Meeting with Deafness Forum of Australia

Dr Sev Ozdowski OAM,
Human Rights Commissioner and
Acting Disability Discrimination Commissioner
Lawson NSW
30 April 2005
Sev Ozdowski

Allow me to commence by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land on which we meet, the Gundungurra people of the Dharug nations.

Thank you for the opportunity to meet today. I want to take a few minutes to run through some current areas of work which may be of particular interest to you.  

Employment and disability inquiry

We commenced this inquiry because of clear evidence that even after more than 10 years of disability discrimination law the employment position of people with disabilities was not improving and in some respects was getting worse.

We appreciate the input we received last year from organisations including Deafness forum when we were planning the inquiry.

Running an inquiry in this area at the same time as the government is pursuing a major welfare reform agenda presents challenges for all participants and for the Commission. But it also presents opportunities.

The waste of the abilities of millions of Australians is now being talked about as a major economic issue. Disability issues are much higher on the political agenda than usual and have even found their way into newspaper front pages.

We do not want this inquiry to be one which wastes this opportunity by spending years producing a thick report which just describes the problems over again - and then ends up on the shelf. We want this inquiry to be short and sharp; one which builds support for positive measures which make a difference in practice.

With this in mind we set a very short timetable for the initial round of submissions.

We have been very pleased by the quality and number of submissions so far. We are very grateful for the work put into submissions by organisations including the Deafness Forum.

Clearly the more consensus there is about what to do and the more we can identify measures which benefit employers, people with disabilities and the budget bottom line alike, the better the prospects there are for getting it to happen.

Submissions so far show promising signs of large areas of common ground, with employers and disability community organisations supporting

  • better information for employers on issues in accommodating disability
  • simpler and broader access to government assistance in meeting costs of adjustments, including not only equipment but also assistance such as interpreting or support
  • recognition in the welfare reform process of costs and barriers in employment participation

We recognise the importance of the emphasis in Deafness Forum's submission that people with disabilities are a much broader group than the 700,000 DSP recipients and that the ABS figures of 18-20% of the population having a disability are likely to be a serious under-estimate.

Indeed I have been saying in speeches for some time that either hearing impairment or mental health problems are likely to account for 20% by themselves.

Hearing impairment of course is one of the categories of disability which we can expect to increase as the population and the workforce ages.

This emphasis will help our inquiry focused on the fact that the issues are not only about getting people into or back into the workforce who are not working now; that we are not really asking employers to start employing people with disabilities as a risky new experiment or purely as an act of social responsibility.

The reality rather is that disability is part of the diversity of the workforce now, and that employers and government need to come to terms with that.

Our plan is to issue an interim report in the next two months which brings out the issues presented in submissions and sets out directions for solutions and processes to work towards them.

Building standards

I understand the disappointment amongst many hearing impaired people about the limited progress on hearing augmentation issues in the current draft of a revised Building Code of Australia and a DDA Disability Standard on access to premises.

Obviously in such a complex process with competing interests no-one is likely to get everything they want.

Ultimately each sector needs to make a decision about whether the result overall is worth supporting in terms of the progress it does make in increasing access and giving more certainty or rights and obligations.

Part of that decision involves looking at other avenues available for progress on the same issues - including those suggested in Deafness Forum's submission to the employment inquiry such as development of policy or standards on communications access in premises occupied by the Commonwealth Government.

With some issues including emergency egress having been reserved pending further research, and with review of the building code itself being a regular event in any case, the current draft if adopted this year will obviously not be the end of the premises standards process.

Hotel issues

I want to congratulate the Deafness Forum for creative use of the DDA as the basis for negotiations with hotels to provide a range of accessible features for deaf and hearing impaired people. I understand that a series of industry agreements are close to being concluded in this area. My office is happy to continue to assist both the disability community and industry bodies in pursuing large scale negotiated solutions to access issues.

Captioning and related issues

On the same note we are pleased to have been involved in assisting in getting further progress in the captioned movies initiative

As well as some successes in regional areas through the complaint process this includes the recent trials of DTS technology which appears to offer improved prospects for captioning of movies in a wider range of outlets than at present and without the same delays in access to captioned print. I look forward to the launch of the next phase of this initiative

Transport standards review

Deafness Forum's submission also referred to limitations of the communications access provisions of the Disability Standards for Accessible Public Transport.

We are seeking to have the 5 year review of these standards commenced as soon as possible rather than waiting until the 5 year point to start. I encourage Deafness Forum and other peak organisations to continue developing their positions on what you would like to see from this review.

Thank you.