A coffee with… Graeme Innes

Graeme Innes AM is a lawyer, mediator and company director. He was a Commissioner at the Australian Human Rights Commission for nearly ten years, responsible for issues relating to disability, race and human rights. Editor at large of Right Now and HRLC volunteer, Andre Dao, recently had a quick chat with him about what he’s been up to.

What have you been doing since you moved on from the Human Rights Commission last year and how are you finding your new roles?

I’m doing a number of things, but on a voluntary basis I’m chair of Attitude Foundation and the reason that I’m the chair of that organisation is that I know that changing attitudes towards people with disability changes lives. So I’m very keen to lead an organisation that is all about doing that.

What’s one of the main challenges facing people with a disability?

I think the challenge is the negative assumptions that are made about us, because that drives so many decisions that disadvantage us. Forty five percent of us live in poverty, we’re 30 percent less employed than people without disability, and our completion rate of Year 12 is half that of people without disabilities. So we’re significantly disadvantaged.

But if we can change community attitudes so that people don’t think of people with disabilities in that negative way, then all the other decisions that people in the community make about us will be different. It will change our lives, but it will also change the lives of those in the broader community, because we will be able to make a bigger, more effective contribution to the community.

What do you think are the most effective means of changing people’s attitudes towards people with disabilities?

I think the best way to change those attitudes is to tell real life stories about people with disabilities and what we are doing. And that’s what the Attitude Foundation does.

We’re at the moment running a crowdsourcing campaign to fund the first ABC TV program for Attitude, and we’re doing that through our website at www.attitude.org.au. Once we’ve raised the money for that program, then we’ll go to corporates and government and philanthropists to supplement that funding with other funding to make more programs and we aim to have a series on television in the second half of this year.

What did you find most difficult about your role at the Australian Human Rights Commission?

I guess the breadth of challenges that people with disability experience. I’ve outlined some of them, but we experience challenges in terms of access to buildings, access to transport, opportunities to participate in other community activities.

What are you proudest of in your professional career?

I’ve been asked this question a few times and it’s hard to name one thing. I guess I’m proudest of my involvement in the development and implementation of Australia’s disability discrimination legislation, because it’s had such a broad impact on the lives of people with disability and making our lives easier and more effective.

I’m also proud of the case that I ran as an individual against Railcorp in Sydney, to get them to make appropriate announcements on trains because not only has that allowed me to travel on trains more easily but its changed the lives of thousands of other people who either live in or who visit Sydney because it makes their access easier as well. And that was a very tough thing to do. I didn’t do it as Commissioner because I didn’t have that authority, so I had to do it as an individual. And to run a case against a major government department who were prepared to spend more than half a million dollars to defend their position, rather than using that half a million dollars to fix the problem, is quite a scary process. So I was very proud of being able to do that, and very appreciative of the family and broader support that I got in that endeavour.

You can follow both Graeme and Andre on Twitter at @GraemeInnes & @AndreHuyDao