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DDA Action Plan at Sydney's Macquarie University

Disability Discrimination Commissioner Graeme Innes explains the good reasons why a DDA Action Plan is needed for Macquarie University, Sydney.

Launch of Macquarie University’s Disability Action Plan  

Tuesday 28 August, 2012 

Graeme Innes AM
Disability Discrimination Commissioner
Australian Human Rights Commission
 

I acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we meet today. 

Ten years ago I gave the occasional address at a graduation at Sydney University. I accepted the invitation to speak in the Great Hall and then informed the University that - as the platform on which students received their degrees was not accessible for people with mobility disability - I would speak from the floor of the hall. I did that, and told the story of Bradley Kinsella. He had studied at QUT for three years about a further decade ago, and used his wheelchair all of that time. Despite their knowledge of his disability, QUT scheduled his degree in an inaccessible venue. He lodged a complaint under Queensland disability discrimination legislation, and the university was required to move the degree ceremony to an accessible venue. 

I was therefore shocked this morning when I arrived for this ceremony. I discovered that people with mobility disability would have to travel to this the third floor via the goods lift, and enter through the kitchen and the back door. And they could not do this independently, as the lift required keyed access. 

People with disability should not have to come in the back door, or ask permission to come in when no-one else does. In my view, this is not an appropriate venue to launch a Disability Discrimination Act Action Plan. And that's what I said a few minutes ago when I tweeted about it. So you clearly need this plan to take you forward. 

Sarah - not her real name - studied law at university. Not only did she earn a good law degree, she won the university medal. She also won competitions for mooting- conducting mock trials for those of you smart enough not to have chosen law as your profession. 

You would think that someone with Sarah's qualifications would walk into a job with most law firms, or with the public service. Not only could she not get a job, she couldn't even get a public service interview. Why? Because she has a significant disability, including using a wheelchair, and some verbal communication issues. 

Sarah's story - which is real - is backed up by the statistics. Your Action Plan tells me that people with disability are 21% less likely to have completed Year 12 than people without a disability. It also tells me that of people with disability who have completed Year 12, 9.7 % less of them will have completed a Bachelor’s degree or higher qualification. 

The labour force participation rate of people with disability is 54.3%, and for people without disability it is 82.8%. Around 15% of the population of working age has a disability. Your Action Plan tells me that the number of people with a disability employed at the university last year was 4.7%. But, whilst you might think I would castigate you on this figure, I actually congratulate you for being above the average. The rate in the Commonwealth Public Service is 3 %, less than half what it was fifteen years ago. 

These are all good reasons why you need a DDA Action Plan. Further, there are a number of legal responsibilities and liabilities under Federal discrimination law that can be addressed through the development of a plan. While Action Plans under the DDA are a voluntary provision, developing and lodging them with the Commission provides some protection from successful complaints. This is because the progressive identification and removal of barriers reduces the chances of complaints, and because in the event of a complaint being lodged an Action Plan can form part of a defense, should the complaint proceed to the Federal Court. 

Also there is the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. The Australian Government ratified the UN Convention in July 2009, which means that all levels of Government have a duty to act in a way that furthers progressive realisation of its Articles. 

The Commission has no approval or monitoring functions in relation to Action Plans. But we have gained valuable experience in understanding the sort of factors that lead to effective plans, and not so effective plans. We have acronyms for some that don't work so well. 

Firstly, there is the NAP or Nobodies Action Plan. It tends to take a nap at the back of a filing cabinet. 

There is the STRAP or Someone's Taken the Resources Action Plan. It is the sort that is high on rhetoric, but low on outcomes, often because it is strapped for cash. 

There is the FLAP or Floundering and Lost Action Plan. It is the sort that struggles to integrate itself into the organisations general business activities. It tends to flap around like a fish out of water. 

I also note the Created Reluctantly Action Plan - think about the acronym - which fails to get organisational leadership endorsement. 

Joking aside, these acronyms do point to a very real set of difficulties which have an effect on the development and implementation of action plans. 

Here are some factors which lead to more effective action plans: 

First, get senior management commitment. If you have this, then you're far more likely to ensure meaningful timeframes and financial and human resources are allocated. 

Unfortunately, these commitments often arise from feeling an obligation, rather than a passion to do things well. I and my staff regularly talk to people who are responsible for implementing action plans who clearly just don't "get it". They don't get why it is that a ramp without handrails on both sides, and kerb rails, is dangerous; they don't get why it is that glazed doors need to have colour contrast strips across them; they don't get why it is that a PDF document on a website is inaccessible to blind readers; they don't get why it is that staff attitudes are less likely to change without leadership being shown at the highest levels. 

Second, promote a sense of ownership through celebrating the achievement of milestones. Just like today's ceremony. The actual process of development or review of Action Plans can be used to promote a sense of ownership among staff and managers, and consequently a commitment to effective implementation. 

Third, allocate Action Plan implementation responsibilities to specific individual positions. This should be a position of some authority, such as a section manager, to ensure it is viewed as a high level activity. Preferably responsibilities should be written into the job description or Performance Assessments of the delegated position, rather than allocated generally to a branch or section. 

Fourth, allocate priorities and don't over commit. An Action Plan may include a large number of strategies and tasks to be performed. Some will be big ticket items involving considerable resource allocation over a period of time. Others will be cost neutral. It's important that some system of prioritizing is included in the plan. It may sound obvious, but the commitments made in a plan have to be carefully budgeted for, and receive appropriate budget committee endorsement. 

Fifth, develop objectives that can be measured in terms of real outcomes for people with a disability. One area where many organisations have difficulty is developing an evaluation strategy that does more than measure the number of tasks that have been completed. For example, while producing accessible information on the services a department provides is important, the successful production of that information says nothing about whether or not the service has become more accessible to people with a disability. It is easy to develop an evaluation strategy around whether or not the department’s website is accessible as a result of completing a number of tasks. It is much more difficult to develop an evaluation strategy around something more global, such as "Promoting inclusion and participation in the community of people with a disability". 

When faced with this difficulty, the best action plans are those which break down global objectives into a series of outcomes that are within the control of the Department, and which can be measured. For example, an agency might not have many opportunities to influence public participation for people with a disability, but it may have a community consultative committee. It could develop strategies to ensure that suitably qualified and experienced people with a disability participate in such committees. 

Finally, recognise the importance of continuing consultation by building it into your Plan's strategies. For example, consult with people with disability when developing or amending policies and practices; include people with disability in the evaluation and review of your Plan; and provide existing employees with disability opportunities to continue to contribute their ideas and experiences. 

A DDA Action plan is about shared responsibility, and should be a source of collective pride. People, in most instances, will not have to do more - they will just have to do different. Disability should not be problematized. A disability action plan gives us a guide to make all of our community truly accessible; a community where all of us can participate and thrive, studying and working, socialising and communicating; a place where all staff and students can get whatever appropriate and immediate support is required, and where everyone knows how to access that. Take your team at the library, your team in Macquarie University Accessibility service; and your soon to-be team in the Australian Hearing Hub. 

The development and implementation of an effective action plan relies on the ability of an organisation, and its leadership, to embrace the need to address barriers to participation, and to actively welcome the contribution people with a disability make. You play a vital role in facilitating change in your organisation, so that the contribution of people with disability can be recognised, elevated and celebrated. Don't lose the chance to have participation from that 20% of the community. 

Thanks for the chance to speak with you today.

Posted by John Bedwell  Obvius Access 

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