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Thursday, 12 February 2009
Page: 1136

Mr ZAPPIA (11:36 AM) —I rise to speak in support of the Disability Discrimination and Other Human Rights Legislation Amendment Bill 2008. I do so with a great deal of pleasure because this is a matter that should have been brought to this parliament some time ago. It is interesting that once again we are dealing with legislation which was recommended in reports of some four or five years ago but that was never brought into the parliament. That seems to be the pattern for a number of the pieces of legislation that we have dealt with this week.

Like those previous bills that I referred to, this is a bill that is long overdue. It is a bill that goes some way towards ensuring that Australia’s laws in respect of the way we deal with and treat people with disabilities are consistent with our human rights obligations under a number of international laws which we are signatories to and under laws that have been enacted in this country to ensure that there is going to be equality amongst all people of this land. Interestingly, I believe the bill very clearly differentiates between the Rudd Labor government and the previous Liberal government and members opposite because this is a bill about equality and supporting those people who are somewhat disadvantaged. It philosophically highlights the difference—that this is a government which cares about people who are disadvantaged and people who are doing it hard.

We know that those people who, for one reason or another, have a disability have a much more difficult life to live. We know that roughly one in five people in society have a disability of one kind or another and, of those, there are some 1.2 million who I would refer to as people who have a serious and severe disability. Of course people with disabilities can be put into different categories because there are different levels of disability relating to individuals. Some, obviously, have physical disabilities, others have mental disabilities and some have a combination of both, or other health issues that cause them to have a disability. It is undoubtedly—no one would deny this—one of the most difficult and complex areas to deal with. But, having said that, we have an obligation as representatives of those people to do whatever we can to make their lives just a little easier.

I can speak with some personal experience about the issues raised in this bill. In the past I have had to comply with building requirements and ensure that buildings were consistent with access provisions for people with disabilities. I am well aware of the additional costs that are often incurred. Sometimes people may ask why they should have to incur those costs for the sake of so few people who may use their facility. But having expended the money and then seen the people come through the premises which I operated I came to appreciate why it was necessary for me to have incurred those costs. I do understand that burden.

I also understand the burden on employers with respect to meeting the requirements placed upon them to ensure they do not discriminate against people with disabilities in any way. I have been in that position, and I look back now and can well understand, appreciate and support the provisions in all forms of legislation which ensure that people should not be discriminated against in any way, shape or form. I will come back to that a bit later.

I can also understand the importance of this legislation from a government point of view. Some years ago—in fact it was probably about 10 years ago now—the City of Salisbury showed some leadership by establishing a wide community consultation process in order to develop a disability discrimination policy for the city. At the time I was the mayor and I attended all the community consultation sessions. I listened carefully to all the views that were put to us by a very broad section of the community. Subsequently, we did develop a policy and, more importantly, we developed an ongoing advisory committee made up of people who collectively had a range of disabilities and who advised the council of the day about policy matters that the council should involve itself in. In particular, it advised the council on a broad range of measures and areas where council should expend funds. Again, I understand the burden placed on governments in trying to ensure that funds are spent so that people with disabilities are not left out. That committee stands to this day and continues to advise the council. I am well aware that it did require not only an incredible effort by the local community and the council of the day but also an ongoing financial commitment by the council. Each year that council sets aside a certain amount of money in order to gradually work through the buildings, the roads, the footpaths and the playgrounds that it wants to modify and adapt in order to ensure that people with disabilities are not in any way left out.

An example of that approach can be seen in some of the work that has taken place. One of the issues that people with disabilities quite often face is public transport. If someone wants to get on a bus or a train and go to a particular destination, the facilities provided to enable the person to get from the platform into the bus or train are, in most cases, inadequate. If you have provisions which say, for example, that the government of the day ought to ensure that all of those facilities are adequate then you suddenly start to understand the quantum of dollars that are required in order to make all of those bus shelters and train platforms comply with what is required. But you begin the process, and that is the important thing. It is not a question of saying, ‘As from tomorrow, this is what ought to be in place in all places’, but it is important that you begin the process. That is exactly what happened in the City of Salisbury.

An interesting thing, and one of the last things that I was personally involved with before I was elected to this place, was the development of the first ever playground for children with disabilities in the city of Salisbury. We take it for granted that parents can just take their children out to a playground and the children can enjoy the use of the facilities that are there. But if you have a child with a disability—and the disability could take many forms—those common community services and facilities which the rest of society takes for granted are simply not there. So we established a playground specifically designed to cater for children who had disabilities and their parents, and I have to say that it was one of the proudest moments of my time as Mayor of the City of Salisbury.

I go back to what I said earlier in respect of my personal experience in developing premises and then operating and managing them and their use by people with disabilities. The premises I refer to were in fact a fitness centre, and one of the services that we offered was a rehabilitation service for people with disabilities. I came across a whole range of people with a diverse range of disabilities, and in doing so you get to understand what the life of these people must be like. And you get to understand how what we take for granted when we do not have a disability makes their life so much different.

