An Open Letter to Mitch Fifield – Minister for Disability

mitchDear Mr Fifield

I noted with interest your speech to The Committee for Economic Development where you touched on the issue of disability employment. You published this with pride on your parliamentary website. I am not sure who was present at the meeting but I trust there was a good balance between people with disabilities and those without. After all the issue of employment for people with a disability is about people with a disability. One would hope that a fair few of them were present in the upper echelons of decision making where crucial decisions are being made about their future.

I also want to thank you for championing the cause of people with a disability in employment. I would rather it was a person with a disability doing it but seeing as so few of us seem to be present a meetings discussing our future, who better to do it than your good self. I mean with only around 53% of us employed, 45% of us living at and below the poverty line and only 2.9% of the Commonwealth Public Service being made up of people with a disability we need all the champions that we can get.

You will note the underlying sarcasm in my tone. Perhaps you may even sense that I am being entirely caustic. You would not be wrong. Frankly, your speech was the most appalling piece of government policy intention that I have read in a long time. They do say that sarcasm is the lowest form of wit so I will hereon seek to moderate my tone and challenge some of the assumptions that you have made in your speech.

I note very early on in your speech that you did not want to patronise people who have a disability. Said you, “What I don’t want is for people with disability to be patronised through the handing out of a token number of jobs as some form of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) or worse, as a form of charity. Nothing could be more patronising for someone with disability.”

Although you did not say it, this was clearly an attack on the idea of quotas as a solution for unemployment of people with a disability. Of course quotas is that idea of affirmative action that suggests that employers should seek to employ people with a disability as a certain percentage of their workforce. Quotas are something that many people with a disability want the Government to consider. But in one fell swoop you have rejected this idea.

Let me say now that quotas are not patronising. Nor are they charity. Affirmative Action is not patronising either. In fact over the years affirmative action has been used successfully to create opportunities for women, particularly for management jobs. People say that affirmative action for women made it look like they did not really have the ability to get management jobs off their own bat.  They say these jobs for women were tokenism. This is rubbish. All affirmative action did was recognise that women had what it takes. It recognised that in the male dominated domain of management that women were disadvantaged. Affirmative action sought to level the playing field, so to speak.

People who think affirmative action policies such as quotas are patronising live in a fantasy world. There is severe disadvantage for many groups. Aboriginal groups and disability among them. In the case of women, particularly in the 70’s and 80’s, they had to overcome the fact that they were the primary care giver when children were born. This hindered career development and still does. When women were at home looking after children men were foraging their way up the management ladder.

Affirmative action simply recognised this and sought to create opportunities for women. I accept it has not been a perfect policy and many women are still, strangely, paid less than their male counterparts; but it did create opportunities for women to be appointed to and succeed in management positions.

Strachan, 2010, notes that, ” A policy discussion paper issued in 1984 proclaimed that ‘anti‑discrimination policies, important as they are, cannot by themselves improve women’s position in the labour market, totally open up a greater range of jobs to women, nor ensure that women can compete on equal terms with men for promotion’  In recognition of this the Government of the day developed the The federal Affirmative Action (Equal Opportunity for Women) Act 1986. As is the case for women, the same applies for people with a disability, albeit with a different set of circumstances.;jsessionid=9B55DD7046991B60EAF416D19A0A0CFA?sequence=1 

If our society really is serious about getting people with a disability into employment, that is both sustainable and well paid, our society must consider all the disadvantage. The disadvantages are many. This is particularly so the case of education. The lack of support at primary school and secondary school means that many people with a disability finish school much later and with lower marks. Consequently the opportunity to get into courses at university or even TAFE is impacted. Not only that, any number of factors can mean that many people with a disability take longer to complete their course or training.

The implication of this is that when people with a disability are struggling through university or TAFE people without a disability are graduating and completing courses. A person without a disability will finish their course earlier. They will have the opportunity to seek work earlier. This means that while the person with a disability is still navigating their course people without a disability are entering the workforce and building their experience.

So what happens here? Finally the person with a disability completes their course or training. It has taken them six years. They are older and applying for work at the same time as fresh faced graduates. The fresh faced graduates took three years. The person with a disability 6 years. The employer looks at the resume of each prospective applicant. One took three years one took six. Who are they most likely to pick? Most likely the person without a disability, because the person has not had to struggle to obtain access to their course, will have a higher mark too. Against this backdrop people with a disability are expected to compete!

For a person with a disability wanting to obtain employment this disadvantage is right at the start of their career. Even if they do manage to get employment they are often overlooked for promotion. Often they are prevented from participating in professional development because their access needs are not considered. It is not for nothing people with a disability are chronically underemployed and are often in base grade jobs for the whole of their career. No wonder 45% of them are living in poverty.

