Dr Sev Ozdowski OAM
Australian Federal Human Rights Commissioner and Disability Discrimination Commissioner

Inclusion International 13th Congress, Melbourne 24 September

Speaking notes only: to be confirmed against delivery


Allow me to commence by paying my respects to the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin nation, the traditional custodians of the land on which we meet.

The abstract for my paper today indicated that I would discuss

  • the limited use made by people with an intellectual disability of anti-discrimination laws in Australia;
  • what prospects there are for more effective use of anti-discrimination law to advance human rights for people with disabilities; and
  • needs for other human rights strategies alongside anti-discrimination law.

I will come to the uses of anti-discrimination law later. I want to start with a few words about human rights and disability more broadly.

Human rights debate needs to acknowledge disability

I will not speak in detail about human rights conventions and disability because this topic is addressed by my co-speaker in this session, Karl Lachwitz. I will say though that international human rights law and human rights debate has not yet acknowledged adequately or sufficiently clearly that people with a disability are part of what the "human" in human rights means. Equally, there has not always been enough attention to human rights dimensions in disability discourse.

Clearer recognition of disability is needed in international standards

I regard as very positive the consideration which has commenced within the United Nations of developing a Convention, a binding treaty, on human rights and disability.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was adopted in 1948 by the United Nations General Assembly, proclaims that all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights and that everyone is entitled to all rights and freedoms set out therein, without distinction of any kind.

The two human rights Covenants of 1966 seek to translate the aspirations of this Declaration into binding legal terms. Both of them set out a range of rights and require these rights to be respected and ensured to all individuals without any discrimination.

It should be clear that the "all" people whose rights are to be respected and ensured includes people with disabilities, and similarly that "any" discrimination includes disability discrimination. Unfortunately, though, the drafters of these Covenants went on to list a series of prohibited grounds of discrimination, such as sex, race, national origin, political opinion and so on, and did not include disability in the lists. These lists give people with disabilities the familiar feeling of being overlooked, even though the Covenants actually do apply legally to people with disabilities.

(The more recently drafted Convention on the Rights of the Child does better in this respect, including disability in the grounds of discrimination listed and containing some specific provisions on rights of children with disabilities, including an equal right to education.)

Another problem with the human rights covenants as a basis for action and international accountability on disability rights is that they do not present anything like a detailed program of action.

In other areas such as women's rights, racial discrimination and the prevention of torture it has been recognised that more detailed documents were needed to spell out how human rights apply to a particular problem or the situation of a particular group. This need it seems to me is particularly strong for human rights and disability.

A more detailed document, the Standard Rules on the Equalization of Opportunities for Persons with Disabilities, was adopted in 1993. The major problem with this document is that it is non-binding.

It does not create legal obligations on governments to implement it. It does not have the same provision for reporting and accountability built into it as the human rights Covenants, or the Conventions on elimination of racial discrimination or discrimination against women or the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

It is this element of accountability that I regard as particularly important, although the existing mechanisms for accountability in the human rights system are in need of major improvement.

Australia has played a very substantial role in the development of human rights instruments in the past.

I was pleased that my Deputy Commissioner Graeme Innes was able to participate as part of the Australian delegation to the initial meeting to discuss the proposed Convention on human rights and disability. I hope that we can continue to participate in this process and that we can assist in promoting wider involvement by the disability community in Australia.

International standards need national implementation

It should always be remembered, however, that international standards at best only a guide and an inspiration.

The idea of standards imposed and enforced from overseas by some sort of world government is really a fantasy. The United Nations is just that, an organisation of nations, made up of sovereign states which all value their independence as much as Australia does.

Very few Australians know that our country is usually extensively involved in drafting UN human rights instruments; that each convention needs to be signed and ratified; and that, even then, it has no domestic legal status unless conferred by specific domestic legislation.

For international standards to make a difference in the lives of Australians with disabilities there needs to be action here at home, not just in New York or Geneva.

Human rights are rights recognised as inherent in each and every one of us by virtue of our common humanity and innate dignity as human beings. They are the rights that must be respected if we are each to fulfil our potential as human beings. They are not luxuries - they are the basic and minimum necessities for living together in human society.

By ratifying - becoming a party to - human rights treaties such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights, the Australian government has undertaken obligations, including obligations to

  • respect the human rights listed
  • protect human rights from violation by others
  • ensure the enjoyment of human rights without discrimination of any kind
  • take the necessary steps to give effect to human rights
  • ensure that victims of human rights violations have an effective remedy which can be enforced

A bill of rights for Australia?

Some of you may be aware that this year I have been promoting a National Human Rights Dialogue. One of the aims has been to reinvigorate debate about the possibility of a Bill of Rights for Australia, which could translate the major international human rights standards into a form that has meaning and effect here in Australia.

