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Fighting For Change In Aviation with Graeme Innes AM

Peta sits down with Graeme Innes AM, a leading disability advocate, lawyer, and former Australia's Disability Discrimination Commissioner. Graeme shares his journey, insights, and tireless efforts to improve accessibility and equality for people with disabilities. 

Graeme's Book Finding A Way:

Connect With Graeme:

Connect with Peta:

Instagram: @petahooke


Episode Transcript:


Peta [00:00:02] Hello and welcome to the I Can't Stand Podcast, the podcast answering a questions about what life is like when you have a disability. My name is Peta. I have cerebral palsy and I'm your host. This week I have Graeme Innes. It's an absolute pleasure and privilege to have him on the podcast today. For me, readingbook changed my life in many ways. But if you don't know who Graeme is, he's a lawyer. He's a company director now, a university chancellor, but he was Australia's disability discrimination commissioner for over ten years. His impact on the disability community and disabled people as a whole cannot be understated. I have to say, I was a little nervous for this podcast episode because it meant so much to me. But Graeme was so lovely and I hope you enjoy listening. So without any further ado, let's get into it.


Graeme [00:01:21] Well. Hello. My name's Graham Innes. I'm a, company director and lawyer. I was Australia's human rights and disability discrimination commissioner for about ten years. Until about ten years ago. So I've been a company director, full time ever since that, time. And I suppose I've been a lifelong, disability advocate. And I'm pleased to be here, Peter.


Peta [00:01:47] I have to say, you were the first disability advocate I ever came across. Graham. I didn't have very much influence from the disability community growing up with somebody with cerebral palsy. I went through mainstream school, and, it was the day I read your book that I felt really seen and understood. So I am so thrilled to have you on the podcast today.


Graeme [00:02:13] Oh, well, thanks, Peta. And that's very generous. And, I, I have had a few conversations with people who've, felt that way and, when they, when they read my book. And that makes it all worthwhile for me.


Peta [00:02:27] I want to start with something very close to my heart, and I'm sure close to your heart as well, Graham. And that's airline accessibility. I know, like me, you've had a few experiences that really highlight how far the industry has to go. So from your perspective, when are we going to get an airline accessibility act? And why do you think it's taking so long for that change to occur?


Graeme [00:02:55] Well, you know, Peta, I'm an optimist. Really, on most things, but this is one where I feel very little optimism. Can I give you the backstory on this issue? Because I think it's, really important to understand.


Peta [00:03:11] Please do.


Graeme [00:03:11] When the, when the disability, Discrimination Act transports standards were, developed. Back in the early part of this century, there were two options for the transport industry to put it in in simplistic terms. One was to make transport vehicles accessible for people with disabilities, make the standard vehicles accessible in the standard process, accessible for people with disabilities. And that's what buses, trams, trains, light rail did. Now, I know those areas of transport are not perfect, but they are way, way better than the airline industry. And that's because they took that course of action. The other course of action that an operator, could take was to develop a separate system for access to, transport. And that's what the airlines did. At the time, all of the disability advocates and the people with disabilities involved with the process encouraged them strongly not to do that. But that's what I did anyway. And it was hard to encourage them too strongly because they didn't really engage much in the, standards process. The, the bus, train and tram and light rail industry did, but airlines just didn't, they, they largely went their own way. The airline industry has persisted with this separate system, which is, less accessible, breaks more often and is really reliant on staff training. And the staff training is, very poor. And as a result, the system fails regularly. And the only way we will get, accessible airline transport is for bureaucrats and politicians to step up and say, okay, this is not good enough. The way people with disabilities are treated in this area. And we want to enact an airline accessibility piece of legislation similar to what they have in the United States and Europe. And then when that happens, we can work with government. And we can, as people with disabilities, explain the things that would need to change so that the system would have become accessible to us because the airlines have proved over the years they're not prepared to do that. I'm sorry. That's a long answer, Peta, but, that's that's where that one sits.


