An Advocates Guide

American writer William Faulkner (1897-1962) once said of advocacy, “Never be afraid to raise your voice for honesty and truth and compassion against injustice and lying and greed. If people all over the world…would do this, it would change the earth. ” In Australian society there is much injustice whether it is towards Aboriginals, Gay/Lesbian communities, the disabled or us deaf people,  injustice is everywhere.  Apart from making the majority of us very angry this injustice keeps us on our toes. For people like me injustice is part of the work we do, namely advocacy.

This year I have been called to advocate on several occasions and, without blowing my own trumpet too much, I have achieved positive outcomes. In my case people often call me because events refuse to provide Auslan interpreters. First it was the careers expo who  refused and then decided to provide interpreters after receiving an email CCd to several universities and TAFE personnel who had stalls at the expo. Then it was the university that wouldn’t provide interpreters at its graduation ceremony and this took a simple email to the equity manager who was up in arms at the refusal and ensured access was provided. Then it was the more recent national employment conference that was documented in Bad to The Bone.

All in all it has been quite a successful year. On the downside it is appalling that in this day and age that this is still occurring. Australia has a very weak Disability Discrimination law and it requires advocates to remain wary and constantly alert. My current campaign, a personal one, is to get Austar to improve its captioning quality. I have had some success here too where Austar are doing an internal investigation into technical problems with their captioning after at first trying to fob me off with several public relations emails.

But advocacy is not just complaining about lack of access and demanding access. It is a skill and a very refined one at that, even if part of the delicate diplomacy involves banging people over the head with a proverbial sledge hammer. Said  scientist  Benjanim Rush (1745-1813), Controversy is only dreaded by the advocates of error. “ There is no right or wrong way to advocate, rather advocacy is a combination of many approaches all essential to positive outcomes. However, there are certain things that an advocate can use or be aware of. This article will outline a few of these, some conventional others less so.

Know Your Rights and the Law

This would seem to be a no brainer. But Australia’s disability law is such a finicky thing as to be almost useless. It is not quite useless so it is essential that a good advocate knows how it operates. A good advocate needs to know what “consultation” really means under the law and what can and cannot be construed as “unjustifiable hardship” Likewise the good advocate understands what is a “reasonable accommodation” and how establishing these “reasonable accommodations” is intrinsically linked with doing the ”consultation” properly. A good advocate can recognise when “reasonable accommodations” are likely to be denied because of “unjustifiable hardship” Confused? Of course you are. But here lies the rub. You can bet everybody, even the best of lawyers, doesn’t know either because our DDA is so wishy-washy as to not even properly prescribe what any of these things are. You need to know when to complain to the Australia Human Rights commission too. And this should only happen when you are done complaining to the organisation that you are complaining about. In short stay well clear of the DDA unless you REALLY come to a dead end. It’s almost useless.

Beware the Patroniser

Because you are disabled, or an advocate for the disabled you are automatically a figure of sympathy. Beware these lines, and I have taken these verbatim from some of the correspondence I have had in recent advocacy,

“We fully understand your frustration.”

“I am sure you can appreciate ….”

“We take your concerns very seriously”

“We are so sorry you have found our service less than satisfactory”

“Let me assure you …”

“We hope you continue to enjoy ..”

“Perhaps a friend can call us if you experience further difficulty….”

Utterances like these indicate you are about to be fobbed off. They can show that the service provider has acknowledged your complaint but they are hoping that by being sweet and saintly that you will go away.  Imagine them typing their response with a fake smile. The waiter smile we call it.

Don’t go away. Keep them to task.

Ask Questions Demand Answers

A mistake that many advocates make is that they just complain. They might say “I couldn’t get on the bus it is not fair!” or “I am angry because there were no captions.” In short they have a little rant.

Having a rant is fine, it cleanses the soul. BUT if all you do is rant nothing changes. My campaign to get Austar to take captioning seriously is a good example. I complained that captions dropped out, doubled up, were not there when advertised and were there when not advertised. I let them know I was really frustrated and ranted that I thought Austar were not taking the deaf seriously.