Australia is now the last country with the common law system to not have that system supplemented by a Bill of Rights. Of course, that is not a conclusive argument that we should follow the lead of other countries, but it is at least a reason for thought.

I am not here to promote the idea of a Bill of Rights as the solution to all human rights problems, or in particular as the response to all issue of human rights and disability.

And I have admitted in speeches before now that I have been a late convert to the need for a Bill of Rights in Australia.

The range of restrictions on civil liberties contemplated in response to last September's terrorist outrage persuaded me that our fundamental civil rights need more anchoring so that they are not swept away in times of crisis.

But it is also clear that, crisis or not, rights taken for granted by other citizens are more precarious for people with disabilities.

Issues of liberty and disability may justify a Bill of Rights

As I have said, recent concerns regarding surveillance and intrusions into privacy in the context of the "war on terror" have prompted renewed public interest in a need for improved human rights protection.

But surveillance and a lack of privacy are daily realities for those people with disabilities who are living in institutional environments.

One of the most direct impacts of the international human rights regime on Australian law in recent years was in the area of sexual privacy.

An appeal to the international Human Rights Committee under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights led to the federal government overriding the provision of the Tasmanian criminal code which banned sexual acts "against the order of nature" - whatever that means.

Human rights activists hailed this result as removing the last prohibition in law of sex between consenting adults in private.

But in practice there remain restrictions on the sexual life, freedom and privacy of many people with disabilities - for example, again, through constraints imposed on people living in institutional accommodation.

The right to a fair trial and to equal treatment in the criminal justice system is at the core of interest for human rights theorists and activists. Even without a Bill of Rights or similar fundamental guarantees it is one of those areas where Australians probably believe our system works well in protecting the rights of accused people - perhaps even too well.

And yet, the strikingly higher level of representation of people with intellectual and psychiatric disabilities in the prison population has not very much public attention at all. It has not had anywhere near the level of public attention that - rightly - the rate of detention of indigenous people has had.

In the USA, fairness of investigation and trial for people with mental disabilities is a subject regularly considered by superior courts as a major constitutional law issue - even if that is largely because the death penalty awaits at the end of the process in that country.

Here, the treatment of people with mental disabilities in the criminal justice system is a specialised subject for a few dedicated advocates and for too easily shelved law reform commission discussion papers.

Human rights is more than the right to be left alone

The overall title for today's conference sessions is "Liberty". The sorts of rights I have been talking about are liberty rights. These are the kind of rights which are most commonly considered for legal protection in a bill of rights.

The perspective of much human rights thinking, influenced by common law traditions and United States constitutional law, is that human rights are about these kinds of liberties - about restricting intrusions by government. Human rights are seen as the right to be left alone.

As someone who grew up in Eastern Europe in the communist era I would be the last to downplay rights for citizens to be free from surveillance and other arbitrary intrusions by government.

Equally, though, I grew up with the idea that rights are not always and entirely the individual right to be left alone - that there are some positive rights which require government action and resources to secure them.

All of us sometimes need to call on the resources of community and government to be able to exercise some of our rights - even including the classical "freedom from" or liberty rights.

You cannot have a right to fair trial unless government provides and resources impartial courts and a fair system of investigation.

You cannot have free and fair elections without investing in an electoral system secure from interference with results.

Disability rights have clear social dimensions

This social dimension of rights is particularly clear for rights for people with disabilities.

It is now widely understood - at least within the disability community - that the effect of a person's disability on their participation in society depends on the social response to disability.

For example: of course a blind person cannot see. But whether he or she can read depends on how education and information are provided.

A person with an intellectual disability may have more difficulty understanding information. But whether they can succeed in understanding may depend on the social context - how information is provided and what assistance is available - rather than being a purely personal issue of level of impairment.

Inclusion for people with disabilities requires social resources

Let me move from abstract issues to a specific example.

Nothing is more fundamental than education to a person's prospects for effective or equal participation in our modern society and economy.

At the same time, everyone from the Prime Minister down now recognises that the fit between work and family presents critical issues for our society and economy, and for the opportunities open to parents of young children, particularly women.

Child care, preschool education and after school care are part of that picture.

Recognising these factors, a Special Needs Subsidy Scheme was introduced in 1997 by the Commonwealth to facilitate inclusion of children with high ongoing needs into mainstream child care services. This scheme provides ongoing funding for additional staff and equipment where a child's needs could not be met through the normal resources available to the child care service.

However, from this year, funding for this scheme has been capped by the Commonwealth. Looked at another way, demand for this assistance has expanded to a point beyond the funds allocated.

I have been informed that this means that new applications are being put on a waiting list, and in effect new approvals may only occur as children in existing places move on.

