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Finding a Way by Graeme Innes

Kevin Bain reviews human rights activist and former Deputy Human Rights Commissioner Graeme Innes AM's autobiography, 'Finding a Way'.

No sight, great vision

THIS WAS THE ELECTION SLOGAN for Tony Clark, a blind candidate for the ALP in the recent federal election.

It’s no surprise that lesser-sighted people will use their other senses to greater effect to “find a way” as Graeme Innes AM puts it in his autobiography.

The capacity for greater awareness and resourcefulness is probably not so obvious, yet often seen in this book. For a reflective person, overcoming challenges and being aware of systemic deficits no doubt helps with “the vision thing”.

Innes has the public persona of a quiet man but he packs a punch in his achievements. These include the Disability Discrimination Act 1992, his running of the Same-sex: Same Entitlements Inquiry and Australia’s ratification of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, in a wide range of roles at the Human Rights Commission and membership of the Social Security Appeals Tribunal. (He resigned from the latter after punitive and unfair rules came in.)

At State level, Innes has worked in consumer, equal opportunity and residential tenancy tribunals, and led the non-government sector, directing the merger of four blindness agencies to form Vision Australia and becoming its first chair.

Innes' book is easy reading, a folksy story about a boy born blind into a suburban Sydney family who gave him room to develop and the self-confidence to stand up for himself and get involved in everything. His early work as an activist underlines the important role-modelling and mentoring of the support and advocacy organisations such as Blind Citizens Australia which gave him management and leadership experience.

He carried those skills and attitudes into later official positions, where Innes knew he needed an intimate understanding of how the issues affected people and a preparedness to campaign and use the media. When appointed to the Human Rights Commission, he networked constantly and built relationships as broadly as possible but there were still times when he felt activism was necessary.

In his speeches as Deputy Human Rights Commissioner, Innes was sure to publicise the Sydney Olympics committee payment of $20,000 in damages to a claimant for not making their website accessible to people unable to read print — a decision which created waves in the corporate world.

Innes is well-known in Sydney for his campaign over decades to get RailCorp (Sydney Rail) to complement the information they issue through signs and screens with similar information to less-sighted people. The tangible benefits are savings on taxi fares, and reduced exclusion from the rest of the population creating that virtuous circle whereby disability morphs into its acceptable face of diversity. Despite RailCorp’s promises in 1983, 1992, 2002 and 2007, it didn’t happen until a 2013 court judgement, after Innes lodged complaints in large numbers and used the media against them. The market for disability support is a large and growing one, and, as Innes says, access is now widely seen by business as a strategic activity.

But there are slow learners. Myer chief Bernie Brookes shocked many when he said the 0.5 per cent increase to the Medicare levy to fund NDIS would be better spent on consumer sales. It transpired that Woolworths, IBM, Telstra, the banks and Coles had a disability employment policy but Myer didn’t, so Innes started a campaign at change.org. This conflict with a major business probably led to his rough treatment from the Abbott Government which, without notice to him, abolished the Disability Discrimination Commissioner after 20 years, the 2014 Budget papers saying this 'will achieve efficiencies within the Human Rights Commission'.

There’s forthright inside commentary here about the personalities and trials of government and politics – the sausage making we call the legislative process – and his aspirations for people with disabilities. The “invisibility cloak” he talks about – where the waiter/shopkeeper/taxi driver talks to the person with him (or his dog!) – is a constant reminder of how silly the rest of us can be, although he observes that sometimes he doesn’t get presented with the bill!

The National Disability Insurance Scheme has many parents and Innes charts the personalities and events which led to broad community support and now its implementation. System deficits often have to be forced to adapt and people not affected have to see and learn one at a time. I have no doubt the earlier mainstreaming of disabled children out of schools and residential institutions has contributed to the acceptance of the NDIS: familiarity and empathy with disabled people comes through physical proximity as the fear melts away.

There’s also reflections here on life and love, sport and humour — and the little tricks and shortcuts an unsighted person applies to daily events. The best story is about him sitting on a plane next to Brendan Nelson, the former federal leader of the Opposition. Nelson was trying to write a speech and asked to borrow his pen, which Innes uses for signing documents.

Hence the riposte:

'Keep that one Minister, and you can tell your audience tonight that you wrote your speech with a blind man’s pen.'

Buy this book and get Graeme’s insights and a good laugh as well.

Finding a Way, Graeme Innes, UQP Press, 2016 (RRP $29.99) is available here.

Note: Graeme Innes is delivering the 2016 Mornington Human Rights Oration on 9 December — all welcome.

Kevin Bain is an economic analyst and teacher. He is active in housing and refugee advocacy and a member of the Mornington Peninsula Human Rights Group

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Australia License

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