Not only that, people with a disability have to deal with prejudice. Many employers, whether you or they want to admit it or not, are prejudiced. Many have their own preconceived idea about what a person with a disability can and cannot do. They put up barriers and make excuses. Communication will be too hard. Safety will be an issues. Workplace modifications too time consuming and so on and so on.

Employers, by and large, do not recognise the diversity of disability. They do not recognise the diversity of skills. Some do but many do not. Make no mistake people with a disability are severely disadvantaged in their ability to compete because our world is not accessible and many employers simply do not understand nor care for the depth of disadvantage that people with a disability experience.

Just last week a deaf friend of mine missed out on an executive job. He was asked in his interview how much it would cost to cover his communication support for a year. You can bet your bottom dollar that no other applicant had to face that same question. You can bet your bottom dollar that because of this cost the people making the decisions are already considering this as a reason for not employing my friend. That is prejudice personified.

And you say we need to leave it to the employers. You say Governments do not create jobs employers do. Well I am here to tell you that you are are being totally unrealistic. Sure we have equal opportunity legislation but it does not work. The government recognised in 1986 that equal opportunity legislation alone was not enough to level the playing field for women and introduced affirmative action legislation.

Mr Fifield, people with a disability are in the same boat. Employers and equal opportunity legislation alone will not increase employment opportunities for people with a disability. Something extra needs to happen and affirmative action is it. Quotas are not charity, nor are they patronising; they simply recognise that the playing field is not even.  As you point out $1 billion a year spent on disability employment programs has not changed things much – It’s time to think outside the box and affirmative action through quotas is part of the answer.

Oh and by the way, as you go out there consulting with industry, you wont forget to speak to us will you? Now about those people with a disability being paid $1.50 an hour …. Patronising much?



Where’s Voice for Captioning? (And not just at the movies)

Bald man with a beard holding two paper cups over his ears.

I am one of the millions of Australians who have been duped into signing up for Netflix. Now I can’t turn the bloody thing off. For the first time ever I can watch any show I choose and all are captioned.  Netflix captions are quite amusing though. My hearing son tells me they are edited and sanitised, particularly American shows. For example the actor on screen will say FUCKING and the captions say FRIGGING. Last night on Suits they wouldn’t even caption the word SHIT – each time an actor used the word SHIT – which was frequently – the caption read SH–. Even BULLSHIT was sanitised to BULLSH–. I’m deaf you know, cant have my eyes seeing what all are hearing. God forbid! Still it’s access, and 100% access. I can live with it.

I have been given cause to think a lot about captioning lately. Captioning is not just about the movies. For some it is about communication. Communication in the same way that Deaf community members use Auslan interpreters. Auslan interpreters are used in so many situations. They are used for work, to visit the doctor, at university, for weddings and funerals, the theatre and so on. Hell, Auslan interpreters are even on show when the Government makes emergency announcements.

I have no complaints and I utilise Auslan interpreters regularly for work, training and medical reasons. But of late I have come to realise that I am actually a minority among people who are deaf. You see most people who are deaf actually do not sign. There are many that rely on residual hearing, lip-reading, writing, taking notes and, of course, captioning.

A report produced by Orima in 2004, Supply and Demand of Auslan Interpreters, indicates that the population of Auslan users that benefit from Auslan interpreters is around 7 000.  Dr Trevor Johnston, author of the famed Auslan Dictionary, indicates it might be around 6 500. Some estimates suggest that the figure may be as high as 15 000. These statistics are probably not accurate because apparently some people indicate that they use sign language rather than Auslan. I’m not sure what this means but it could include bastardised forms of Auslan like Signed English, Signs in English, or even Makaton.

For arguments sake let’s say the population is around 7 000. Let’s compare that with the overall statistics for hearing loss in Australia. An Access Economics report written for Vicdeaf in 2006 indicates that there were in excess of 10 000 children with a hearing loss in Australian in 2005. For Adults with a hearing loss the figure was in excess of 3 500 000.

Of this huge number only about 7 000 appear to be Auslan users. It is very clear that most people with a hearing loss in Australia are not going to benefit from Auslan interpreters. I have to ask, given Auslan users are the minority, why is captioning not more prominent as a communication support tool?

