Happy 20th birthday Disability Discrimination Act (DDA). I mean this with some sincerity too. The dear old DDA old has come in for some enormous flack this year. Unfortunately the once untouchable Graeme Innes, the Disability Commissioner, has also come in for much criticism. I say unfortunately because for many years Mr Innes has worked tirelessly for people with a disability in Australia.
It is true, the DDA had it coming. Yesterday Rick Randall wrote a brilliant and scathing piece about the DDA in Ramp Up. This follows up on an earlier article from Craig Wallace who was similarly critical of the DDA, albeit more diplomatically. Of course yours truly has been critical too in various pieces in The Rebuttal and another in the Adelaide Review.
BUT in all of the criticism of the DDA we sometimes forget to discuss the positive impact that it has had. Although it is essentially a flawed law it has served a good purpose. One of the major purposes was primarily to bring attention to and educate Australia about disability discrimination. With this education has come some positive change.
I remember in 1992 when the law was first introduced. At the time I had been struggling to get the University of South Australia, where I was studying at the time, to accept its obligations to provide interpreters. Suddenly in 1993, the year after the introduction of the law, the University agreed to fund the provision of interpreters. There was a wonderful disability support person, Lucy, who was taking no shit from anyone and went ahead and booked interpreters. I don’t know if Lucy used the introduction of the DDA as a point of argument but it is probably no coincidence that the University, and many others, started to accept their obligation of providing interpreters not long after the introduction of the DDA.
Then of course there were the early successes of the DDA like the Stott (or was it Scott) case against Telstra. In this case it was argued that if Telstra was going to provide phone lines to the homes of deaf people then they had to provide with it the technology to access it. This technology was a TTY. It is history now that Telstra lost and were forced to have to provide TTY rental at the same rate as handset rental to people who were deaf. Given that a TTY at the time cost over $600 it was a huge win. Indirectly it would also have influenced the introduction of the National Relay Service too. Why? Because suddenly the millions of Deaf and hard of hearing were going to get TTYs and they needed access to mainstream services.
Even today the DDA has some influence. In my work, for example, when they are planning buildings and community infrastructure the DDA is one of the first things they consult to make sure they meet compliance requirements. Although this means that often only the minimum requirements are considered it shows that the DDA is clearly having some impact.
Mr Innes, who is copping much flack at present, was one of the chief authors of the DDA. Quite rightly he is very protective of his work. He would be well aware of the positive impact that the DDA has had and should be rightly proud of that. It is entirely right that people with a disability and their associates should voice their concerns about the DDA. It is also justified that they are critical of Mr Innes stubborn refusal to see the real flaws in the DDA. Despite this we should not forget his enormous contribution to our lives.
The DDA was ground breaking work and has led to much positive change. In years to come Mr Innes will be remembered as one of our most influential pioneers. We will look back and see that he has been largely responsible for triggering one of the biggest attitude and legislative changes ever seen towards people with a disability in Australia. Let us all not forget this. Take a bow Mr Innes.
However, in remembering the positive impact of the DDA and of Mr Innes we must keep hammering home that the DDA is essentially flawed. Rick Randall, in his Ramp Up article, pointed out many of these flaws. The DDA is clearly a law that has loopholes a plenty. Tellingly Randall points out that the law actually supports perpetuators of discrimination by granting them exemptions to having to comply with the law. These exemptions last for many years and keep Australia in the dark ages.
Randall also points out, as The Rebuttal has constantly stated, that more than half the complaints made to the Australian Human Rights Commission are not resolved. The only place these complaints can go when they fail is to the courts. Unless you have the resources behind you to risk this then everything stops their. Randall claims that the cost of failed litigation is borne by the person that made the complaint. For example the poor soul that decided to take Jetstar to court over their two wheelchair policy ended up $35 000 out of pocket. If litigation is the only way most cases are to be resolved then the person with a disability has to be provided with adequate financial protection.
It is a law that we have to police ourselves by complaining. Many times I have written in The Rebuttal about the weakness in the complaints process. I have advocated that we need an Authority to police and force compliance of disability discrimination law. Randall uses the workplace safety legislation as an example of a law that is properly policed. With workplace safety legislation random spot checks occur and very severe penalties are dished out to bosses that do not meet safety requirements. There is a very strong push within the disability sector for the DDA to go down this path. Many are advocating for punitive measures in the form of fines.
So the DDA is 20 today! In our race to be critical we have perhaps forgotten its positive impact. Let’s put aside our grievances about the DDA for a short time and remember the impact that the DDA and Mr Innes have had on our lives. Indeed without the DDA we wouldn’t even be in a position to advocate reform and strengthening of the Disability Discrimination Law, we would have nothing! Yes, the DDA is weak and often ineffective but let’s reflect on the good today. Hostilities can resume tomorrow.