Graeme Innes: PWDA 30th anniversary speech

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On Saturday 16 July 2011, Graeme Innes AM, Disability Discrimination Commissioner and Race Discrimination Commissioner from the Australian Human Rights Commission made the following speech at PWDA’s 30th anniversary celebration in Sydney.

PWD: Past, present and future

Thanks Uncle Lester for that welcome to country, and I acknowledge the Gadigal people of the Eora nation, the traditional owners of this land.

I also particularly acknowledge all of my sisters and brothers with disability, and those of you who have been fellow-travellers in the cause of advocating the rights of people with disability in the past, present and future. That should pretty much cover off everyone in the room.

I want to take you back in time to 1981. When the hit movies were Raiders of the Lost ArkOn Golden PondArthur and For Your Eyes Only. When hit songs included Kim Carnes’ Bette Davis Eyes, Phil Collins’ In the Air Tonight, Olivia Newton John’s Physical, and Celebration by Kool and the Gang. Salman Rushdie wrote Midnight’s Children, and Peter Carey wrote Bliss. Trevor Chappell bowled that famous under-arm delivery in a one-day game against New Zealand at the MCG, and South Melbourne AFL club moved to Sydney to become the Sydney Swans. It was the International Year of People with Disability, and PWD was born.

Now that the scene is set, let me take you to a garage underneath a block of units in suburban Ashfield in the early 1980s. It’s stacked to the roof, and for all of its length, with 240 cardboard boxes, each containing a dozen bottles of wine. We’re talking grass-roots community organisation fund-raising; $5 from each bottle goes into the bank account of this new organisation, whose members are full of passion and energy for equal rights in society.

Two men with such passion and energy had unloaded the boxes from a truck the day before. Now a guy in a station wagon has his car backed up to the garage, and a very tall man, and a fit young bloke are loading boxes into it so that the deliveries can start.  It was volunteer community action at its best, with the Aussie flavour of a drink for someone at the end of the process, and money to a good cause.

Quite a typical scene, you might say. There was only one key difference; the two guys who unloaded the truck both had intellectual disability, the guy driving the station wagon used a wheelchair, the tall man had epilepsy, and the fit young bloke couldn’t see.

Just in case any of you haven’t guessed, we were all members of what was then the Handicapped Persons’ Alliance, what is now PWD Australia, and it was my garage.  Lucky I couldn’t drive, or there wouldn’t have been enough room to stack the wine.

In thirty years, that fit young bloke has lost his beard, put on a bit of weight (not too much) and his hair colour has changed. But, to go back to that 1981 movie Raiders of the Lost Ark, as Indiana said to Marion when she told him he was not the man she knew ten years ago, “it’s not the years, honey, it’s the mileage.”

And in the same thirty years, PWD has grown from a small organisation of people with disability, passionate and energised by their commitment to equality and full participation in society for people with disability, to an organisation of equally passionate and energised volunteers, backed by an excellent team of paid staff who share that passion and energy. The basic challenges and issues haven’t changed- equality, rights, full participation and equal standing in society. We still don’t aspire to anything more than equal acceptance in Australian society; as someone put it in a memorable speech title some years ago: a flat, a mortgage and a Holden car. Bill Shorten described it several years ago as the last frontier of practical civil rights.

The particular questions change, although many of us here tonight might suggest that underneath they are still the same.

  • Where do we live? In institutions, group homes, with support in the community, or in “congregate facilities”.
  • Where do we work? In sheltered workshops, factory settings, disability enterprises, for most of us not in the labour market at all, or for the lucky ones in a regular job in the community.
  • Where do we learn? In segregated schools, in inclusive education, or at regular schools but in a “special” class.

The challenges for us to achieve equality and full inclusion are still out there. Report after report, the Shut Out report being just one example, show the disadvantage experienced in our society by Australians with disability. Our media, and many of our politicians, spend their time castigating those attempting to take positive action to address climate change, and vilifying the hundreds who — due to terrible persecution in their own countries — seek asylum in ours. But what do we hear about disability issues, and people with disability. We are represented as either heroes or victims, when we want to be seen as people enjoying equal and included lives in the broader community, and as agents of our own destiny.

For such an environment we need strong, committed and long-term advocacy. So, to use a well-known line from television, PWD, thank god you’re here.

I’m going to let those who speak after me talk to you about the details of PWD’s achievements during the last thirty years. And anyway, for many of you, we don’t need to talk about those details, because you were part of them. But can I say this. PWD’s record stands it out as one of, if not the, premier peak advocacy body in this country. It has been notable for its unshakable philosophy, its demonstrable commitment to, and its strategic approach on a broad range of issues in the disability field. Just to mention one, its leadership on gaining support in Australia for ratification of the Convention on the Rights of People with Disability was outstanding. And, as my colleague and friend Professor McCallum will tell us shortly, that Convention will be the foundation stone for achieving equality and inclusion for people with disability not just in Australia, but around the world.

Tonight recognises thirty years of achievement by PWD since 1981. And whilst I’ve talked about the fact that there is still much to do, it’s important to celebrate the progress so far achieved:

  • state and federal disability discrimination legislation
  • state and federal disability services legislation
  • much improved access to public transport– remember that demonstration outside the Eastern Suburbs railway when it was totally inaccessible
  • improved access to buildings, and the premises standard which will take us much further;
  • and of course the convention, just to mention a few.

Some of us might suggest that we recognise such achievement with a glass of a slightly more current vintage than that stored in that Ashfield garage around that time. And I’m sure all of us would be happy to use the words, and sentiments, of Kool and the Gang from their 1981 song:

“There’s a party goin’ on right here,
A celebration to last throughout the years.
So bring your good times, and your laughter too,
We’re gonna celebrate your party with you
Come on now, celebration.”

Thanks for the chance to speak with you tonight.

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