BUT I also demanded some answers. In fact a good advocate will always summarise at the end of any complaint the answers that they are seeking. In the case of Austar there were three – 1) What will Austar do to fix the problems with poor captioning quality? 2) What will they do to ensure that they advertise captions accurately?  3) Given the lack of access will they consider subsidising deaf people for their lack of access? I do not yet have these answers BUT I have at least been promised them. It’s a good idea to ask for a time line for their response too. In this case it is 14 days.

I followed a similar strategy when I campaigned about the Employment Summit’s refusal to provide interpreting. It was slightly different in this case. In this case I simply outlined that I would not accept the non-provision of interpreting nor would I accept the cost being borne by any other source and reminded them of their obligations under the DDA. I ended with two simple and blunt question, “Given the above information will you now provide interpreters? If not why not?”

The questions that are asked must be explicit. By all means complain and rant. Letting people know that decisions that are being made are causing personal angst and frustration shows that it is something that you feel strongly about. But always ask pointed questions and demand answers.

Often in initial responses these questions will be ignored. Refer back to these questions and demand answers. In the case of Austar they pointedly refused to answer any questions. Austar were particularly annoying because they would use my complaint as a means to advertise themselves. “We see that you love sports, did you know the upcoming cricket will be live captioned?” And despite ignoring all my questions claimed, “We take the needs of the hearing impaired very seriously.” And sickly sweet they would implore me at the end of each correspondence to “Enjoy your Austar.” With the latter they received a curt reply that, ”I and many deaf Australians would love to enjoy Austar but the lack of captioning means for the most part we cannot.”  It took several emails directing them back to the questions before they agreed to investigate. Patience is a virtue.

Don’t Be Bought!

One of the many appalling tactics of service providers like Austar, when confronted, is that they will try to buy you off. This is common. For example a good friend of mine, some years ago, went to the cinema to watch a captioned movie only to find there were no captions as advertised. Naturally he complained and he was offered free tickets and reminded, amazingly, “Not to worry because the DVD, when released most likely will have captions.”  I believe he returned the ticket and asked whether they would reimburse his travel costs and time wasted.

In the case of Austar they offered me credit for lack of access for “one week” and then also free access to Fox Sports, “for my trouble.” A colleague got sent a DVD by Channel Nine for a show where captions dropped out. The intent of these freebies is very rarely pure. It is often a cynical attempt to buy you off and hope that you will go away.

The aim of advocacy is to make change. Freebies do not make change. DO NOT be bought off. Politely return freebies and remind providers that such freebies do not solve the issues. Be diligent and keep them to task.

Even when you have a win don’t let it end there. For example with the Employment Summit, after first trying to buy me off with a refund, they finally agreed to provide interpreters. My boss followed this up with a thank you to the organisers and asked them to guarantee that at future events that they organise that they would ensure access needs were met. She received a reply that this would indeed be the case. (this email has been safely stored away for future reference.) The aim is sustainable change wherever possible.

Don’t Shirk Controversy (But use it wisely)

Advocacy is not for the faint hearted. The advocate has to put themselves out there. Advocacy is confronting and often requires conflict.  It sometimes needs controversy and this controversy needs to be used wisely or it can backfire.

Remember that with all controversy there is risk. When using controversy use it strategically. For example, twice this year I emailed about lack of interpreter access with a CC to key stakeholders involved in the event. This was not done without a great deal of thought. In both cases time was of essence. A decision needed to be made quickly. In both cases the events were creating great profit for the organisers and where interpreting access was not something that they could claim was “unjustifiable hardship

It was hugely risky to CC other stakeholders to the initial complaint and demand for interpreting. However, in the first instance several requests for access had been denied before I had been approached for assistance. Organising the interpreters needed to happen and attendees needed an answer quickly before committing fees to attend –in short drastic action was needed. In the latter interpreting was at first promised and then withdrawn very close to the conference date. It was decided to fight fire with fire in each case. Before embarking on such tactics consider the consequences very carefully indeed. It can backfire.

