Going Backwards

imagesThe 1980s and 1990s were a heady time if you were a disability advocate. Particularly in the early 1990s when the Disability Discrimination Act was introduced. Although the DDA is in drastic need of upheaval now, at the time it sparked many changes and campaigns. If you were deaf you would have seen the introduction of programs like Telstra TTY rental scheme, the National Relay Service, rapid increases in television captioning and the provision of support such Auslan interpreters for university and TAFE. Young people who are deaf take these things for granted now but the pioneers of the 80s and 90s can well remember what it was like to have very little access of any kind.

We should remember that these programs did not come about on their own. They came about because people who are Deaf lobbied their arses off. They wrote papers, campaigned and even took big multinationals to court and won. Yet despite these gains Australia still lags behind many comparable countries in terms of disability access. There is still much that needs to be achieved and we should never rest on our laurels. Particularly so with the current Liberal Governments across Australia who are hell bent on cutting anything that hints of welfare.

Indirectly Christopher Pyne is doing his best to make higher education inaccessible to people who are Deaf and people who have a disability. Mr Pyne, in his quest to Americanise our uiversity system, is trying to introduce a system that will lead to university degrees costing in excess of $100 000. Indeed, if Labor are to be believed, people who aspire to become a Vet will have to cough up in excess of $470 000. They will be paying this off well into their retirement.

This effects people who are Deaf and other disadvantaged groups because these people already are among Australia’s lowest earners. How many of them are going to want to go to university knowing that they will have to spend the rest of their lives paying off their degree? Once they graduate they still face an uphill battle to get employment. It is not for nothing that 45% of people with a disability live at or below the poverty line in Australia. Pyne’s proposals are going to make this worse.

In my early years as an advocate I spent a lot of time working towards making higher education accessible for people who are deaf. I sat on committees, I fought with my own university, I wrote to MPs and argued with the Vice Chancellor. I was on the Premiers Disability Advisory Committee and used every opportunity that I could to put the issue of access to higher education on the table. There were many other deaf students of the time that fought for university access just as hard.

And now with the short sightedness of a Minister who thinks most women only study cheaper degrees like nursing or teaching, we are about to see university education again become inaccessible to many people who are deaf or have disabilities. Not because universities won’t provide support, they will, but simply because many of these students will not be able to afford the university fees.

Without access to higher education how will people who are deaf and other disadvantaged groups be able to compete? How are they expected to get the qualifications that they need to compete for higher paying and secure jobs? It just seems that all that work over decades is going to be laid to waste. All that fighting for access to interpreters and captioning could well come to nothing. And all because we have a Government hell bent of destroying the welfare state. A state that really barely exists in Australia anyway when we compare our expenditure on welfare to other wealthy countries.

But the Minister that really has us all stirred up at the moment is Malcolm Turnbull. Turnbull is the Minister of Communication. He wants to put a stop the mandatory reporting of captioning quotas for free to air TV stations. Mr Turnbull simply is trying to cut the amount of paper work that he has to deal with and clearly does not understand the ramifications of what he is proposing to do.

In legislation introduced to parliament Turnbull is proposing:

  1. Removing compliance reporting for free-to-air television so they no longer have to publically report that they are meeting the captioning regulations.
  2. More complex calculations for determining how much captioning sports channels should provide.
  3. Watering down measurement and regulation of caption quality.[1]

Since July this year free to air television stations have been required to caption every show from 6pm to midnight. Currently they are mandated to report all their captioning outcomes and if they do not meet the amount of captioning set out in the regulations without good reason I believe they are held accountable.

Access to television captioning is something our advocates have fought hard for over many decades. One does not want to go back to the 80s when, as a friend suggested, the only thing captioned was The Bill and rather rude shows on SBS. I am not suggesting that cutting the red tape will send us back to these dark ages but the fact that television stations must comply and demonstrate they have met quotas ensures that they at least must come close to meeting the quotas that are mandated.

It is worrying indeed that government wants to water down the legislation, particularly in regard to quality. What is more worrying is, as Brett Casey suggested on ABC radio, that the government wants captions monitored through a complaints based mechanism rather than rigid compliance. What this means is that if we, the consumer, notice that TV stations are not meeting quotas the onus will be on us to complain to hold them to account.

We already know that the biggest weakness in the current DDA legislation is that it is complaints based. There is very little rigid compliance and self-reporting. The DDA is nothing unless we complain. Self-reporting and rigid compliance to quotas ensures that TV stations provide what they are required to. As Mr Casey said, In one way, I believe it shows that we’re going backwards. The onus is on the deaf or hard-of-hearing person to make the complaint when something occurs, and in this day and age, with the technology available to record and capture data and be able to provide that data annually to the compliance body, I don’t think it’s a very onerous task to have to do that.”

Yup we are seemingly going backwards. The Deaf sector and the disability sector have fought hard for many years to achieve the access that they have now. Even though we all have achieved much, this current Government and other state Liberal Governments seem to be doing all that they can to rip the façade from under all of the gains that we have achieved. So we must remain diligent and keep up the good fight because as Ghandi once said,”… the true measure of any Society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members” Unfortunately for us our current Governments need to be constantly reminded of this.

[1] http://www.mediaaccess.org.au/latest_news/tv-video/consumers-condemn-proposed-changes-to-captioning-regulations

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