Keynote address: Advocates are champions

Only weeks after his final address to the National Press Club as Disability discrimination Commissioner, Graeme Innes delivered the keynote address at the Strengthening Disability Advocacy Conference: Champions of Change.

Audio podcast



Graeme Innes was our Disability Discrimination Commissioner from 2005 until last year. He has also served as Human Rights Commissioner, he is a lawyer, a human rights practitioner for 30 years operating in New South Wales, Western Australia, and nationally.

Graeme has led or contributed to the success of a number of initiatives including drafting of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

Graeme has been a fabulous role model for me and a great advocate for the cause of disability. He has come a long way from being made redundant by an answering machine when he worked at Westralian lotteries.

It is my great pleasure to welcome Graeme Innes for our keynote address.

Thanks very much for the introduction, and may I also acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we meet.

Good morning.

Ah, Robyn, you’ve lied to me. There’s no-one here. Let me try that again, good morning – ah, we are awake!

As a worn-out advocate, and no longer the disability discrimination commissioner, I wondered if you wanted me to come down here and talk to you because all the disability and discrimination has been fixed.


I thought that is why we didn’t need a full-time discrimination commissioner any more. I thought that was why we can take $1.6 million from the national advocacy program. I thought we all had jobs and were off welfare so the changes to the PSP weren’t a problem.

That’s what they told me. What do you think – is that true?

If that’s the case, I’d better throw away the celebratory speech I planned. I better cancel that case of champagne we ordered.

If there is still some discrimination around, still a need for advocates, and if we haven’t all got jobs and don’t have to worry about the PSP changes, I’d better throw away that speech. Forget the celebrations, normal service has resumed.

Now that I have my attempt at Monday morning wake-up humour off my chest, I have to make a confession. I make my confessions early. The original plan for this part of the program was to get someone to start the conference with a bang, inspire you all with his amazing story, and motivate you all for the rest of the conference. Also motivate you in the rest of your work, for the time to come.

I know who was on the original program and he could have definitely done that. You got me instead.

Thank you very much, I have two fans. I am just some ex-commissioner the committee found hanging around outside the conference centre, thought I looked cold, I’m here to run a Q&A session this afternoon, and they asked me if I could fill in.

You may have to answer some questions, because that is how I fill in time if I run out of things to say. You need to remember the one fault I am prepared to admit, if you put up your hand to give me an answer – someone has got this – I will completely ignore you.

Break all those old school rules, if I ask you a question, call out the answer. Here is the first question: what gets you out of bed in the morning?

(Audience members call out)

It is funny you should say that, for me it is usually one or two strong cups of bloody strong coffee. Your coffee down here does not stack up against the coffee we make in Sydney.

I am in trouble from the start.

If that comment didn’t upset you, can I also tell you that I barrack for the West Coast Eagles.


Really, what does get you out of bed in the morning? If you were teenagers, that clear answer would be your mother. It is bodily functions, being hungry, having a partner that snores, going to the bathroom. But let’s try and lift this to a higher level – what motivates you to do what you do?

I want you to think about that this morning because conferences such as this, as well as being a great chance to learn – formally from the presenters and informally from your peers – and I have heard about the speed dating, sorry speed networking sessions… (Laughs)

I want to start your thinking about that question this morning. Talk about what we do in our role as advocates. I want to remind you all that what you do that matters. You become involved at a key time in people’s lives and can have a great impact on the quality of those lives.

I have been asked to motivate you. A few months after one of the cruellest federal budgets I have seen, I have been asked to motivate you. What I love about Robyn and the conference committee is they only set you small challenges.


I want to start with the words of a poet of our time – she sings them, I don’t plan to sing them – “Have you ever fed a lover with just your hands? Closed your eyes and trusted, just trusted? Have you ever thrown a fistful of glitter in the air? Have you ever looked fear in the face and said, ‘I just don’t care’? It’s only half past the point of no return. The tip of the iceberg, the sun before the burn. The thunder before the lightning and the breath before the phrase, ‘Have you ever felt this way?’”

Does anyone recognise those words?

Well done! There is a dish of jellybeans in the centre of your table. You are allowed to have two right now.

That is Pink from her Grammy award-winning song. I heard her sing it a few years ago. I was in France when I heard the lyrics. They and the few of her other songs are songs that I listen to regularly on my iPod.

Many believe that they only apply to love but I think they apply to life more broadly. To live life to the full. I’m very much in favour of the view that if you’re not doing that, if you are not living on the edge in that way, you are taking up too much room.

Living life to the full shouldn’t only be an opportunity for four-fifths of the population. It should also be an opportunity for Australians with disabilities. Despite what the attorney tells us, discrimination still exists. We can’t live life to the full in our present community. That’s why we need advocacy.

Let me move from one iconic American woman of today, Pink, to another iconic woman of the 1960s. Back in the period of history known as the last century. I’m talking about Rosa Parks.

