Date: 
Thursday 23 February 2017

Author

Mr Alastair McEwin, Disability Discrimination Commissioner

I acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land on which we meet, the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation and pay my respect to their elders past and present.  I also pay respect to Aboriginal people present here today.

Anne Bryce – thank you for the introduction. NDS board members, NDS members, guests and friends.

It’s a great pleasure to be here today to deliver the keynote address.

There is no doubt that we are currently in the middle of the greatest transformation for disability rights in Australia.  And, if all goes as planned, there will never be another time like this because there should not be the need for it. And the reasons for this go far beyond today’s conference and its theme of turning plans into outcomes.

Inclusion of people with disability is essential for a healthy society. All of you here today have a role in this, as individuals and collectively.  All of you have a role in turning plans for people with disability into outcomes.

Let’s have a quick look at the milestones that have shaped the development of a rights-based approach in Australia for people with disability. A look at how we got to where we are now.  The Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) came into effect in 1993.  In fact, next year, in March 2018, we will be marking 25 years of the DDA.  In the 2000s, we saw the development of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD, or ‘DisCo’ as some of us like to call it with affection).  The CRPD was adopted by the United Nations in 2006; last year was the tenth anniversary. And next year will be the tenth anniversary of when Australia ratified it.  This was followed shortly by the National Disability Strategy 2010 - 2020 – a whole of government approach to policy and program development. And last, but certainly far from least, we have the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS), which will be four years old this year.

And what is the challenge for all of us?  To ensure we see the National Disability Strategy and the NDIS realise its full potential. In nine years time, when we are celebrating the 20th anniversary of the CRPD, I would like to think that at that point, it will be absolutely normal to see people with disability participating in every aspect of life – as if it was always like that.

For the first time in Australian history, governments and the community are starting to recognise the value in investing in the rights of people with a disability. For me, as Disability Discrimination Commissioner, my job is to ensure we see this investment produces results for people with disability.

We are starting to see how great life can be for people with disability when they have access to the reasonable and necessary supports they need to live an ordinary life.

And people who have been told their whole lives that they have to be “special” – go to special schools, have special jobs, attend special activities, live in special homes – can just be ordinary because of the NDIS.

I’ve heard the NDIS described in a lot of ways by a lot of different people over the past few months.  A lot of people are still unclear on what the NDIS really is and what it can mean for their lives.  I commend the NDIA for their community engagement work, however I think there is still much more to be done in developing community awareness.  This can be illustrated by a comment on the NDIS I heard in my travels around the country. The NDIS has been likened to going to a French restaurant when you don’t speak French. There’s a menu and you can understand what a few of the things on the menu are, but not everything, and you ask the waiter for help but they are pressuring you to order so you order something that sounds familiar and hope for the best.

Another, perhaps more constructive, description is to liken the NDIS to sailing. You can’t change the direction of the wind but you can adjust your sails to reach your destination.  The NDIS is recognition that although we can’t change the direction of the wind, we can adjust the sails so that people with disability can reach their destinations.

Whatever way you describe it; the important thing is that the NDIS is real and it is here. It acknowledges that it is not a person’s disability that prevents them from accessing opportunities to study, work and participate in the community, but rather the barriers imposed by discrimination, lack of understanding and insufficient supports and services.

Last year, early in my term as Commissioner, I met a young woman named Vanessa at a national conference.  Vanessa is an avid cheerleader, and is now in her second year of Journalism at Edith Cowan University in Western Australia. She is passionate about human rights and wants to travel the world, get a job as a journalist and continue to compete as a cheerleader.

Vanessa also happens to be deafblind. She is able to participate in her lectures at university and learn her cheerleading routines because her NDIS plan includes funding for the support of tactile Auslan interpreters and communication guides. She also has a Braillenote device with a keyboard attached that helps others to communicate with her.

On paper, she is the sum of specified amounts of money for improved daily living, increased social and community participation, and core supports. But for Vanessa, those dollars allow her to be a regular 19 year old - socialising with friends at the Uni bar, cheerleading -  attending a few lectures and tutorials too.

And in late 2016, Vanessa was named Western Australia’s young person of the year.

Not just a great plan, but a great outcome. A great outcome, not only for Vanessa, but for thousands of other young people with disability who for too long have been subject to the low expectations of a society that tells them they can’t or won’t achieve their goals and participate in education, employment and the community to the same extent as others.

