Graeme Innes – Making a Stand!

050_soap_box6Oh BRAVO Graeme Innes. Mr Innes is the Disability Commissioner and he is possibly the most influential disabled person in Australia.  (Person with a disability to be PC) Last week he won $10 000 in court against Rail Corp. Using the much maligned Disability Discrimination Act Mr Innes took  the mighty Rail Corp to court and won. Rail Corp, who run Sydney trains, couldn’t get there collective lot around the need to make audio announcements at stops so that the people that required them knew it was time to get off and did not end up in Timbuktu. This must have given Mr Innes a shot in the arm because what he did next was quite inspiring.

Innes sits on the Accessible Airlines Working Group (AAWG). or at least he did. He stepped down from the group in a blaze of publicity. Said Innes, “The group had failed to achieve any major results such as overturning the policy of some airlines to have a limit of two wheelchair passengers per flight.” Innes continued, “I really don’t think the group has been effective in addressing the access needs of people with a disability.” Innes had been on the group for three years. He hoped that his resignation would influence the Transport Minister, Anthony Albanese, to ensure that group was, “task and goal oriented” , with an aim to, “perhaps put in some goals and timelines to remedy these issues.” [1]

For Mr Innes to take this step took some considerable courage given his position. His resignation letter to AAWG was quite scathing. In the letter he claimed that the group had, “achieved little of significance.” He then went on to list issues that the group had failed to address which included the two wheelchair policy and the, “Chaotic approval process for people wishing to travel on airlines with assistance animals.” As a guide dog user Mr Innes would be very familiar with the latter. Mr Innes went onto express his disappointment with having to resign because, “.. it is my normal approach to work cooperatively with Government, industry and the disability sector to achieve reform.” [2]

In the same letter Mr Innes is critical of the court ruling that upheld the airlines claim for Unjustifiable Hardship under the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA).  He claimed that, “The evidence presented was not a broad assessment of the impact of people travelling in wheelchairs on airlines either in Australia or around the world.” Here I disagree. The reason the courts were able to rule as they did is because the DDA is a fundamentally flawed law. To blame the courts is wrong. Mr Innes may be well served to use his influence to push for reform and strengthening of the outdated DDA.

Avid followers of the disability sector would know that the Human Rights Commission is currently celebrating 20 years of the DDA. In its hey day the DDA was a wonderful reform. It has achieved much particularly in bringing attention to and improving human rights for people with a disability in Australia. It is only right to celebrate some of the achievements that have come about because of the DDA.  Celebrate by all means BUT balance this with an honest analysis of the weakness and reforms needed to strengthen the DDA. The decision of the courts to grant the airlines wish for no more than two wheelchairs per flight is a prime example of the weakness of the DDA. To blame the evidence presented in the courts is to deflect from the real issues.

Mr Innes currently sits on and endorses another working group that is as equally ineffective as AAWG. This group is the Accessible Cinema Advisory Group (ACAG). The Rebuttal has oft been critical of Mr Innes public and glowing endorsement of the Accessible Cinema Roll-Out. A major responsibility of ACAG is to monitor the Accessible Cinema Roll-Out. Mr Innes is often forthright in his endorsement of the cinemas involved in the Accessible Cinema Roll-Out  despite knowing that many, many Deaf and hard of hearing people are immensely dissatisfied with it. In endorsing the Accessible Cinema Roll-Out, to the point that he and representatives of Media Access Australia recommended that the cinemas be nominated for a Human Rights Award, he has angered many in the Deaf and hard of hearing communities who feel he has completely ignored their feedback.

Earlier in the year the Action on Cinema Access Group (AOCA) seriously considered withdrawing from ACAG because they saw the group as not adhering to its terms of reference. AOCA also believed that, like AAWG, the ACAG was totally ineffective. It decided not to withdraw because many of its members urged them to remain. The members felt that it was important to continue to have at least some influence at Government level. As a representative group it listened to and respected the views of its members and decided to remain a part of the ACAG.

But the recent decision of Mr Innes to resign from AAWG has changed the playing field somewhat. Given that Mr Innes has resigned from AAWG because he feels it is ineffective and not achieving its mandate perhaps AOCA now have good reason to withdraw from ACAG. It is true that AOCA does not have the same profile and influence of Mr Innes but the principle is the same. One of the arguments that Mr Innes put forward for resigning from AAWG was that he could no longer justify the resources and time he was devoting to the group when it was so ineffective. AOCA is completely unfunded with less resources available at its disposal than Mr Innes. It would be well within its rights to step down from the totally ineffective ACAG.

But kudos where they are due. By stepping down from AAWG and bringing media attention to the reasons he has resigned Mr Innes has made a clear statement. This statement is simply that he will not accept mediocre outcomes for people with a disability. He should be congratulated for that. BUT having made this stand Mr innes has set a precedent. In stepping down because AAWG is ineffective Mr Innes needs to take a similar stand for other issues. He needs to be forthcoming about the weaknesses and reforms needed for the DDA. Equally he needs to support groups like the Deaf and hard of hearing on working groups like ACAG when outcomes are similarily ineffective. Particularly when these groups make their voice heard.

Well done Mr Innes on flexing your muscles in regard to AAWG. Long may it continue. Hopefully it will inspire other people with a disability and disability groups to make a stand. No longer should any of us accept second best.



[2] Extracts from the letter were taken from a publicly available copy on Facebook