I heard the word ‘bus’ here in the centre. Have two more jelly beans. You may remember that Rosa Parks refused to sit at the back of the bus. In the 1960s in the United States millions of dollars was spent providing public transport systems, but in many places, if you were black, you could only ride at the back of the bus.

Rosa’s actions was one of the sparks of the civil rights movement. You might say, that was way back then. It wouldn’t happen today in Australia to a particular group of people, would it? I would say it would. For many people with a disability, sitting at the back of the bus still isn’t possible. We can’t even get on the bus. And that’s one of many examples where opportunities are not equal in the world in which we all live and work.

Let me tell you a story, because it underlines the importance of the work we all do and the amazing assumptions that we have all experienced.

I was in a meeting with business people in Brisbane. Walking with my guide dog, I got into the lift in the 30th storey of the building at the same time as another person. Surprise, surprise, the buttons did not have Braille so I didn’t know what to press. Turning to the other person, I said, “Could you please press the button for ground?” No response.

Thinking that he may have a hearing impairment – I was the Disability Discrimination Commissioner, so I was aware of those things – I looked directly at him and said more clearly, more enunciated – and note that I didn’t say it more loudly, because that doesn’t help – “Could you press ground, please?”

Still no response. I tapped him on the shoulder and asked him again. He said, “Are you talking to me? I thought you were talking to the dog.”

My dog is pretty good but she hasn’t learned to read lift buttons yet. I’m sure many of you could tell stories like that. In my experience most of the assumptions we encounter are negative and wrong but they still keep being made.

People with disabilities still have to deal with the soft bigotry of low expectations.

As well as swimming against the tide of negative attitudes and assumptions, people with disabilities are disadvantaged in relative terms in today’s society.

Let’s look at three measures of a disadvantage. I won’t talk about all disadvantages because frankly we don’t have time.

Firstly there is a high correlation between people with disabilities and poverty. 45% of us live near or in poverty. This is due to low incomes and additional cost of disability. I don’t need to bore you with the statistics, you have heard them before.

Secondly, whilst Australia experiences relatively low unemployment when you think about Spain, where it has been up around 30%-35%, this is not the case for people with disabilities. We are employed at a rate 30% lower than the general population. When employed, we are under-employed and often just in one position and forgotten about.

The third indicator of disadvantage is the level of contact with the criminal justice system. Prison is a common accommodation option for people with a disability. 90% of women with intellectual disability – nine out of ten women – have been sexually assaulted at some point in their life. There are high rates of violence against people with a disability.

So it often goes unpunished. As I said, you know the statistics better than I do. For those and many others I haven’t talked about, which you understand more intimately, there are the challenges facing people with a disability. We have the task of supporting people with a disability through or around those barriers. That’s what it’s all about.

We have the challenge of assisting people often with fewer life skills to make decisions that will profoundly affect their quality of life for the future.

So what gets you out of bed is working with some of the most disadvantaged and disempowered people in Australia. No pressure, OK? That is a seriously awesome challenge.

Some of you might say that I’m not doing what the committee told me to do. I was asked to motivate you and all I have done for the last 10 or so minutes is tell you funny stories and demonstrate how hard our job is and what a huge challenge we have. Ask a few questions and tell you you are able to have some jellybeans, which you could have already eaten anyway.

And after hearing all this you might just go back to bed and curl up in the foetal position. But I haven’t told you anything you don’t already know, and yet you are all here, not back in bed at home.

And why is that? We are in this job of advocacy and many of us have been in it for many years because we, perhaps against the odds, are determined to support people with disabilities to successfully overcome those barriers and to live life without them.

We believe that, just like any other Australian, people with disabilities have a right to take a risk and own their own destiny. We know that when we come into contact with people with disabilities or if we are people with disabilities ourselves, we will be making critical decisions – what you wear, where you live, where you work – sometimes with the support of advocates for the first time.

And we believe it is both their right and it is critically important that they can make those decisions and not just be presented with limited or no options.

Even though in some cases they may make the wrong decisions, we believe they should have a broader choice and the right to make those decisions in the same way as everyone else. Taking the choice of (inaudible) is denying people with disabilities our rights.

So we are in the forefront of creating opportunities for people with disabilities and we know that if we don’t facilitate those options, the right to take those risks and fail, it is unlikely that anyone else will do so. We know that if people don’t succeed, our job is to figuratively, as advocates, help them up, brush them off and help them again.

We know that if we don’t see potential and advocate for it, there is little chance of changing other people’s attitudes. So we have to recognise the skills needed to maximise that success. That is what advocacy is all about. Having a can-do approach and finding a way to remove those barriers.

So you don’t need me to motivate you. You would have to be some of the most motivated people that I know to continue with those sorts of challenges. There are many different ways and forms of advocacy. You know more about them than I do, although I have been in the area for a while.

Let’s look at just one story on a DVD from the ’20 Years, 20 Stories’ series, made when I was at the Human Rights Commission. You can see more of the stories in the Reel Zone.

I want to show you the story because it illustrates two contrasting advocacy styles. It is called ‘Room for Change’.

