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April 2003

Making a difference - Reflections on using the Disability Discrimination Act

By Bruce Maguire,
Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission.

2003 marks the 10th anniversary of the coming into force of Australia's Commonwealth Disability Discrimination Act (DDA). In March, the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC) organised a series of events in each State and Territory capital city to commemorate this significant milestone.

The celebrations began with the launch in Sydney on March 3 of a publication outlining achievements since the DDA was passed. The Attorney-General provided a very supportive video message to launch the publication. In each city a forum conducted after the launch, examining achievements and challenges with particular focus on the areas of transport and employment, produced very useful discussion.

The publication, titled "Don't judge what I can do by what you think I can't: Ten years of achievements using Australia's Disability Discrimination Act", is available on the Commission's website. It is also available in print and other alternative formats.

One of the most lasting memories that I have of my 17-month DDA complaint against the Sydney Organising Committee for the Olympic Games (SOCOG) is of a talkback radio programme that was broadcast just after SOCOG were found to have discriminated against me by their refusal to provide the Official Olympics Ticket Book in Braille. The radio discussion began with an interview with me, during which I explained that being able to access information is a right, not a privilege, and that if the Olympics were indeed the "games for all Australians" as they were being promoted, then I as a blind person had as much right to study the complex information about event schedules and ticket availability as anyone else. After the interview, a number of callers rang in to express their opinion. One woman said, "I don't know what it must be like to be blind, and my heart goes out to them - but he should get someone to read him the book". Shortly after this, a blind man rang in and said, "That Maguire's nothing but a bloody troublemaker: doesn't he realise that we just have to accept things and not rock the boat".

In their different ways, these two callers were expressing the same underlying belief: while disability may be part of the reality of human experience, any suggestion that people with a disability can or have the right to participate with full equality is subversive, and runs counter to "the natural order of things". Putting it another way: while we are all part of the one river, people with a disability should be content to live in the backwaters rather than in the mainstream, gratefully accepting the benevolence of people who do have the right to live in the mainstream and enjoy the benefits that flow from that right. Moreover, if we try to tamper with that "natural order of things" by doing things like putting Olympic Ticket Books into Braille, then who knows what will happen - the whole fabric of society might unravel before our eyes and under our fingers. For the woman whose heart had gone out in search of blind people to sympathise with, and for the blind man who enjoyed life in the tributaries, I embodied their greatest fear - fear of the unknown.

SOCOG's response to my DDA complaint was also based to a considerable extent on fear, in this case, fear that if they made the slightest concession to me as a blind person, then who knows where it would end. At one stage, they said that if they provided a ticket book in Braille for me, then all the other 36,000 people in Australia who are blind or vision-impaired would also want one. "So?", I replied, but I then went on to explain to them that the vast majority of those 36,000 are not Braille readers and, in any case, not all Braille readers would want a ticket book, just as not all 18 million print readers in Australia wanted a print copy (only 2 million print copies were produced). SOCOG chose not to listen, just as they chose to adopt the most adversarial approach possible in responding to the other aspects of my DDA complaint, which concerned their failure to produce the Official Olympics Souvenir Programme in Braille, and their failure to design the Official Olympics website in a way that allowed blind people to access it.

Along with this fear of unimaginable consequences, there was also, I think, a sense of outrage that I, a person with a disability, would dare to challenge the planners of the most prestigious sporting event on earth - such a challenge isn't part of the natural order of things.

The memory of the radio programme has stayed with me because it helped me to see that my DDA complaint had a wider dimension. I had lodged it for very personal reasons: I wanted to be able to participate in the spirit of the Olympics just like everyone else; I wanted to be able to project a positive image of independence and active involvement to my children - I wanted them to see that I, as a blind person, could do the things that other fathers were doing, that is, planning their attendance at the Olympics.

As someone who has detailed knowledge of Braille production techniques and a reasonable grasp of the principles of accessible web design, I knew that what I was asking SOCOG to do would be neither difficult nor expensive to achieve. It came as a real shock to find that not only was SOCOG not prepared to do anything by way of addressing the issues in my complaint, but that they were prepared to attack my honesty, challenge my integrity, and do whatever they could to delay the hearing of the complaint. Because my requests seemed so reasonable to me, I was unprepared to deal with the adversarial tactics that SOCOG used, and it was only when I realised that I was advocating not just for myself, but also for a view of disability that rejected the "natural order of things" beliefs put forward in that radio programme, that I was able to strengthen my resolve to see the complaint through to the end. It wasn't so much "my complaint" as "our complaint" - a complaint that challenged negative attitudes about people with a disability generally.

