30 years of the Disability Discrimination Act – a Deafblind perspective

2022 marks the 30-year anniversary of the Disability Discrimination Act 1992 (DDA). To commemorate this occasion, and to reflect on the successes and failures of the DDA, the City of Melbourne put on a forum at the Melbourne Town Hall on 24th Nov. This forum included a presentation by Heather Lawson from Deafblind Victoria on a panel discussion titled 1992 – 2022: What’s Changed?

Heather presented the history of Deafblind Victoria as a self-advocacy group run by Deafblind people, and the gap between grass-roots self-advocacy and laws and regulations. Despite experiencing discrimination almost every day, in all areas of life, Deafblind people are mostly unaware of the DDA and do not use it. We typically have low English literacy, little knowledge of the law, and lack of support to engage with legal processes. This can be addressed by building knowledge and confidence for Deafblind people to become self-advocates, by strengthening the Deafblind community as a place of mutual aid and support, and by including Deafblind people when developing laws and regulations. This other work can make the DDA more effective.


MC (Amanda Lawrie-Jones): I’d like to introduce Heather Lawson from Deafblind Victoria and her interpreters. Welcome Natalie and Amber and Heather. Heather has worked hard to increase community awareness of barriers and solutions for people who are both deaf and blind. I would also like to acknowledge throughout Heather’s discussion that there may be a delay in regards to interpreting so please be patient. Heather, if you would like to share with us… 

Heather Lawson:  Can everyone see me OK? Great. Thanks Amanda. Thanks for having me here. I’m so pleased to share some insights. I’m here representing Deafblind Victoria, which is a self-advocacy group. It’s run by Deafblind people, based in Ross House, which is an accessible location in the city of Melbourne. Our members come here from all over Victoria. It’s a wonderful spot not far from here. We have about 50 members who are Deafblind and the group is slowly growing – which I’ll come back to in a moment.

Discrimination for us is a daily occurrence. It happens in a range of domains: education, employment, accessing services, transport, health and housing, among others. To give you some examples: if a Deafblind student is at school or TAFE, they typically miss a lot because information is not provided in an accessible way. Whether that be information up on the board, without interpreters, or braille handouts, deafblind people are often really behind in accessing education. In terms of employment, very few of us have paid work. In regard to services, it’s really, common for us to have appointments cancelled or postponed because of a lack of Auslan interpreters who can do tactile signing. For me personally, I had important surgery delayed enormously. I was in a lot of pain. It was eventually fixed, but the delays were due to a lack of interpreters. Through lockdowns Deafblind people experienced even more barriers than normal because our support workers and service providers were uncomfortable being in close physical proximity. We need physical touch to communicate, and as a result some of our members couldn’t get interpreters to see counsellors, and our mental health really suffered. 

During this time there’s been a big change from in-person meetings to Zoom meetings. Zoom is not my favourite personally, because for me I communicate through touch, and I can’t get my hand through a screen to touch the other person.

Something that can happen with transport is a train gets re-routed to a different platform. There might be an announcement, or even information on a screen. But these are not accessible to Deafblind people. We often use taxis, but this is also becoming increasingly difficult. There are long waits to be picked up, missing appointments as a result. And a lack of commguides and interpreters who can come with us in the taxi means we’re missing out a lot. Changes to the taxi industry over the last few years have included the introduction of Uber into the market and that’s had an even greater impact.

Now, in terms of the DDA – the Disability Discrimination Act – it says that many of the things I’ve just described are not allowed. Sorry, bear with me – I’m checking my notes here. The DDA refers to many of these difficult situations, but the issue for Deafblind people is how we would access or use the DDA. It’s really individuals who have high proficiency in English who are able to make use of it. They understand their rights; they understand how legislation works, and what might be there for them. Deafblind people are really unaware of all this stuff. Typically we don’t know that the DDA exists. We have low literacy in English and the language used in the DDA is very formal. For all of these reasons we’ve missed out on the benefits from it. It’s been around for 30 years but I haven’t heard of Deafblind people using it or being involved in it. Perhaps only very little. 

So it’s for all of these reasons that three Deafblind people – myself, Trudy Ryall and Michelle Stevens – started Deafblind Victoria, a self-advocacy group, in 2007. It started small and has grown slowly since then. We’ve had to build a lot of knowledge, build a lot of confidence, and it takes time. DBV is still run by Deafblind people. We have five Deafblind project staff who work part time. Just those five of us have a job. And there are two hearing sighted project officers. These projects are funded by government grants, but we have no ongoing core funding, which means that’s a lot of work just keeping the group alive between projects.

Deafblind Victoria provides Deafblind awareness workshops, they’re called Deafblind World. We raise awareness with service providers, the NDIA, education sector, public transport; a range of organisations can participate in Deafblind World. We’ve done many with staff from the City of Melbourne here. That’s been a wonderful partnership we’ve had for a few years now, since 2015. And in particular, Travellers Aid, which is a wonderful service. I really want to give a shout out to them. The Deafblind World workshop is a great way for these services to find out about Deafblind access needs.

We’ve also been working with Auslan students who volunteer at Deafblind Victoria. We hope that we’re providing a pathway for them to become employed in future as interpreters or communication guides working with the Deafblind community to fill that gap. Deafblind Victoria also runs events for members which is providing social connection and peer support to break the isolation and loneliness that many Deafblind people face. To really welcome them into our group. Some important information is shared, for example COVID safety. All of these kind of public announcements are often missed by Deafblind people who aren’t overhearing conversations, reading the news, so it’s really critical to meet and to build a Deafblind culture and a Deafblind community. We’re learning from each other.

DDA envisages the end of discrimination and we do too. So how would we achieve it? A lot of hard work, determination, ongoing advocacy. But as Deafblind people, we’re often left behind. Graeme Innes earlier was talking about establishing a regulator who could support groups like ours, and that sounds wonderful. As a small group on our own there’s not a lot we can achieve, so these partnerships will be vital. Sp yes, it’s important to have strong laws, but the law itself in my opinion is not enough. We’ve had it there for 30 years and Deafblind people haven’t used it. Perhaps it’s been a lack of interpreters that have prevented Deafblind people in getting more involved.

So for the law to be effective I’d say we need three things: we need the Deafblind community to know about the DDA – to be able to access it. We also need to build our confidence and our ability to stand up and advocate for ourselves. That means a strong Deafblind community. And thirdly, we need more and more awareness in the wider community about what Deafblind access needs look like. Most people are really unaware or don’t see it as possible, so we need to see that happen too. And for Deafblind people to be more involved in the community. To be involved in policy and government and business. So if we have these things in place – these three things – the DDA can work effectively. We’ll have access and equality. Thank you. Sorry, I’m emotional.

MC: Thank you so much Heather.

Audience: applause.