Recently I have been working on a submission with Deaf Victoria to obtain funding to host a conference about mental health and deaf people. It was successful and the conference will be hosted in November of this year. We believe that mental health support for people who are deaf in Victoria is inadequate. This conference aims to discuss why this is so and try to develop a blueprint for improvements. Much of the research into mental health and people who are deaf focuses on people that use sign language. A lot of the research highlights how the lack of access to interpreters hinders support and diagnosis. Very little appears to focus on clients who are deaf but who do not sign.

This worries me. It worries me because we know that incidence of depression, anxiety and low self esteem resulting from this social isolation among people who are deaf is higher than for people who are not deaf. This social isolation is not the sole domain of deaf people that use sign language. Indeed one could argue that sign language users are less isolated because they have access to social networks and communication through the Deaf community. Many people who are deaf, but who do not sign,  do not have the same easy access to social networks.  Arguably they are more isolated and possibly more prone to loneliness and depression.

So what happens when we have a person who is deaf, who does not sign, and has a mental health crisis? What happens to facilitate communication? What happens to ensure the right information is provided and received to make an appropriate diagnosis? We know it is hard to get Auslan interpreters for deaf people that use sign language. What of the non signers? What solutions are there?

Do we rely on lip-reading? An art that is so variable that the best lip-readers can understand nothing in many situations and 100% in ideal situations. In a crisis situation, where medical and life defining decisions are to be made, would one want to rely on lip-reading? I think not. Is there a place to get in a professional note-taker or set up an emergency captioning service to someones phone? Surely something can be done. Alarmingly no one seems to be talking about these solutions.   It all appears to be focused on sign language interpreting.

As an example there was a wonderful video on Facebook yesterday. You can watch it by clicking on this link 

On the surface Dr Danny’s message  seems great, but as you can see at the end Dr Danny begins to use sign language. It’s wonderful, but what happens if you cant sign and well meaning Dr Danny comes up and starts signing to you? If you are in a medical crisis it’s likely to add to your stress especially if you are already struggling to communicate. I have lost count the number of times a hearing person shows off their rudimentary sign language to me even before they know whether I can sign or not.

It is not just in medical situations where captioning gets lip service.  I work in education and I can tell you that captioning is nearly always overlooked when thinking of access for deaf participants. Auslan interpreters are often overlooked too. However, most times if I ask if there is access for me as a deaf person they will say Auslan interpreters have been booked. Captioning rarely gets a look in.

They will say that captioning is inflexible and doesn’t allow for full participation. This may well have been the case in the past but it is not now. In the past captioning was just on a screen but now with Live Remote Captioning you can direct it to the deaf person’s Smartphone or iPad. This allows the person who is deaf to participate in group discussions. Of course this is all dependent on good internet and audio but it can be done. I know because I have done it . Unfortunately so few people know about it and utilise captioning in this way.

And at the theatre they provide access through Auslan interpreters. This is great but if Auslan interpreters are chosen as the means of access there is no funding left for captioning. It’s equally true that if captioning is used to provide access there is no funding left for Auslan interpreters. Arguably captions would give access to more people. This is particularly so considering that most people with a hearing loss do not sign and many Auslan users can also benefit from captioning. I am not advocating that we get rid of Auslan interpreters and resort to captioning everything. I am just trying to highlight how lopsided it all is. Certainly, from my observations, there are far more Auslan interpreted theatre shows than captioned ones.

Let me get this straight, I am not advocating that captioning take precedence over Auslan interpreting. What I am saying is that we do not give enough thought to how we can facilitate comunication through captioning for people who are deaf and do not sign. These people are the majority but very little advocacy seems to go in their direction in regards o their communication support. People will say that these people use their hearing aids or cochlear implants and in most cases get along just fine. They will say that of that 3 500 000 most people are ok because their hearing loss is only mild. Well this is not true, many struggle!

People who are deaf and who do not sign have many needs in regards to communication support. Captioning offers many solutions. It can offer solutions for medical situations, for education, for work and access to community events like the upcoming Anzac day dawn services. From my perspective the debate for communication access is dominated by Auslan interpreting.  Indeed for many Auslan interpreting is seen as THE SOLUTION! Clearly it is not the solution for everyone .

It’s time to think about this huge majority of deaf people and their needs because captioning is clearly not just about the movies!


AbI am a member of the Stolen Generation, my father was removed from his homelands in 1940. He lost his mother, lost his culture, his language and lost his identity. It took nearly 70 years for my father to tell his story, share his shame, his grief and his fear for us as children who might also be removed. There was constant sadness of waiting for letters. There was sadness of waiting forlornly for his mother to come and find him and his brother. I have witnessed all my life the utmost sadness and anger in my father because he was ripped from his People, Country and Culture.