As a result of that, my eyes were opened not only to what could and should be done but to the level of undercommitment by communities generally in trying to assist these people. It is often said that the way we treat our most disadvantaged is a measure of ourselves as people, and there is no question at all that people with disabilities are one of the groups that are disadvantaged. That is not to say that they do not have opportunities and that they do not live full lives in a different form, but they cannot often live the kinds of lives that the rest of us who might be considered to have normal lives do.

The particular people I want to speak on behalf of today are the carers of people with disabilities. I say that because I have witnessed and spoken to—including not very long ago—carers who look after persons with disability, and you start to understand that, when you assume that responsibility and that role, you become a 24-hour per day, seven-day a week, 12-month a year carer for the person. There is no relief unless someone, in some way, helps you to get that relief. One of the things I welcome and would like to see more of is services being provided to ensure that carers are given some sort of relief from that ongoing obligation. I know that there are some services in place and that there is a lot of good community work being done and a number of good community organisations that provide that kind of respite for carers. But, again, it is not enough.

When you consider that it is not just the person with the disability whose life is restricted but also the carer’s, you start to understand why it is so important that we do something for them. It is not just the one person. For every person with a disability, there is every likelihood that there are a number of others who equally have to live an entirely different kind of life. One of the things I have noticed about both people with disabilities and their carers is that they never complain. What they tend to do is make the most of the life they have, and they are grateful for whatever opportunities they do have. It really gives you a great deal of respect for them.

This bill raises a number of matters, and I want to briefly talk about those matters. It talks about the issue of age and removing the dominant reason test. If someone is discriminated against on the basis of having a disability and also of being of a particular age, the age, which, in the past, would have been the dominant reason, should no longer apply. This is a welcome removal of that provision which, quite frankly, should never have been in there in the first place. About so many changes made to legislation that I see in this place I often ask the question: why was it ever there?

Some of the other measures relate to a disability which may exist in the future. I use the term ‘including because of a genetic predisposition’. I know other speakers have raised this matter as well. Again, I welcome the amendment to the act, which removes any doubt about the interpretation of this matter. The other definition that will be made a lot clearer as a result of the provisions in this bill is the definition relating to behaviour that is a symptom or manifestation of the disability. Again, I ask the question: why was this not made clearer in the original legislation? I suppose so much legislation is drafted with every good intention and it is only once different provisions of them are challenged in the courts that one realises that they need to be amended in order to have the intent of the bill being practised.

The change that I will pay a little bit more attention to is the recommendation of the Productivity Commission in respect of reasonable adjustments for a person with a disability. I guess the question of ‘reasonable adjustments’ will always be contentious, and the word ‘reasonable’ itself is very subjective. And it is a fair area to have some debate and discussion about. I go back to what I said earlier in terms of my own experience, whether in the area of local government or in running my own business. There are demands placed on you and you have to, at some point in time, ask the question: is that reasonable or is it unreasonable? And I would like to think that the amendment put forward by the Productivity Commission brings a degree of fairness to both sides of the argument. Like any provision in any bill, we will have to wait and see whether it is ever tested in the courts. But, again, if we can make it as clear as possible for all parties, I think it will be a step forward.

The criteria determining unjustifiable hardship are expanded and, again, I welcome that because, again, you come back to issues which are subjective, as the phrase ‘unjustifiable hardship’ is. But, again, anything that can clarify and remove doubt on that is not only good for the person with a disability and for their family but also good for the rest of society because, whether they are employers or other people in the community, they know where they stand.

The last matter in the bill that I will briefly touch on is the issue of associates or assistance animals. There have been many cases, including some in my own state of South Australia, where people have been discriminated against not because of their own personal disability or their own ability but rather because they had an assistance animal or they were with a person with a disability and therefore created a degree of discomfort either to others or a service provider or a person who ran or owned an establishment. Sadly, that is common behaviour amongst humans—human beings quite often tend not to want to get involved with someone with a disability. Again, the clarification of this issue within the bill is absolutely important.

The last point I will make is this: one of the areas of disability which I have some real concerns about and which is not particularly clarified in this bill but which I bring to the attention of this House is the issue relating to the education of children with disabilities. Children with disabilities quite often find it very difficult to access a school that has the services that they require. But, more importantly, not all schools are able to provide services for children with a range of disabilities; they simply do not have the resources. It seems to me that, quite often, these children, for all the disability they might have, might well still be able to get the best out of their schooling if the services were just that little bit more appropriate. And I know that probably all schools do their best to ensure that they provide education to children with disabilities to the best of their ability. But I believe it is an area that we as a society, as a state and as a nation can do more in. It is a matter that I will be pursuing through other quarters. It is a matter that we raised through the House Standing Committee on Education and Training, and it is a matter on which I am in discussions with both government ministers and some of the local schools in my area. In closing, I will say this on the schools that I have had discussions with on this matter: I commend them for acknowledging the problem of children with disabilities and the problems the parents face, and for the terrific work they are doing to try to respond to them. I commend this bill to the House.