Friday 22 December 2017


Mr Alastair McEwin, Disability Discrimination Commissioner

You know Christmas is soon coming when shops and malls put up Christmas decorations.  You know Christmas is near when people start talking about what they’re doing over the holiday break.  And you know it’s the festive season when Christmas carols are being played in shops and choirs are singing them in malls and parks.  Drawing on that well-known carol “The Twelve Days of Christmas”, here is what I’d like to see for Christmas and the holiday season for people with disability in Australia.

On the first day of Christmas, my true love sent to me… inclusive education.  Education is one of the pillars of a healthy and resilient society.  Knowledge enables people to have meaningful careers and to make contributions to society.  Yet education is still denied to many people with disability, particularly young children with disability.  We need to see schools and other educational settings strive to adapt teaching methods and materials to enable every child and adult, irrespective of their ability or disability, to learn and thrive.

On the second day of Christmas, my true love sent to me… meaningful careers.  53% of people with disability are in the Australian workforce, compared to 83% of people without disability.  There is a huge untapped pool of talent amongst the population of people with disability.  Yet employers and organisations do not to provide them with the right support to enable them to perform in the workplace.  Our research shows that most adjustments in the workplace are inexpensive and easy to implement.

On the third day of Christmas, my true love sent to me… complete rights.   In March next year we have the 25th anniversary of the Disability Discrimination Act, Australia’s national legislation to prevent discrimination against people with disability.  We have seen progress for disability rights since then, such as the implementation of the National Disability Strategy and the National Disability Insurance Scheme.  Yet people with disability tell me every day of their experiences in trying to access things that many Australians take for granted.  We still have a long way to go to see complete rights for Australians with disability.

On the fourth day of Christmas, my true love sent to me… access to health.  Research has found that people with intellectual disability are twice as likely to die a potentially avoidable death compared to the general population; the research has also shown people with intellectual disability experience many potential risk factors for early death, such as heart problems and high blood pressure.  We need our doctors and health professionals to treat patients with disability in the same way as they would patients without disability – for doctors and health professionals to take the time to listen to their patients with disability and to make adjustments to ensure their patients receive full access to health.

On the fifth day of Christmas, my true love sent to me… an access ramp.  Many buildings are not accessible to those who use wheelchairs and other mobility devices.  This lack of physical access extends far beyond the inability to simply get into a building – it means people with disability are missing out on the services provided within these buildings.  Imagine your doctor has a surgery that is inaccessible; imagine that your workplace is inaccessible.  So access to buildings means far more than just an access ramp – it means access to things like health, employment, education and so on.

On the sixth day of Christmas, my true love sent to me… the NDIS.  The National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) is a ground-breaking system that is designed to provide support to people with disability to lead independent lives in the community.  It is now four years into operation and we have already seen how it has changed life for thousands of people with disability around Australia who are doing things that they never imagined they could do.  Yet we are still experiencing a range of implementation issues, such as a lack of awareness of the NDIS in rural and remote communities, and a lack of a coordinated approach between Commonwealth and State/Territory governments to ensure a person with disability, irrespective of whether they receive an NDIS package or not, can access what they need in the community.

On the seventh day of Christmas, my true love sent to me… accessible housing.  Like education, having a home that is safe, secure and accessible is fundamental to a healthy and resilient society. People with physical disability need housing that they can access from the street, have wide corridors throughout the house for ease of mobility, and with kitchens and bathrooms designed for independent use.  We need to see young people with disability moved out of nursing homes for older people and into homes in the community where they can live independent lives like others of similar age.  Our government needs to pass new laws so new housing is accessible to people with disability.

On the eighth day of Christmas, my true love sent to me… access to justice.  We have a significant problem in Australia: many people with disability experience issues with their interactions with the justice system, in particular the criminal justice system.  People with disability who are poor, disadvantaged, or of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander descent are overrepresented in the prison population.  People with intellectual disability are not provided with appropriate communication support to enable them to understand court proceedings, such as allegations of criminal behaviour.  People with physical disability are in inaccessible corrective services.  And those in prisons requiring specialised health services to manage their chronic illnesses are often denied access.

On the ninth day of Christmas, my true love sent to me… clear information.  Too often we see information, such as government websites, provided in ways that are inaccessible to people who are blind or have low vision, and people with intellectual or cognitive disabilities.  Everyone has the right to information in formats that meet their needs.  We need more information in Easy English and with pictures and symbols.  And we need websites and other online resources that can be used by people who are blind or have low vision.

On the tenth day of Christmas, my true love sent to me… accessible trains.  Every day millions of Australians rely on public transport to get them to school, work, medical appointments and to visit family and friends.  Yet every day thousands of people with disability are unable to use public transport.  Access issues include train stations with only stairs and no lifts, bus timetables that are hard to follow or not user-friendly, and a lack of accessible taxis on Christmas Day due to heavy demand.

On the eleventh day of Christmas, my true love sent to me… a life free of violence.  Research and data tell us that 90% of women with intellectual disability in Australia have been sexually abused.  We need independent oversight systems that ensure a person with disability, no matter where they live or what they do in the community, is safe from being abused or neglected.  And for those who are abused, we need our criminal and civil justice system to provide them with justice.

On the twelfth day of Christmas, my true love sent to me… respect and dignity.
People with disability are, quite simply and fundamentally, human beings like all others.  And they are entitled to respect and dignity like all others.  Yet we constantly see and hear comments in the media and by our leaders that are hurtful and demeaning of people with disability.  In recent months, we have seen our federal politicians make negative comments, such as not wanting a disability parking permit because they have "some pride".  We need our politicians to demonstrate strong leadership and to promote positive attitudes about people with disability to ensure that everyone is treated with respect and dignity.

Alastair McEwin is Australia’s Disability Discrimination Commissioner.