Speech to APS Human Rights Network

Graeme Innes AM
Disability Discrimination Commissioner
Australian Human Rights Commission

Canberra, 31 May 2012

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

It was a Friday morning in September, 1990, when 12-year-old Bella's parents announced' suddenly, "You're having your appendix out today!" Though horrified at the thought of being operated on, "I was as quiet as a mouse about it because my mum and dad said I could have a special doll if I was a very good girl," recalls Bella, now 34. "So I was as good as I could be."

The day after her operation, Bella was promptly given a blonde-haired, blue-eyed doll she christened "Polly". She hugged it tight, wrapped it in a little blanket and pretended to feed it. For years she played with that doll, imagining she'd one day cradle a real baby of her own.

Nine years later, Bella had all but forgotten about the operation when, during a routine pelvic exam and Pap smear, she was told it was her uterus, not her appendix, that had been removed. "I was so shocked I felt all chokey here," says Bella, lifting a hand to her throat. "My parents lied to me," adds Bella, with a quavering voice, "but when I yelled at them that night my mum cried a lot, too, so I never talked about it again. She said I wasn't clever enough and might have dropped my baby or forgotten to feed it. That really hurt."

Bella, who works as a kitchen hand, experiences a mild intellectual disability, caused by repeated epileptic seizures as a baby. Without her knowledge or consent, she became the victim of forced sterilisation — surgery on girls with intellectual or physical disability to prevent them from menstruating or becoming pregnant. This invasion of a woman or girls bodily integrity doesn't happen that often in Australia, but as far as I am concerned happening once is happening once too often.

This story was published in Marie Claire just this month, as part of the Commission's advocacy work on the rights of people with disability.

But how is this story relevant to you as a Commonwealth Public Servant?

Well, if you don't work in the Attorney-General's Department - where work is done on changing the law; or in the Department of Health - where Medicare numbers may be being incorrectly used; or in the Family Court of Australia - where such applications can be made; then it doesn't affect you as a public servant. But does it affect you as a person?

  • Does the fact that airlines in Australia currently don't allow more than two people using a wheelchair on to their airline affect you? If you work in the Department of Transport it might?
  • Does the fact that people with disability are discriminated against by our current policy for the granting of residence visas in Australia affect you? If you work in the Department of Immigration and Citizenship it might.
  • Does the fact that around 15 % of Australians are excluded from hearing some of the television shows which you enjoy because they are not captioned affect you? If you work for the Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, who regulate this area, it might.
  • Does the fact that many buildings used by the Australian Public Service are not accessible or compliant with the access standards for, people with disability affect you? It should, whatever Department is your employer.
  • And does the fact that in the last fifteen years the employment level of people with disability in the APS has plummeted from 6.5 % to 3% affect you? It should, whatever Department you work for, because that means the APS is missing out on 15 - 20% of the employment talent pool.

Have I made my point? Throughout the APS, you can have an impact on the human rights of people with disability. In fact, I would challenge you to show me an Australian government policy which relates to Australian people, and which does not impact on Australians with disability. We're 20%, or one in five, of the Australian population. We're everywhere.

So in the same way that everything you do needs to take into account the different issues faced by women and men, by people with a diverse range of cultural backgrounds, it needs to take into account the issues faced by Australians with a disability. Once you start your day with that premise, what then?

Does the policy for Departmental car-parking take in the needs of staff with mobility disability?

Does your agency's recruitment process consider selection criteria which relate to the actual job description- e.g. are you requiring contract cleaners to be able to pass a written test? Are you having interviews in inaccessible venues? Are you - or your recruitment consultants - providing applicants with computer-based testing, and not making sure they are accessible to people using screenreaders?

Does your agency's communication strategy take into account the needs of people who do not read print? Or does your agency have an inquiry telephone number and not a TTY?

Have all of your agency's offices which accept visits from the public been audited for access compliance? What are you doing about closing the ones which do not comply?

I don't need to talk with you today about the various international human rights instruments which Australia has ratified. The Attorney-General's Department have been developing excellent training materials in that area, and the Commission's website contains lots of material. I don't need to take you through the legislation or government programmes in this area. Again, these are in the training materials, and the function of this network. You can ask your colleagues questions, or share with each other challenges you have faced. We will soon be launching an E-forum for the network which you will all be invited to join.

I just want to leave with you this message - That every government policy which relates to people has an implication for people with disability. We're in everything and everywhere. So if you begin each one of your working days from that premise, you'll be successful in your occupation as members of this human rights network and in your occupations as Australian public servants.

Thanks for the chance to speak with you today.