Posted on Thursday, 12 February, 2009
I rise to address the Disability Discrimination and Other Human Rights Legislation Amendment Bill 2008. Disability is not a lifestyle choice. It is not something that someone decides to do. It is indiscriminate. Disability can be visited upon any one of us, and even though people may not choose disability there are many in our society who learn to live with disability, who have a full and fulfilling life with disability and who grow to accept their disability—but no-one ever recommends it. It can be visited upon us at birth or as an acquired injury. It can come as a disease or just a by-product of old age. Disabilities are often multiple in their nature. They so often lead to poor outcomes not just for the person concerned but for those that support that person, their families. In many cases, families that raise children with disabilities suffer marriage failure. There are so many ramifications that become burdens on the lives of people who suffer disabilities.
While most of us try very hard not to discriminate against any sector of our community, it is human to find those who are different from us harder to deal with. It can be far too easy for us as humans to judge a book by its cover. I recount a story of a speaker whom I heard at an Apex convention. This fellow’s name is Dick. He is still around and alive at about the age of 70. He is severely afflicted by MS. Dick, by his own admission—this is what he told us—is not a pretty sight, but he has a very vigorous intellect. He told the story of when he was travelling on a domestic flight and the stewardess came up to his carer and said, ‘What would he like to eat?’ and the carer said, ‘I don’t know; why don’t you ask him?’—the point being that the stewardess was not doing anything different to what so many of us do all the time: making a judgement about an individual from their appearance. It is something we as a society have to not only legislate against but educate ourselves against to make sure we look below the surface.
This bill, which I support, clarifies and codifies the obligation of business, government and individuals towards those people who suffer from disabilities. It is a bill with great merit, but let me just take a little time to take issue with some of those on the other side of this House who have, in the course of this debate, denigrated the previous government’s record in this area. I take issue with the member for Isaacs. He knows that much of the spadework for this bill was done under the previous government and that it had intentions to move legislation along these lines. During the period of that government, I would remind him, many advances were made in the care of those who are disabled within our community, the introduction of case based funding being just one of those, and I would have thought that this debate and this type of bill generally enjoy bipartisan support. We are all driven to make advances in this area.
This bill aims at affording people as equal opportunity as possible in employment, education and the provision of other goods and services, but the application will almost certainly focus in most cases on equal opportunity in the workplace. I have a number of organisations in my electorate focusing on providing employment opportunities. Some of the more notable are Bedford Industries, the Phoenix Society and Orana, to name but a few that are supplying jobs in the supported employment sector. It is my duty, and something that I enjoy doing, to give as much support as I can to these organisations.
But the challenge is not just to get people with disabilities into the supported workforce; it is also to get them into the mainstream workforce. Agencies such as Interwork, UnitingCare Wesley and Work Solutions provide services in the area of getting people with disabilities into the mainstream workforce. But there is no point applying the big stick to business to force them to take on people with disabilities. In the end, if the employer does not want to employ someone, they will not employ someone; they will find an excuse which is perfectly explainable but which may well be driven by a prejudice. You can take a horse to water, as it were, but you cannot make them drink. What this bill will do, though, is hopefully to provide a balanced and measured signal to all that they need to think about these options.
The challenge for us, though, is to take this business case to the employment community. We cannot force them to employ. In fact, if we could it would be a bad outcome. If you could make an employer employ any individual against their will it would not be productive employment. But it is our job to go out and overcome that prejudice and sell the advantages of having a balanced workforce, of accepting people with disabilities into the workforce and finding their strengths. Once again I turn to a personal example. My friend runs a medium to large sized trucking company, and his daughter has a disability. I do not think it would ever have entered his head to have employed a disabled person on his workforce until he had a daughter with a disability. As a consequence, he now employs a young disabled fellow to clean his trucks. My friend said: ‘You’ve just never seen anyone work harder. He does everything that I could ask of any able-bodied person. He is there on time, he does the work well and he is always happy to be there—he has pride in his work.’ That should not be unique to those who have someone with a disability in their family. That is a story that we can sell to everyone, but it is our challenge as members of this place, the challenge of those who help us in our electorates and the challenge of people at large to go out and sell those positive stories and get people to take the blinkers off and look past the surface.
The meat of this bill is the clauses defining ‘reasonable adjustment’ and ‘unjustifiable hardship’. I call these the common sense rules. A good friend of mine says, ‘I don’t care what the rules are. If I could stand up in a court of law and say that what I did at the time made perfect common sense and that is why I did it, then you know it is right.’ I subscribe to that theory. Sure, these rules are to make sure that people do the right thing but it is about opening their eyes and making the right decisions. It is right that industry should make all reasonable adjustments to accommodate, but the approach should be balanced.
We still have a lot of ground to make up in this area, but Australia is doing well by world standards. I often think that South Australia and even my hometown are the gopher capitals of the world. When travelling around Europe you just do not see that kind of access for disabled people. Our access to buildings is excellent and our carer’s benefits are a great move forward. We have done much but there is far to go, and there always will be. We will never totally redress the imbalance, but this is a good bill. It enjoys bipartisan support and it will hopefully help. But the big challenges are building the bridges and breaking down the barriers of seeing people who are different to us as being strange and difficult. As high profile members of our community, let us go back to our electorates and provide the leadership, the patronage, the support and the resources to spread the word and take the positive message to mainstream Australia. People with disabilities are unique and they all have something to offer. We need to help them and us discover what it is.