Peta [00:05:57] Well, it's a very complicated issue that's close to many of our hearts that I think deserves a long answer. Inherently, I think there's a belief from my perspective that using aviation isn't a human right, and it's somewhat seen as a luxury. And I really do hope that in the future, disabled people get the same right to travel in a dignified way as everybody else.


Graeme [00:06:28] Yeah, well, because it's it's not a human right, technically travelling by air, although I suppose there's an argument that it's covered by the convention on the Rights of People with disabilities. The freedom of movement, provisions, would cover it. So. So I'm not quite right in saying that. We have, what I can only describe as airline apartheid, where they use the Disability Discrimination Act and some very conservative judges on the federal court to justify the two airline policy. I'm sure you're aware of this, Peta, but, your listeners might not be, but which which says that if two people, in wheelchairs, turn up for a flight and then a third one arrives, even though they've booked, even though they've paid, even though they've made all the arrangements. They won't be carried on that flight. The other ludicrous one. Just to give you one more, example is the fact that, airports are now, where there are no air bridges, installing ramps rather than stairs, which is fantastic for all those people who have wheelie suitcases who can wheel them onto the planes, but they won't let people with wheelchairs use those ramps. So so the facility is there, but, we're barred from using it now. You know, those are the first two things that just need to be fixed straight away.


Peta [00:07:59] Why are you so passionate about equality of the aviation industry in particular, Graham?


Graeme [00:08:06] I'm not necessarily passionate about the airline industry any more than I am about any other industry. Peta. It's just that this one is such an egregious example of, of discrimination, by the industry as a whole. That's probably why I'm passionate about it. In most other industries, even though they're not perfect, you see much greater efforts to make the industry accessible and I'm prepared to reward, industry for that effort. Doesn't mean I won't criticise them if they don't do the job properly, but I will compliment them on the work they've done. Airlines have really done as little as they can and excluded us as much as they can.


Peta [00:08:50] Yes, I totally agree. I feel like something happens every week to somebody with a disability across the world. And it really needs to be fixed. And I commend the people that have been working so hard in the past to try and get this done. But it really is, as you say, really just flattening to think that after all this work and all your explaining and trying to be as gracious as possible, educating and then getting angry and trying another way, regardless of what we do, it doesn't seem to be working. And for them to value us as customers.


Graeme [00:09:32] To the only people who can change it around politicians, the industry won't change. I've made that very clear. The only people who can change this are our politicians and and we should be talking to them. And all of us should be talking to our local politicians and saying, what are you going to do about this?


Peta [00:09:50] I understand early in your career you worked for Qantas, and now I commend you for working in this space. What was it like to work for an organisation that doesn't understand what it's like to have a disability?


Graeme [00:10:06] Well, I did work for Qantas. I was part of a scheme where the government paid a, for two year, a contract for person to work for organisations for two years to improve their accessibility. This was back in 93, 94. So the government paid my salary effectively. And I was put into to Qantas. And I went there with the high hope of, being able to make the airline, more accessible. But I was largely unsuccessful despite my efforts. We made a few changes around the edges but, there was no real commitment at senior levels of the company. To make the airline accessible. The people who I worked for and reported to in the equal opportunity area, they were very keen to improve access in the airlines, but and more so in your ranks in the airlines, there was there was just no commit  and after two years the money ran out. And my, my work ran out.


Peta [00:11:13] You're a very accomplished person today. Of course. And you were then as well. But how did you deal with the mental health repercussions of, you know, trying so hard as you did to work with an organisation to improve their in their practices? And, you know, let's be frank, the be more profitable if they serviced disabled people in a more equitable and fair way. How did you go when you finished that position, knowing full well that you weren't as successful as you were hoping to be?


Graeme [00:11:52] I mean, I guess I'm, I was encouraged and supported by my family to to be, quite resilient. It hadn't been my most successful area of endeavour, but, I had others that were successful, and, and so I knew that it wasn't me, that it was the organisation to whom I was working. Interestingly, what, while I was working, or just before I started working with Qantas, the Disability Discrimination Act was passed by the federal parliament while I was chair of the of Australia's Disability Advisory Council. So the government body advising government on disability issues, and I could see the progress in other areas because of the passage of that act. And so I suppose I just devoted myself to, to working in those other areas. And, that doesn't mean I gave up on airline access. I've still, continue to work hard to, to achieve it, but I just recognised that airlines were a failure at that point for people with disabilities. Sadly, that's continued to be the case.


