Fingers in the Pie

There are very few things in life that are more satisfying than having a win in the fight for human rights. I remember as a student, in the very early stages of my career as an advocate for people with a disability, the immense satisfaction that I felt when the University of South Australia accepted its responsibility to pay for and book interpreters for lectures and tutorials. It had been a six year fight involving many people. That first day in psychology when finally I could follow a lecture in the full fills me with a nostalgia. This is something that only an advocate can understand.

But the dictum that an advocate must follow is this – IT IS NEVER ENOUGH. In the Eighties we got access to captioning on TV. AT first it was mostly on the ABC. It began to filter to other shows – Neighbours, Home and Away and Sixty Minutes. I still remember the rage when Sixty Minutes ceased captioning altogether because the deaf complained that some stories were not captioned and that they wanted full access. Channel Nine decided it was all too hard and stopped the captioning of Sixty Minutes altogether.

But from these early days of captioning access to captioning has continued to improve. But this has only been because WE HAVE DEMANDED IT.  If we just accepted what was on offer, like grateful puppies, no improvements would have been made. What we strive for is full and QUALITY access. IT IS NEVER ENOUGH! When we get full access to television captioning it still will not be enough. We must then monitor it and demand QUALITY. No drop outs and no crappy live captioning. The aim is FULL and QUALITY access. We must remain diligent.

Our rights are won through skilled and diligent advocacy. They are also protected by laws and by institutions like the Australian Human Rights Commission, the Commonwealth Ombudsman, the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman and so on. These are impartial bodies that we seek assistance from when our advocacy is not hitting the mark. In short when all else fails we call in the HEAVYWEIGHTS.

Chief among these for people with a disability is the Australian Human Rights Commission. If we feel that we are being discriminated against by private or public institutions we can call on the Australian Human Rights Commission. What we must do is complain. The complaint might be about captioning or it might be about lack of access at train stations. Graeme Innes, the Disability Commissioner at the Australian Human Rights Commission and himself blind, actually made a complaint through the AHRC against RailCorp. He complained about the lack of public announcements for scheduled time and platform changes which are important for the blind who cannot access text based information.

For the HEAVYWEIGHTS to be effective they must be impartial. They must not be seen to be favouring one issue or another. The paradox is that the Australian Human Rights Commission does not just protect the rights of the vulnerable but of everyone. For example if I make a complaint that the local sporting club wont provide me with interpreters for soccer training and the provision of such interpreting would send the sporting club out of business, the Australian Human Rights Commission also protects the sporting club from unrealistic demands. It is not just about the person with a disability.

For these reason organisations like the Australian Human Rights Commission need to be neutral at all times. They cannot be seen favouring any issue or any outcome. They have to treat each case on its merit and to the letter of the law. This means, as much as they would like to, they cannot be seen to endorse or support individuals, organisations or even Government policy.

Unfortunately this is not happening. The Australian Human Rights Commission, in particular the Disability Commissioner, Graeme Innes has lost its way. We will not be popular for writing this because Mr Innes is much loved and respected advocate for people with a disability. He has been involved in the sector for many decades and achieved immense outcomes for people with a disability. Unfortunately of late, in our view, he has made some gross errors of judgement. In writing this piece, which is critical of Mr Innes, we wish to put on record our deep respect for him both as an advocate and a person.

You see Mr Innes has become a champion. He is a champion of everything. He champions the much vaunted National Broadband Network (NBN) There is no question that the NBN has the potential to be a great thing, but what if it isn’t? What if it does not provide accessible information or support for people with a disability? What if it discriminates in employing people with a disability? Perhaps the above scenarios are unlikely but they are possible. But Graeme Innes is an NBN champion. He is our key representative on the Australian Human Rights Commission. Can we feel confident he is neutral if we should make a complaint about the NBN or the organisation that administers it if he is known as an NBN Champion?

We have no doubt that Mr Innes will be neutral BUT it is the perception of support and alliance with the NBN by Mr Innes, and by association the Australian Human Rights Commission, that might give cause for us to worry that any complaints might not be heard fairly. It is this perception that is damaging for both Mr Innes and the Australian Human Rights Commission.