It seems inevitable that these changes will restrict access to child care for families with children with disabilities.

In a country like Australia, any assertion that there is just not enough public money to go around is difficult to believe. It is always a matter of priorities.

Is there really not enough money to ensure that children with additional needs have an opportunity to benefit from child care and pre-school education; or even to benefit effectively from mainstream school education? Is everything else that public money is spent on really a higher priority than this?

Why should we accept that this is just another instance of "unmet needs" instead of naming it for what it is - a lack of sufficient action to ensure the human rights which as a nation we claim to be committed to.

Of course there are limits to government resources. And calls for expansion of the welfare state are very much out of fashion. But we are not really talking about welfare here. We are not only talking about "unmet needs".

We are talking about resources to enable people to enjoy free and equal citizenship. To participate in society. In fact, in many cases we are talking about resources to enable people to contribute and be productive, rather than being dependent on more passive forms of welfare assistance.

Australia : the land of the fair go?

Australians do have a strong core national value of basic justice and fairness, expressed vividly in the 'fair go' ideal. In opinion surveys over the last decade or so, Australians have overwhelmingly agreed on various rights as fundamental. Some of them received 100% endorsement, including protection of rights of people with disabilities.

And in fact, much has been done in Australia to advance equal rights for people with disabilities - particularly since the 1981 International Year. My point is that much more still needs to be done.

Legislative developments

In the early 1980s those States which already had anti-discrimination legislation, covering grounds such as race and sex discrimination, added coverage of disability. Other later State and Territory discrimination laws followed suit.

1981 also saw the passage of the federal Human Rights Commission Act. The new Commission's jurisdiction was defined by reference to a number of international instruments - including the Declaration on the Rights of Disabled Persons and the Declaration on the Rights of Mentally Retarded Persons. That was an important start, even though very little legal power went with it.

Some of the content of international declarations on disability was given more definite legal form in the Disability Services Acts which were passed later in the 1980s. These set standards for how specific services for people with disabilities should operate - including provisions for dealing with complaints of abuse and for participation in how services operate.

What they did not do, however, was to create any enforceable right for people who require support, assistance or other services to receive it.

To repeat the point, there is overwhelming considerable evidence in 2002 of continuing unmet need for disability services, support and assistance - in areas including personal assistance and care, respite support for family carers, accommodation, interpreting services, education aides, and access to assistive technology.

Some of these issues may need to be advanced through public and political pressure, and through improved human rights tools at the international and national level.

Discrimination law and its uses

But I want to turn now to discuss a different set of tools that we already have for advancing equality and human rights. I refer to the Disability Discrimination Act and the closely equivalent provisions which exist in State and Territory discrimination laws.

This is where the main focus of HREOC's disability rights work has been over the last decade - although we have also done some important work outside of the scope of the DDA, for example on sterilisation issues.

One reason for this focus is that the discrimination acts provide an enforceable legal foundation for rights. Outside the areas covered by these specific laws HREOC is limited to political and publicity approaches - inquiries, reports, submissions, press conferences and so on.

These approaches can also be made to be very effective.

But a major part of the purpose of the passage of the DDA was to provide people with disabilities with enforceable rights to deal with discrimination, assisted by a national human rights commission, rather than that commission being only able to issue reports which frankly might or might not ever be implemented.

I will not spend time here detailing the provisions of the DDA, or the record of what has and has not been achieved with it in almost ten years since the Act commenced operation in 1993.

There are a number of recent speeches on these subjects and much else on our web site.

The DDA has been underused on intellectual disability issues

I want to come quickly now to the central point for this paper.

Far less has been achieved for people with intellectual disabilities using the Disability Discrimination Act than has been achieved for people with physical and sensory disabilities.

As I hope you will accept at once, that has not been a result of any lack of appreciation by me, by my predecessors as Commissioner or by Commission staff of the human rights of people with intellectual disabilities.

Part of the reason has been that it has been easier to find effective strategic opportunities in other areas.

Not that it has been easy negotiating multi million dollar programs to make public transport accessible - as we have done - or getting agreement to make telecommunications accessible for deaf people - where great progress has been made even though more remains to be done. But it has been possible to find a path forward on these issues.

One reason is that lack of access in these areas is clearly covered by the unlawful discrimination provisions of the DDA. By contrast, application of the DDA to issues like institutional living has been much less clear. Most progress in this area has come through political processes and through use of Disability Services legislation.

Standards development has not yet benefited people with intellectual disabilities

Another reason is that for a variety of reasons there has been less progress in developing Disability Standards under the DDA where there are particular issues for people with intellectual disabilities than in areas where the major issues are for other parts of the disability community.

When the Act was passed, setting of detailed standards was seen as the main means for achieving large scale systemic progress towards eliminating discrimination, instead of relying only on individual complaints under the very general provisions which already existed in other anti-discrimination laws.

