Launch of ABC Disability Awareness resources: An ABC for all Australians

Dr Sev Ozdowski OAM
Disability Discrimination Commissioner
Sydney, 9 August 2001
Sev Ozdowski

Tonight's ceremony is, in part, a belated celebration of the recognition of the ABC as national award winner in the Prime Minister's Employer of the Year awards for 2000.

Although it occurred last year, this award being conferred still deserves a celebration. Such an award is only achieved by corporate leadership, management and staff all being committed to making the best use of the talents of people with disabilities.

For organisations which have earned this level of recognition, equal employment opportunity rises far above bureaucratic compliance with formal anti-discrimination and EEO requirements. I think there is great potential in the shift in EEO thinking in recent years to emphasise diversity planning, with organisations looking to actively build cultures which take advantage of the diversity of their workforce and their potential workforce in the Australian community.

Tonight's ceremony, while commemorating last year's award to the ABC, is also a recognition of action being continued since then, and of accountability being confirmed for further action into the future.

Each of the disability awareness resources being launched here is addressed first to the ABC's own operations, but also looks to the organisation's responsibilities to Australia's broader community. The Australian Broadcasting Corporation has a business charter which gives it distinctive responsibilities in serving Australia's diverse community and in reflecting back that diversity.

I was struck by Steve Vizard's Andrew Olle memorial lecture back in 1999, where he argued - at a time when most discussion about the ABC seemed to be about budget cuts or constraints - that the ABC should have its funding significantly expanded. Mr Vizard's point was that in a world of advanced broadband communications the ABC may have an increasingly crucial role, in enabling Australia to hold a mirror to ourselves, as other mass media comes under increasing pressure in a globalised environment to be concerned only about bulk content, mostly generated overseas.

Actually, being Commissioner as I am with another publicly funded organisation, which incidentally costs each of us much less than the ABC's 8 cents a day (more like 4 cents a month, in fact), I should point out that the role of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission is also largely that of holding up a mirror to the Australian community. Our role is not one of asserting bureaucratic control over other organisations, or imposing political correctness on the community, but one of holding up the human rights mirror - so that we can all see whether governments, organisations and individuals are respecting in practice the values of respect for each other's humanity to which an overwhelming majority of us would assuredly be committed in principle.

The Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission has generally avoided becoming caught up in public disputes about appropriate broadcasting content, in relation to people with disabilities in particular - since we have no wish to act as the politically correct censors of public discussion which a few media commentators seem to imagine us to be.

That said, I very much welcome the emphasis given in the ABC program makers' guide to avoiding biased coverage and achieving balanced characterisation, to include people with a disability as a natural part of the Australian community.

Those of you who have seen the "Employability" video and the Program Makers Guide being launched tonight will already know something of my admired blind colleague, Deputy Disability Discrimination Commissioner Graeme Innes. I mention the fact that Graeme is blind, only to emphasise the point that Graeme himself makes in the ABC Program Makers Guide - that his disability does not define him or define all aspects of his life, and that he sees himself as an "average bloke": cricket fan, ABC listener, family man, sailor, lawyer.

My predecessor as Human Rights Commissioner, Chris Sidoti, notes in the program makers' guide that, with community attitudes being constantly influenced by the images presented in the media, there is a basic challenge for the media to face: to present people with disabilities more often and in a wider range of roles and situations. Not everyone with a disability is a tragic victim receiving record damages, and even more untypical is the "crazed gunman" or other offender - despite the impression that might be gained from watching some television news services that most Australians with disabilities spend their time receiving awards by courts, or being arrested by constables.

Being applauded by crowds for international sporting achievement is not typical of most people with disabilities either, of course, any more than it is typical for most of the community in general. Despite this, it seems clear that the Paralympics and the ABC's coverage of the Paralympics made a big contribution to increasing awareness of people with disabilities - awareness firstly that people with disabilities are there at all as members of the community and, beyond that, awareness of people with disabilities as also having abilities and aspirations and individual stories to tell. To a surprising degree, at the Paralympics we saw an elite sporting event and the coverage of that event making an impact in advancing broader citizenship for people with disabilities.

Another significant feature of the ABC's Paralympic coverage for people with disabilities, this time as broadcasting consumers, was the full captioning applied to this coverage, to allow people with hearing impairments to participate fully.

As we are in Sydney tonight and north of the airport, I cannot help noting the potential usefulness of captions for a large additional group: those people who can usually hear but are affected by constant noise of aircraft blasting cacophonously overhead during their favourite television program.

The ABC and other broadcasters have been working hard to achieve benchmarks contained in the captioning standards applying since 1 January 2001 under the Broadcasting Services Act - which require captioning of all prime time, news and current affairs material. In response, deaf and hearing impaired community organisations have said that they appreciate that the progress made to comply with these standards has been a big challenge for broadcasters, and provides access beyond comparison with even a year ago. However, their objective remains to see all broadcasting captioned - an objective which they are to pursuing through complaints under the Disability Discrimination Act.

Handling these complaints now comes under the responsibility of the Commission's President rather than under mine, but I can say that I am hopeful that current discussions will produce at least a broad commitment to increased captioning beyond current levels, and some timetables for achieving increases.

Accessibility of broadcasting also presents agendas beyond captioning. Australia's blind citizens, for example, are well aware of overseas requirements for some level of audio description of visual material and are starting to consider how they might pursue these issues more actively, so I welcome the mention of access issues affecting these Australians in the program makers guide.

I mentioned advanced broadband communications a little earlier. Considering the potential of the internet to revolutionise information access for people with disabilities it is pleasing to see the emphasis which the program makers guide places on web site accessibility, and on accessibility being comparatively easy to achieve.

Whatever challenges and opportunities new technologies and new circumstances may present in future in addressing people with disabilities equitably as citizens, customers or employees, I hope we can always say that the ABC will hold a basic commitment to serving the Australian community in all its diversity including people with disabilities, the kind of commitment which we celebrate tonight and which will serve the ABC well into the future. Thank you.