'Brick wall' facing Aust disability rights

·3-min read

Disabled people and their representatives are facing a "brick wall" in advocating for their human rights because a UN convention Australia has ratified is yet to be properly implemented into legislation, the disability royal commission has heard.

The two-day hearing is examining how the UN's Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities is implemented in Australian law.

People with Disability Australia senior policy officer Frances Quan Farrant says the UN convention provides a benchmark but is also "just the beginning".

She says the organisation refers "to it constantly" but it becomes "more of an education exercise" when used for individual advocacy "because the CRPD has not been fully implemented" in the law.

"We are faced with barriers because we have got these interpretive declarations which no one has any appetite to remove," Ms Quan Farrant says.

"If we don't have it in the law, we can't operationalise it, we are just faced with a brick wall."

Senior counsel assisting the royal commission Kate Eastman SC said before the Australian government reports to the CRPD committee on its implementation, it receives a "shadow report" from disability advocacy groups.

First Peoples Disability Network chief executive officer Damian Griffis led the delegation that delivered the government its most recent shadow report, which involved "significant coordination" by advocates and organisations to identify issues to take to the committee.

He says the work is "not resourced" and does "take quite a commitment on the part of all the organisations".

Mr Griffis said the UN committee was "very disappointed, in fact you could argue quite scathing in terms of the lack of progress on a couple issues in particular" when delivering its most recent concluding observations.

Those issues included the indefinite detention of First Nations people with disability in Australian prisons, where Mr Griffis said there had been no progress.

There was also "significant commentary" on the lack of progress on the sterilisation of women and girls and about the way organisations representing the disabled are structured and funded.

He said a lack of Indigenous voices was to blame for there being no specific article on the rights of disabled Indigenous people in the CRPD, and although this is being "increasingly recognised" his organisation "worry that is still a shortcoming of the convention".

Mr Griffis said there is a "very serious lack of awareness" about the the convention and educating community members about their rights is a priority for his organisation.

He said there needs to be greater capacity for advocates to get to regional and remote areas.

"The situation for many First Nations people with disability in regional and remote Australia, to be blunt, is one of abject poverty," Mr Griffis said.

He suggests elevating disability rights through a similar mechanism to the Closing The Gap strategy.

"Even though we can certainly critique it, at the very least one day in every year the prime minister has to elevate Indigenous rights, it's on the national agenda," Mr Griffis said.

"Something like that, in consultation with people with disability and their representative organisations really has merit as a way to get more focus on disability rights."

Earlier on Monday, Equality Lawyers founder and principal lawyer Natalie Ward told the hearing "the broader community" does not currently regard ableism as detrimental to the provision of human rights as much as racism and sexism, which "makes it incredibly difficult to defend human rights" for people with disabilities.

Ms Ward says she cannot mount cases based on the UN convention because Australia has not "truly incorporated it into our laws".

UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities chair and UNSW academic Rosemary Kayess told the hearing the country needs "a charter of human rights to ensure they are taken seriously".

The commission will resume on Tuesday, when it will hear from secretaries in the Attorney-General's Department and the Department of Social Services.

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