So, there we go. Two different styles of advocacy, one through Twitter, one through lodging a complaint to the Human Rights Commission. Good story on how we can benefit society, not just ourselves, but for all people.

Rather than letting us rest on our laurels, I want us to continue to find those barriers and work with people with a disability to overcome those barriers.

When I was young many people told me I could not be a lawyer, and many others would not give me a job. My first job as a qualified lawyer, having finished university with a law degree, was to answer the telephone and tell people the winning lotto numbers. Because you need a law degree to do that.

I was made redundant from that job via an answering machine.

People who advocated for me all these years ago knew that I could. I cannot imagine my life if I had not taken the risks to get where I am today. I cannot imagine as a society diminished because it lacks the contributions from people from all walks of life.

Thanks to the work you do to give people with a disability chances and encouragement that I was given all those years ago – that’s really what advocacy is. You should use this conference to hone your skills and replenish your initiative.

Advocacy and barrier removal needs all the energy and skills we can muster. You should continue to work hard to provide opportunities for the people for whom we advocate.

Don’t be stopped by thinking that one individual cannot make a difference. The reality is that it is only the individuals that ever do make a difference.

Encourage and work with people with a disability to remove those barriers, grasp opportunities, live on the edge and throw that glitter into the air.

Thank you for the chance to speak to you this morning.


I am happy to answer any questions. Our volunteers with microphones will come around – so, if you put your hand up. I look forward to your questions

I have a question about when you wake up of a morning. My answer is that the great thing about waking up in the morning would be to feed my pet cat.

I had a cat wake me up this morning. I was staying in someone else’s house. I much prefer coffee to cats (Laughs), but thanks for that. Any other questions? We will just get a microphone for you.

Michelle Stephens here from Deafblind Victoria. I feel that for the deafblind community in other parts of Australia, advocacy would be 40 to 50 years behind many other groups of disabled people.

I fear how watered down NDIS is eventually going to be. This government wants to cut, cut, cut. What we should say to a government is take away your hearing, your sight, cut off your legs and be in a wheelchair and see how you fare.

If you look at how the NDIS was piloted through the last budget, I think it fared pretty well. It hasn’t been cut yet. I think there is a commitment to the NDIS and I am feeling optimistic. I think we have a good and a supportive minister in Mitch Fifield. I think they are working hard to keep the Commonwealth Government honest but there are things that need to be addressed.

You are right, the disability sector has had a tough go after the budget. I saw this weekend that the biggest impact of the budget has been on the poorest people. I wasn’t surprised to read that, but it was interesting to see the economic elements around it.

Our task as advocates has increased and we just have to keep working at it. Thank you.

I am Greg (inaudible), when I joined up. We came down for (inaudible) tonight so (inaudible) needs. Also, the (inaudible) group, then we support everyone around the community.

That’s fantastic, that is what we need, that kind of advocacy in the country, to pursue those issues. All those ’20 Years, 20 Stories’ illustrate how people can change their lives and the lives of others.

My question relates to the film we have just watched. When I have put in complaints to the Human Rights Commission, you find you get them to change one change room, but if you have to visit that same store in another suburb, you run into the same problem.

I was just wondering whether the Commission, when someone puts in a complaint against a big store like Target, Kmart, they have built all their change rooms the same, which means wheelchairs don’t fit in in any stores.

They need to make sweeping changes, not just one store at a time.

There are a couple of tips I would give you: don’t get caught up in this business of complaints being confidential. What you should do, the date you lodge a complaint, put out a media release saying you have lodged a complaint and who it is against.

When they come to you in the conciliation, and say they are prepared to settle, but that they want it to be confidential, you can say, oh, sorry, the complaint is on the public record because you have put out a media release.

It is probably better if you can say you have settled the complaint. If you have lodged it against a chain store, or group of department stores, you should ask that it not be fixed just in that store, but change should be made to make them accessible in all stores.

If you start your negotiations from that point, it will make a difference.

LIZ WRIGHT: I am wondering how the discrimination portfolio, that covers many things, how are Disability Discrimination issues going to look from now into the future?

I am a great fan of Susan as well, she is a great Age Discrimination Commissioner, the reality is she cannot manage it. I could not with (inaudible) knowledge of the disability sector – there were many things I could not do. The short answer is, she cannot manage it.

(Inaudible) experience as a result of the budget. There is one thing we, as advocates, that we can do which is knock on the door of our local MP, from whichever party they are from, and tell them that the Disability Discrimination Commissioner position has been downgraded, what are you going to do about that?

When they receive a visit, someone who asks for appointment, that is regarded as 1000 people. It is a very powerful thing to do. I would encourage you, as far as possible, to do that, because that is the only way that issue will be addressed.

Thank you again for the chance to speak to you this morning. I will be here for much of today, with a Q&A later on. I look forward to catching up with you. Thank you very much.


Thank you, Graeme, that was, as always, fantastic – you are great role model for all of us who work in advocacy.

Human Rights


Strengthening Disability Advocacy Conference

Date published:
Mon 20th Oct, 2014