Peta [00:13:05] It doesn't surprise me at all that you have that resilient quality, even back then and probably, for many years before that as well. For many people with disabilities, maintaining and finding a job is just so difficult. And it shouldn't be the case. Talk to me about your work now on the board of Job Life.


Graeme [00:13:28] I had worked with a lot of job agencies prior to my time, on the job life board. I knew the difference that having a job made for people with disabilities not just Peta, the economic difference of, of getting, money in your in your bank account through a pay packet. But also the social difference, because you know that whenever you go to a barbecue or social outing, and you're meeting people for the first time, the first question you're asked is, what do you do? And so having a job gave people with disabilities, a far more a positive or well regarded, social status. I knew how important it was. Myself, as a person with a disability, having a job and contributing to the community. And I wanted to, maximise the number of people that I was able to enable to, to get employment. And that's what job life was all about. When I was on the board.


Peta [00:14:30] Why do you think there's still a culture today where payment for work is not necessarily a given for somebody with a disability? I mean, just speaking for myself, you know, I'm in my mid-thirties, I've been working for a long time. I'm educated, and yet people still approach me from reputable organisations and, you know, offer vouchers for my time. Why do you think there's still such a resistance to properly pay disabled people for their skill and expertise?


Graeme [00:15:09] In Australia. We as a community, and I'm talking here about the whole Australian community have a very negative and limiting view of people with disabilities. We make a whole lot of assumptions about people with disabilities. Most of those assumptions are negative or limiting and most of those assumptions are wrong. And I call that the soft bigotry of low expectations. So our life experience is not seen as a valuable skill set. This is one of the things that I've worked very hard to change. And, I do actually think it is changing and that fewer organisations, now expect us to work for low or no wages. Although that's not true of, sheltered workshops or factory settings or whatever we euphemistically call them now, they're still sheltered workshops when some of them are only paying people 1 or $2 an hour. But many organisations now recognise that people with disabilities, particularly who've been, advocates, bring a level of expertise and that that expertise has value. And so now, the National Disability Insurance Agency, and federal government and state governments, are now recognising this, and they are paying people with disabilities, for their, for their expertise. But, we still haven't completely won that argument. We've still got some way to go. But, I think we're doing a lot better than we were.


Peta [00:16:43] I certainly hope so. I think everybody deserves to be paid for their time. Yeah, unquestionably. If if we're sitting here and there's somebody listening who maybe is a bit younger, who's just started their career, who has a disability. Do you have any advice for them on how to manage that tricky balance of taking on free work, and also knowing when to value their expertise and actually advocating for themselves and saying, you know what? On this occasion, I'm not going to accept your, your, opportunity without payment.


Graeme [00:17:22] For people with disabilities starting in the employment market. The sad advice that I have is, that you're starting from, behind scratch or from behind the eight ball. We are employed at a rate 30% less than the general population. And when we are employed, we are employed in lower level positions, and we're not given the opportunities for advancement or promotion in the same way as other people. it is improving, but we've still got a long way to go. I think people need, Peta to call that issue of payment out right from the start and say, look, just as any other consultant would do, I'm prepared to give you some limited, input or advice at no cost. But, my services are valuable, as valuable as anyone else's. And if you really recognise, the value of my services, then you should remunerate me appropriately. And I think the best time to have that conversation is right at the start and say, look, I will do this particular gig, at no cost because, you know, you've asked me to do it, and you clearly think I would do it appropriately. But you need to understand that the, the quid pro quo, if you like, is that, I'll be remunerated in, in the future. If organisations, as they sometimes do, say, well, we don't have the, we don't have the money to pay you. My response is, Will, how is it that you've got the money to pay your CEO?, how is it that you've got the money to pay your, chief operating officer or your chief financial officer or the people who are providing the services? How is that different? What's the basis of the distinction that you're making? And, when you start, questioning that, it will come down to the fact that the person is a person with a disability. And so the message that the organisation is sending is that disability people with disabilities are, less valued than others in the community.