Standards for accessible public transport are expected to enter force next month, and good progress is being made towards standards for access to buildings to be completed next year.

After extensive discussions and consultation, in June this year disability standards on education appear to have been close to being recommended by education officials to the Ministerial Council on Employment Education Training and Youth Affairs for approval.

Regrettably, at a very late stage one major State - the name of which sounds a lot like New South Wales - introduced legal advice into the process which appeared to assert that the draft Standards go well beyond the existing scope of the DDA. This was on the basis of a view that the DDA only requires formal equality rather than any substantive measures to achieve equality.

This argument is obvious nonsense, as my staff pointed out at the meeting of officials concerned.

If the DDA only required formal equality where everyone is treated the same, then, for example, what on earth have transport ministers been doing agreeing to spend hundreds of millions of dollars installing lifts at railway stations and buying low floor buses? If there are steps for everyone, that is formal equality, after all.

If only formal equality is required, what was Telstra doing agreeing to provide deaf people with TTYs to be able to use the phone network? Giving a standard handset to everyone provides formal equality even if some people cannot use it.

However, education officials and Ministers understandably felt unable to proceed until the legal issues raised were clarified. I am not clear at this point what further clarification can be provided, or how.

If standards in this area do not progress we may be driven to the less satisfactory option (for all concerned) of relying on litigation to resolve issues. With that in mind, HREOC has filed submissions supporting an application for the High Court to grant special leave to hear an appeal in the case of Purvis v State of New South Wales. If the standards do move forward, we would clearly be reconsidering the need for our involvement in those proceedings.

Use of the Commissioner's amicus role could be developed further

I want to say something briefly here about my role and that of the Commission in appearing in court proceedings involving human rights and disability discrimination issues.

With permission from the court, I can appear as an amicus curiae, or friend of the court, in cases under the DDA which are not settled at the conciliation stage within the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission and which the complainant decides to take to court.

This is not a role of appearing as an advocate for the complainant.

But this role does allow me to present perspectives on the interpretation of the DDA and how it applies in particular situations. This could include putting information before the court which we have gathered through public inquiry processes or through other processes of consultation with the disability community and other experts.

I am interested in working more closely with disability community organisations in exercising this function. I would welcome suggestions towards criteria and priorities that should be applied in deciding which cases to become involved in.

If you want a public inquiry you need to ask for it

You may also be aware that the Commission has the ability to conduct public inquiries into issues within our jurisdiction. Public inquiries are one of the most important methods which the Commission has used to collect views and information on pressing human rights issues, and to gain increased attention for and action on those issues.

The best way to see HREOC conduct an inquiry on an issue is to write or email to us asking for it to happen. I am not saying we will automatically agree: we do have issues of jurisdiction and available resources to consider. I am saying that I and my colleagues treat such requests seriously.

Complaints are the main vehicle for raising issues under the DDA

The primary way for disability issues to be presented to the Commission, however, is through formal complaints under the DDA.

Our legislative charter means we have to deal with complaints which are within our jurisdiction. This contrasts with a request for an inquiry not based on a complaint, which we may well not to be able to accept as a matter of priorities.

We receive hundreds of complaints each year under the DDA - although few of these seem to be targeted for large scale impact in eliminating discrimination.
It is also clear that the DDA has been very much under-used by and on behalf of people with intellectual disabilities.

Most of the high profile success stories have been

  • in areas of access for people with sensory disabilities - like TTY telephone access for deaf and speech impaired people; and
  • in physical access to public transport and other facilities.

It seems to me there are many issues affecting people with intellectual disabilities where complaints could make a difference.

The Commissioner no longer has a "self start" complaint power

When the Disability Discrimination Act was introduced there was also provision for the Disability Discrimination Commissioner to pursue discrimination issues as if a complaint had been lodged.

This "self-start" power had some technical defects which in practice made it unusable, and it was removed when the machinery provisions of the legislation were revised in 1999. It would be timely to consider how an enforcement role such as this could be reinstituted.

For the present, however, we are left without such a power and so issues will only be taken up if the community brings them forward.

Discussion is needed of how to get more impact from complaitns about intellectual disability issues

I would like to promote discussion about

  • how can we see more complaints made which are designed to have some strategic impact; and
  • how we can make it easier for the community to use the power of the legislation.


Those are the questions I want to leave you with today.

I do want to move forward with you in developing new human rights tools.

I do want the Commission to stand with you in using political and public processes to see issues of unmet need identified and addressed as fundamental human rights issues.

Most immediately, I want your involvement in ensuring that we use the tools that we already have as effectively as possible to advance the human rights of people with disabilities in Australia.

Thank you.