Yes – the NDIS is big, it is complex, and it changes everything, but it is the change that we need. And when we think about what life might be like for people with disability without the NDIS, I think it becomes clear that it is the change we cannot afford to prevent. The economic, social and human rights imperatives of making the NDIS work simply cannot be ignored.

To many or most of you in this room who provide services to people with disability, I know that it is not easy responding and changing to meet the demands of what has repeatedly been called the largest social reform since Medicare.

• At its core, the NDIS is about a fair go for people with disability. It is built on the principles of mutuality, respect and shared responsibility. As a consequence of this, ensuring the sustainability and success of the NDIS is not only the responsibility of the NDIA or its board – it is the responsibility of all governments, service providers, participants, their families and carers. If we want real and lasting change for people with disability, we cannot absolve ourselves of our responsibility to make the NDIS work.

• Your role in making the NDIS vision of independence and social and economic participation a reality for people with disability is very important, and one that I hope that you will continue to fulfil long after the transition to the NDIS is complete. Change breeds uncertainty, but it also breeds creativity and innovation. I’m very aware that there are many real financial and sustainability challenges for disability services as we transition to the NDIS.  However, I also strongly believe that the NDIS is an opportunity to do things better and in more creative and different ways – and make things better for the people that you support.

But I think as we all know, the NDIS is just one piece of the puzzle. Even when individuals are able to use their individual budgets creatively, they will not always be able to address the broader barriers to the full inclusion of people with disability.

There are 4.2 million people with disability in Australia, and yet when we reach full scheme implementation there will be only be around 400,000 NDIS participants.  We need to do far more than just see a successful implementation of the NDIS.

All people with disability, including NDIS participants, will still need access to health care, they will still need somewhere to live, to go to school, to go to University, to go to work and to socialise. Change is unlikely to occur for all of these people unless there is a concerted effort across government and society to tackle the persistent causes of discrimination and inequality across all of these areas. I have thought a lot about how we can make mainstream services and systems work better to ensure better outcomes for people with disability. And for me, it comes down to attitudes, expectations, understanding and willingness to invest in the strategies that we know will make these systems respond better to people with disability and meet their unique and diverse needs.

Education, awareness and attitudinal change are some of the strongest tools we have in the challenge to overcome the prevailing culture of disempowerment of people with disability and low expectations about their ability to contribute to society and make decisions about how they would like to live their lives.

Since I started, I have been meeting with a wide range of people and organisations, including Government Ministers and Departments, organisations that represent people with disability, and people with disability across Australia. As part of my national consultations, I have been talking a lot, but most importantly I have been listening.  I believe I won’t be able to do my job effectively unless my work is grounded in the voices of the community.

For my term as Commissioner, I am proposing to focus on the issues of employment, education, housing, the criminal justice system, implementation of the NDIS, and violence against people with disability, in particular women and children with disability.As you might expect, the most intense discussions during the consultations have been centred around the NDIS implementation. People very strongly support the NDIS in principle, but in consultations to date I have sensed a strong sense of apprehension about the NDIS and a concern that it will not achieve everything it has been designed to achieve. I’m aware that there have been many issues with the NDIS roll out to date, but I, along with many others I have met in my consultations, are still hopeful that the NDIS will do what it is intended to do – enable people with disability to get out and about, get an education and be part of the workforce, empower them to be in control over what supports they receive and who provides them and contribute to the realisation of the human rights of people with disability.

In conclusion:

I encourage you to stay true to your responsibility to ensuring a successful and sustainable NDIS.  And this starts by listening to the people who receive and rely on your services. As the Founder of Microsoft, Bill Gates, once said – “your most unhappy customers are your greatest source of learning.”

And we will know we have reached equality when it’s not a news story for a person with disability to succeed in school or at university, or to be employed in a job they love for a decent wage, or to be a member of parliament.

Imagine you are deafblind like Vanessa.  What might seem a simple step for you, is a big thing for Vanessa. She clearly is talented, she clearly has energy and she clearly has big dreams.  And that is my final point – people with disability have dreams just like anyone else.  Our role is to help make those dreams a reality.  To make those plans result in outcomes.

Address

Sydney NSW
Australia