The DDA has done much, in my opinion, to dispel the vision of people with a disability as denizens of the backwaters. I'm sure that I would not have lodged my complaint had I not had some exposure to the principles of equality and access promoted by the Act. While I have never accepted statements like "you can't do that because you're a blind person, and blind people can't do that", the passage of the DDA marked a turning-point in my thinking, because it provided an unequivocal demonstration that marginalisation of people with a disability is no longer part of the natural order of things. Paradigms take time to change, of course, but there is an inevitability about the change from backwater to mainstream that will become increasingly clear as the aims and objectives upon which the DDA is founded are woven more seamlessly into the social fabric.

It took 17 months for my complaint to be fully dealt with by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission. It could have been resolved much more quickly had SOCOG been interested in conciliation. Not surprisingly, this period was a stressful and hectic one, and there were times when I had to devote many entire days to preparing statements, researching technical points, giving media interviews, and answering the many emails that I received from around the world. At one stage, we organised an Internet-based petition urging IBM (the company contracted by SOCOG to design the Olympics website) to make the website accessible. Because I lodged my complaint without any idea that it would develop in the high-profile way that it did, much of the strategy had to be worked out when the need arose, with little time for reflection or forward planning. This certainly contributed to the stress of pursuing the complaint, but given that my motivation in lodging it was more about a personal wish to be involved fully and independently in the spirit of the Olympics than about the achievement of systemic change, I don't believe that any other approach was possible at the time.

The DDA complaints mechanism has been designed to minimise the amount of stress and formality that individual complainants will experience, and as the aims and objectives of the DDA become ever-more universally acknowledged, this stress is likely to be reduced even further. In some ways, the SOCOG complaint was lodged and pursued in unique circumstances: the Olympics were a one-off, high-profile event for Sydney; SOCOG were a specially-created organisation with a limited lifespan that made them less inclined to care about negative publicity; the complaints process itself was undergoing change as functions previously performed by the Commission were transferred to the Federal Court and Federal Magistrates Service. This combination helped shape the way in the complaint progressed, and, to some extent at least, the eventual outcome (SOCOG were found to have discriminated against me by not providing a Braille ticket book and by not making their website accessible; these findings were more-or-less ignored by SOCOG, although they did eventually produce a Braille version of the Souvenir Programme).

Many people have told and written about their stressful experiences with legal processes. What is less common, however, is discussions about the aftermath of those processes. For me, the period after the complaint had been finally adjudicated and finalised was a very depressing one. It was certainly extremely gratifying to have had my complaint upheld, and my integrity vindicated. But I did not have a Braille ticket book, and I had not been able to use the website during the Olympics in the way that other Australians were. In a broader sense, I felt that Australia had lost a unique opportunity to show itself to be a world leader in including people with a disability as part of our information-based society. Most of the contacts I made with journalists, politicians, and individuals and organisations around the world during my complaint were temporary and purpose-based. As I reflect now on that period, I am convinced of the need for peer support, not just during the complaints process, but also once it is over.

The journey along the road of advocacy can be a solitary one in the absence of companionship, support and encouragement. That encouragement eventually came for me from Anita Roddick, the founder of the Body Shop chain. I read her book Business as Unusual and also heard her interviewed on ABC radio. She makes a compelling case for advocacy, and her observation that "advocacy is the rent we pay for living on the planet" has served as a personal affirmation for me since I first heard it a couple of months after my complaint had finished. I also realised that one person's actions can make a difference, but, more importantly in some ways, a person's inactions also make a difference.

My decision to lodge a DDA complaint set in motion a series of events that I could not foresee and the positive effects of which are still to be seen in the increasing interest in web accessibility and the availability of public documents in alternative formats such as Braille. Had I chosen not to lodge the complaint, there would also have been events that I could not foresee. In other words, my choice to do something had an impact, but my choice to do nothing would also have had an impact. The myriad interconnections between events and actions ensure that we all have an effect - multiple effects - on the world, whether we like it or not, and regardless of our choices. Advocates cannot always predict what the ultimate effects of advocacy will be, but they can be sure that there will be effects.

The impact of the DDA, then, cannot be measured simply in terms of numbers of complaints, or individual successes and failures. Rather, the full impact of the DDA is to be seen in the many subtle and immeasurable ways in which it is helping to shape attitudes and replace the paradigm of benevolence with one of equality. Without this emancipatory vision promoted by the DDA, I would almost certainly not have challenged SOCOG. During the course of the complaint, I came into contact with literally hundreds of people. In a real sense, those contacts would not have occurred without the DDA that empowered me to lodge the complaint. I know that at least some members of the public came to see that people with a disability have a right to full participation, because people came up to me in the street, and called me on the phone, to tell me.

So if one complaint can affect so may people indirectly, the impact of the DDA over the past 10 years must have been awesome.

Footnote

Bruce's personal account about his experiences using the DDA is one of several that are documented in the DDA ten year anniversay publication.

Bruce Maguire now works as a Policy Officer with the Disability Rights Unit of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC). He may be contacted by emailing BruceMaguire@humanrights.gov.au

More information about disability rights can be found on the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission web site.

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