My grandmother looked for and found her children, but she was never permitted to see them. She was denied many times but she never gave up, not until the day she died. She was only 39. This is the true history of this country towards the Aboriginal peoples. It is this history that drives me and motivates me to share the knowledge.

I am not looking for empathy, sympathy or an apology. I want Australia to have a better awareness of this history. I want Australia to understand the needs of our Aboriginal people’s with disabilities. Aboriginal people still are experiencing hardship and fear of being removed from their homelands. Aboriginal people are still witnessing the destruction of their Land. Aboriginal people are still being stripped of their cultural identity, sense of belonging, their connections to their history, stories, families and Lore. History repeats itself again and again.

The Federal Government of Australia has decided that to save money for the states of Victoria, Tasmania and Western Australia the closing of municipal services in remote Aboriginal communities was needed. This decision was made without proper consultation with Traditional Owners, Elders and Community members living in these remote communities. The Traditional owners and Elders have been responsible for their lands for thousands of generations.  They are the custodians who protect, care and nurture the Lands for generations to come.

“We took the traditional lands and smashed the traditional way of life…: Redfern Speech (Year for the World’s Indigenous People) – Delivered in Redfern Park by Prime Minister Paul Keating, 10 December 1992

For generations the Australian Government policies and practices have led to genocide and the raping of the Lands. This history must be told, acknowledged and understood if generations of Aboriginal people impacted by these policies are to heal and prosper. It seems National Apology offered on February 13th 2008 by the then Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, was nothing but hollow words.

What about people with disabilities in these communities?  The oral evidence that Aboriginal people use to document Lore (law), Ceremonies and Protocols of daily life for people living on Homelands with disabilities often does not identify “disabled peoples”. Instead the Traditions outline how members who may have disabilities are cared for and provided with the special care that they need to enjoy their daily lives. Often support for people with a disability on these Communities is not provided by the Australian Government. It is the community Traditions and Lore that ensure that members who may have a disability are properly cared for.

As one of Australia’s leading Aboriginal community consultants that specialises in disability I witness the harsh reality when government policies get it wrong. Government policies for Aboriginal people, with or without disabilities, are often developed without proper consultation.  Proper consultation takes time and is absolutely necessary. Why? Because past failures of Government policy, established without proper consultation, has led to great mistrust between Aboriginal communities and the Government. Put bluntly, given previous history of Stolen Generations, Aboriginal communities fear the Governments intent. This is particularly so for Aboriginal people with disabilities.

I see Aboriginal people with disability living in fear of being removed from their Homelands, which is all they have left. I have witnessed young people with disabilities being sent to larger towns to be cared for by non-Indigenous carers. When this happens these young people lose their connection with Traditions, the Land and their Identity. They are displaced.

All too often this leads to substance abuse and sometimes physical abuse. All too often these Aboriginal people with disabilities are rejected by the mainstream and placed in the too hard basket. I witness neglect by workers who do not or will not try to understand the cultural requirements of Aboriginal people with a disability. I see regularly the abuse of power and control over Aboriginal people with disabilities who are displaced and without Identity.

I have had conversations with Deaf Elders in remote communities that ask for clarification of what is happening to their Lands. They want to know who will keep the stories and dreaming alive for the young people of these communities. Aboriginal people with disabilities have a real fear of losing their cultural practices and their place as the keepers of Lands and Traditions, Lore, Spirit, Healing and Dreaming if they are removed from their communities.

Aboriginal people with disabilities and Deaf Aboriginal people fear that they will be forced to live in separate worlds. They fear that they will lose their Culture and Identity as they are forced into government support programs that have been established with no thought to the cultural needs of Aboriginal people with a disability and their connection to the Land.

Deaf Aboriginal and Aboriginal people with disabilities are our own mob who live within our mob who live within the kinship system of the wider Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. We have our Lore that is never changed, we have our Protocols that must never be broken, we have our Ceremonies we cannot forget and we have our Land who calls us to Country.

Regardless of how long we have been away. Regardless of what we do in life. Regardless of what needs we have; taking our Aboriginal people off their homelands is cultural genocide, not because we own the Land, but because the Land owns us…

All too often this is disregarded, particularly where disability is involved. And the Government calls it a life style choice – It has to stop!

If you wish to be involved, if you wish to attend, if you wish to take part in the STOP THE FORCE CLOSURES OF ABORIGINAL COMMUNITIES RALLIES check out the website or their Facebook page of the same name sosblakaustralia it will give you the dates and details for the rallies on May 1st 2015 , there will be a list of places, times and there will be a honest commitment to have Auslan interpreters at these events ( based on availability of interpreters) Jody Barney Deaf Indigenous Community Consultancy