But it is not just the NBN that Mr Innes champions. He champions the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) too. Don’t get us wrong we are staunch supporters of the NDIS too. But even in these early stages of the NDIS there are concerns that the NDIS will not provide for ALL people with a disability. For example there are apparently no representatives from the peak bodies of either deaf or blind representative organisations. If the deaf or the blind feel at any stage that the NDIS is not meeting their needs or discriminating against them how can they feel confident that their complaints will be heard fairly. After all Mr Innes is an integral component of the Expert Committees charged with the roll-out of the NDIS and has publicly stated that the NDIS is the, “Outstanding announcement of the year …” We agree, wholeheartedly! BUT for all the reasons we have already explained it is imperative that Mr Innes remain neutral. He may privately feel it is terrific but it is imperative that he and the AHRC refrain from public endorsement of programs such as the NBN or the NDIS so that any complaints that may occur are not compromised.

Where Mr Innes really has compromised himself and the AHRC is in his very public praise of the Accessible Cinema Roll-Out. Of course we are referring here to the roll-out of the CaptiView closed captioning device by the major cinemas in Australia.  The device is extremely controversial. There are deaf people that like and tolerate CaptiView and there are very many who cannot use CaptiView for various reasons such as vision impairments, their height, their being children or simply having physical disabilities. Many have complained that CaptiView gives them headaches and that they find it extremely difficult to use because of constant refocussing from device to the screen.

The complaints have been many. There has even been a suggestion of a class action against the cinemas because of its lack of response to complaints about the CaptiView device. Apart from the fact that many deaf people feel that CaptiView severely compromises their access to the cinema it often is not working, sessions are wrongly advertised and staff lack awareness of its use. In short there is a strong push for the roll-out of CaptiView to be ceased, other technology trialled and retention of open captions in some form. Mr Innes is very aware of these views.

But the cinemas, and indeed the Government that is supporting the cinemas, are having none of it. They have recently made it clear by email that the Captiview roll-out is not a trial, that they support CaptiView and the only complaints we can make about CaptiView are in relation to whether the Cinemas do not roll it out to the timeframes that they have agreed. In short we are stuck with it.

Now many many deaf people are angry about this. They want to make a human rights complaint. But can they feel confident in approaching the Australian Human Rights Commission when the AHRC Disability Commissioner has publicly said, “… Cinema chains, and movie distributors, are to be congratulated. Now I can follow the films about vampires and magic I sit through with my 14-year-old daughter. (Well actually, she sits with her friends, and I am sent to sit somewhere else.)  This is just one of many public endorsements of the Accessible Cinema Roll-Out that he has made.

Now the good thing about the Accessible Cinema Roll-Out is that it is providing audio description for the blind. From all feedback we have seen this is proving a godsend for the blind in terms of accessible cinema. But unfortunately for the deaf, CaptiView is not providing the same level of enjoyment or access. It should be remembered that what ever happens with CaptiView it will have no bearing on the provision of audio description for the blind. Can the deaf feel confident that we can make a complaint to AHRC about CaptiView and be heard neutrally when Mr Innes so publicly supports the Accessible Cinema Roll-out?

On the Blog, WiseGeek. There is a discussion about conflicts of interest. WiseGeek notes that, “..People in positions of power are more likely to face charges of conflicts of interest.” Particularly so because, “… many of the decisions they make must not be tainted by the possibility of  favouritism or personal gain.” We have no doubt that Mr Innes intentions in supporting the various causes that he does are not for personal gain. He does, however, show favouritism for many issues. This is his right as an individual BUT as the Disability Commissioner and a representative of the Australian Human Rights Commission he must at all times remain detached and neutral on policies and issues that effect people with a disability. Clearly this is not the case at the moment. Mr Innes has his fingers in too many pies and the integrity of the AHRC is being compromised as a result. As advocates that often rely on impartial bodies such as the AHRC to push our case, this is something we cannot afford.

With respect.