The recently tabled federal budget has outlined the Government’s plan to axe one of the commissioner roles at the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC).

Graeme Innes’ term as the current Disability Discrimination Commissioner is coming to an end in June this year, and the Government’s intention is to merge this role with the portfolio of one of the other Commissioners at the AHRC. The details of this merging of roles and the impact of what is likely to be a reduction in capacity in the area have yet to be addressed, however.

The Disability Discrimination Commissioner’s role is multifaceted. The Commissioner is charged with promoting an understanding and acceptance of the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA)(1992). This may occur through various mean, including research, advising and informing the relevant Minister regarding laws and enactments relating to discrimination on the ground of disability, monitoring the development of relevant Standards under the Act, as well as developing and publishing guidelines to assist in the avoidance of discrimination.

The DDA (1992) addresses discrimination on the grounds of disability in a number of areas such as education, employment, goods and services, and access to premises. The definition of premises is very broad under the Act, but of course includes buildings and places that the public are allowed to enter. The Act also allows for disability standards to be formulated to further define relevant strategies, adjustments, and exemptions.

In 2010, the Disability (Access to Premises – Buildings) Standards were released with the objects of the standard being twofold:

  • “to ensure that dignified, equitable, cost effective and reasonably achievable access to buildings, and facilities and services within buildings, is provided…”; and
  • to give certainty to building certifiers, building developers and building managers…”

disability federal budget

To address the latter, efforts were made to replicate most of the requirements of the Standard with the access requirements of the Building Code of Australia (BCA) with a view to harmonising these as far as practicable.

The mechanism for beginning proceedings in the event of discrimination occurring is via complaint to the AHRC. The AHRC consequently attempts to resolve complaints relating to disability discrimination by way of conciliation. Where complainants believe their complaint has not been adequately resolved, the complaint can be referred to the Federal Court of Australia. Where considered appropriate to do so, the Commission may also intervene in such court proceedings.

The AHRC Disability Discrimination Commissioner’s role is therefore pivotal in achieving the objects of the Act and relevant Disability Standards and significant concern has been consequently aired in recent weeks.

Some of this concern has centred on the capacity of another commissioner to adequately address the needs of people with disabilities, their families and networks on the basis of resources alone. Innes himself, has also suggested that having a commissioner responsible for disability discrimination and not having a disability themselves is an issue. He says that, as the Sex Discrimination Commissioner should be a woman and the Aged Discrimination Commissioner should be an older person, the commissioner responsible for disability discrimination should also have the ‘lived’ experience of disability in order to be able to fulfil his or her role effectively.

In some parts of the community, there also appears to be a perception that the DDA is inherently ‘weak’ given the onus is on people with disabilities and their associates to initiate and pursue complaints. Recent events have given cause for this concern to grow further.

The change is likely to have a tangible effect on disability discrimination and how it relates to building design as well as the existing stock of buildings – an issue that should be monitored closely in the coming months.