The other avenue that creates controversy is the media. There is a tendency sometimes to want to get the media involved to embarrass people into action. Protests and rallies are often deigned for media attention. It can work but before doing this one needs to ensure that they have entered a dialogue with whatever organisation it is they are not happy with. All records of the dialogue need to be kept and one needs to be able to demonstrate that they have made a concerted effort to get an outcome but despite best efforts nothing eventuated. The records are the evidence so keep all correspondence. Record every phone call made, when and where and what was agreed or denied.

Only when it is clear that there can be no meeting of minds should a media campaign be used. There can be nothing more counter-productive than to go to the media and when confronted by the media the service provider says, “It’s the first we have heard of it.”

Do not fear controversy nor the risk that goes with it but at the same time use them both wisely.

Be Accountable to who you are Representing

Accountability is often a dirty word in advocacy. Advocacy is not just individuals making complaints but often it is groups advocating on behalf of others. An example of this is the campaign for captioning in cinemas. Often these advocacy groups are shrouded in secrecy.

An advocacy group is a group of people that represent OTHERS. Because they are representing OTHERS they need to ensure that they are representing what these OTHERS want. This means a proper period of consultancy needs to happen with the OTHERS. A group of five to six should NEVER be as arrogant as to decide that they KNOW BEST for everyone.

Consultancy is a powerful tool in advocacy. If a group can show that they have spoken with a wide cross section of the people that they represent they have evidence to support what they are advocating for. An individual should never assume that what they think is what is best for all. A good example of this is Captiview, where a system was introduced without seeking feedback of its effectiveness from the people that will use it. A band of merry advocates decided it was a good thing DESPITE a lone voice saying trial it first. How right he was proven to be. CONSULT CONSULT CONSULT.

As obvious as this might seem, consultancy rarely happens. A gang of five or six who claim a mandate will make decisions on behalf of OTHERS with little or no consultancy. Yes consultancy is hard work BUT IT IS ESSENTIAL to any advocacy campaign that impacts on OTHERS.

There are many advocacy groups. They all operate differently. If you find yourself a member of an advocacy group be wary of any needs for confidentiality within these groups particularly those that that withhold information from the OTHERS. The OTHERS should be kept fully informed wherever possible. There may be times when confidentiality is needed in situations where negotiations are sensitive or when individuals are involved but these instances are and should be very rare.

Beware of individuals within advocacy groups that posture for power to represent the group in negotiations. Who is selected needs to be done openly and on the record. Beware of people within advocacy groups who have conflicts of interest, who seek to promote their business and make profits from the outcomes. Most of all beware the benevolent used car sale type people who exclaim “Have I ever let you down!”

In short the good advocate is genuinely OPEN, accountable with nothing to hide and is more interested in the people they are representing than themselves.

 And Lastly –Know Thy Enemy

Don’t make the mistake to think that all advocacy is about them and us. Sometimes access is not provided simply because a person or organisation is not aware of their obligations. It pays to research.

Get online and find out a little of the organisation that is denying access. See if you can find out their history, who they target, their financial turnover and their product. Having this information at hand can help immensely.

For example in dealing with Austar one can find out online that they have been granted an exemption from having to provide full captioning and also how much captioning they must provide. What this means is that when one campaigns to them they know what they can and cannot ask for.  Austar is not exempt to providing quality captioning and for this reason as part of my campaign I focused on the quality aspect. In fact, if a certain percentage of their captioning is not accessible, one can argue that they are not meeting quotas as agreed under their exemption agreement with ASTRA.

Know thy enemy and also thy friends. Particularly thy friends because the more support that you can get the better.



“A right delayed is a right denied”. – Martin Luther King, Jr.