The Commissioner from the West Island…

Australian flagOne of the most engaging speakers at the 2010 New Zealand Diversity Forum was Graeme Innes AM (Member of the Order of Australia), who is currently Australia’s Disability Discrimination Commissioner and Race Discrimination Commissioner.

Mr Innes, who has a sight impairment, spoke of the recent watershed moment in his life when for the first time ever he felt fully included in the democratic process – by being able to cast a vote in the latest Australian elections by secret ballot (over the phone), rather than by having to tell an intermediary.

Shamefully I have to admit that, prior to hearing Mr Innes speak of this, I had never given any thought to how people with such disabilities exercised this fundamental right of democracy.  And this type of revelation is one of the main reasons why I found attending the Forum so rewarding – there is nothing quite like hearing others’ stories to truly begin to not only to understand but to feel what walking in their shoes might be like.

The Commissioner from the “West Island” shared 3 key lessons he has learnt during his almost 30 years as a Human Rights Practitioner:

  • changing laws is not enough: buy-in by stakeholders is essential, as laws can be changed;
  • issues are interrelated: the exclusion of indigenous Australians from hotels and lounges is much the same as the exclusion that women and those with disabilities experience in different settings;
  • “united we stand; divided we fall”: differences are good, but we must not allow ourselves to be “divided and conquered”.

And as Mr Innes reminded us, human rights affect all of us – some 20% of the population will experience disability at some time in their lives, and all of us could be members of a minority group.

Here are some interesting links:

And to finish… a quote from the Human Rights Commission website:

A right is not what someone gives you; it’s what no one can take from you.
Ramsey Clark

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