Peta [00:19:37] For those of us who are living a disabled life. Do you have any advice on how we can best effect positive change? I feel like, you know, whether it's something like the aviation industry or another political issue or the right for good employment or good education for disabled people, it can be quite demoralising to see the very, very slow progress of change. And I also think many of us live in an echo chamber in the disability community that already agree with our perspective and opinion. But what I'm really keen to ask you, Graeme, is how do we reach people that don't agree with us?


Graeme [00:20:20] I think by, making clear in a polite, positive and friendly manner the challenge that a barrier in society causes us. So if you go to your local, shopping centre or, you know, shops, precinct, and you can't get into a particular shop because there's a step at the front door, or a particular shop has got their goods out on the footpath in a way that makes it hard for you to walk along that footpath tell the shop owner about it in a really positive, way. Send them an email or ring them up and say, I'd love to come and, transact business in your shop, but I can't really get in there or, it's very difficult for me to do so. Or, your shop has a lot of strobe lighting, and as a person who's neurodivergent. That's that's a problem for me. So I think highlighting the challenges that we face, with people, is really important. Now. You know, that's hard work. I'm not suggesting it's easy. It's hard work to be spending our lives raising issues. But, you know, I've learned over the years for people who are prepared to make change. Feedback is a gift. Because if they know that there's a problem that's being caused, and they, they have the way to, to fix it, then then most people will do that if they're made aware of it. And the second thing I would say, Peta, is don't think that something that you want changed is not important enough. It really is. And every little incremental change that you make, will not only benefit you, but there will be a whole lot of other people, out there with or without disabilities, who it will also benefit. You know, you think about kerb ramps, how, getting a kerb ramp outside a particular building, might benefit one particular person who lodged a complaint, but there'll be 20 other people that use that kerb ramp. There'll be a whole lot of parents with prams, a whole lot of people with wheelie bags. A whole lot of couriers carrying luggage on trolleys will benefit from that. So, access for people with disabilities is exponentially valuable. And the little changes that you can make, can make a big difference to a lot of people.


Peta [00:22:50] Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me today, Graeme. It's been such a pleasure. I have one final question for you, and I'm very keen to hear your answer, because I feel like you're a very thoughtful and reflective person. And I'm just really keen to hear what you have to say. So what do you hope the future will be like for people with disabilities?


Graeme [00:23:14] I have a view of a future where, you know, the, the news reader will come on the television and will comment about the, the colour of their hair rather than their disability, where people in senior roles, would be, people will be members of Parliament who are leaders of commercial organisations and leaders of, of government will be people with disabilities. And that, people in the community won't be surprised by that as they are now, but it will just be taken as the norm in the same way that, women and people of diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds are now playing more of a role in society. We have far few and far greater number of women in our Parliament now, and that's a great thing because we benefit from that diversity. We have more and more people from different backgrounds in our parliament. But you know what? We've really only got one person in our Parliament at the moment in our federal Parliament that I'm aware of, who identifies as a person with a disability. Well, we're 20% of the population, so there's more than 100 members of Parliament. That should be, you know, 20 of us. You know, getting those changes that that's where I see the future going, where disability is just viewed as part of the human condition, not as negatively or, in a limiting way. And what that will mean is that all of the barriers that are there for us in society now, will have been removed or reduced.


Peta [00:24:50] Thank you for listening to this week's episode. I hope you enjoyed it. If you did, can I encourage you to leave a rating and review on Apple or Spotify, or share the show with a friend? You can also follow me over on Instagram. My handle is at @petahooke. Thank you so much for listening. And until next week. Have a good one guys. Bye. I would like to respectfully acknowledge the Wurundjeri people and Bunurong people of the Kulin Nation.n, of which I record the podcast today. And I pay my respects to both elders, past and present, along with and especially to those in the First Nations communities who are disabled themselves.



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