Guide Dog Handlers Australia National Conference

Speech to Guide Dog Handlers Australia National Conference
October 22, 2016

Thanks for inviting me to meet with you today, and welcome to Adelaide for those who have come from afar.  I’m Kelly Vincent, Dignity for Disability’s member of the Legislative Council.  I acknowledge that we meet today on Kaurna land.

This morning, I will share a little of my journey of advocacy and something about my party and my work in parliament.    Then, I’d like to mention some of the barriers to inclusion – especially when it comes to employment for people with disabilities – talk a bit about what I call “complaint literacy” and I’ll be happy to take some questions later on too.

Dignity for Disability is a small, South Australian based political party and I am the sole elected representative so far.  We hold regular fundraisers to support our election campaigns.  I will be up for re-election in 2018.

Since I was elected to Parliament in 2010, I have been inundated by constituents seeking advocacy on every issue you can imagine – mostly relating to disability in some way.

I should point out that my work covers the complete range of portfolio areas, and because I am an upper house MP, I represent the whole of South Australia.  It is a huge workload, managing the parliamentary commitments, constituent matters, invitations to events – and at the same time keeping an eye on the horizon for the future policy development that we need to create ongoing, positive change.

Politics wasn’t the career I had planned for myself, but landing in Parliament House at the age of 21 has been an amazing opportunity – for me – and I think (and hope) for furthering a much wider awareness and understanding of disability issues.  I feel honoured and privileged to continue my work with Dignity for Disability towards improving the lives of South Australians with disabilities.

As I mentioned, because I am a member of the legislative council, I represent all South Australians.

I regularly get calls from people requiring advocacy on issues, advice around legislation or policy, or other broader systemic matters surrounding disability.

Responding to these issues could include viewing matters through a disability lens in areas related to health, transport, housing, the justice system, discrimination, employment, education, disability services, planning and universal design, and well pretty much anything else you can think of.

Advocacy has become a part of my identity, and my wheelchair is also an essential part of the story of how I became Australia’s youngest female MP.

Unbeknown to me at the time, this political journey began when I started a campaign of advocating for a new wheelchair.  I was 20 years old and was still using the same wheelchair I’d had since I was 10!  And I don’t know about you, but I certainly had done a fair bit of growing between 10 and 20 years of age – and my wheelchair was too small and it was causing me problems because of this.

Although Disability SA were fully aware of my need for a new chair, I had been waiting more than two years and I just got really fed up with the whole thing.  Although I was not the first person in this situation, it was maddening that the system was so broken.  I was constantly having to ring up to monitor with Disability Services when I might finally get an adult-sized wheelchair.

So, channeling this frustration for the greater good, I set up a campaign on Facebook.  Suddenly people from all over Australia and the world were interested – including David Bevan and Matthew Abraham from 891 ABC radio, and I became a bit of a regular feature on their program – giving listeners the latest installment in the bureaucratic process of getting my new wheelchair.  It struck a real nerve with people I think, because I wasn’t asking for a gold-plated, fancy anything.  I merely wanted a wheelchair that fitted me.

In every sense for me, the personal is political.  Because it is action that takes us beyond our words, beliefs and thoughts to lead us to become that more respectful, fair, just and equal society we want Australia to be.

And it was through this wheelchair campaign – where I was not only advocating for my own rights but also for the rights of my peers – that I was approached by Dignity for Disability to stand as a candidate in the 2010 election.

In unexpected circumstances I was elected becoming something of an “accidental politician”.

I’ve seen some great changes for the disability sector in the six and a half years since I was elected.  Australia now has a National Disability Insurance Scheme, or NDIS, being rolled out.  I have been proud to play a pivotal role in creating SA’s Disability Justice Plan as a way of giving a voice to people who were voiceless.  Parliament has had an enquiry into the experience of students with disabilities in the education system, and slowly things are changing.

So in some ways, the human rights of people with disability as equals alongside their non-disabled peers in the community are being recognised.

We have to start somewhere, and take small steps, but it is clear that we still have such a long way to go.  And I say this because people will still call talkback radio and ask: ‘why should I have to pay for someone else’s kid’s wheelchair?’, forgetting that tomorrow they themselves or their own child could so easily become members of the “disability club” – becoming dependent on others for their showers and personal care for the rest of their life.  That’s the reality of it, and of course it makes me angry that such attitudes still exist.

Because I want to see a community that can more than cope with differences – (or “diversity” to use the current buzzword), I want our system to offer positive and re-assuring attitudinal support that makes everyone feel valued for the role they play.  I don’t want people to feel that they can’t get the understanding they need when they are involved in accessing services.

I’d like to turn to some economic realities for a moment.  The volunteer effort that organisations, like Dog Guide Handlers, harnesses (no pun intended) is truly remarkable.  Positive volunteer contributions give us all a kind of job satisfaction, and the sense that we are contributing to a better society.  When it comes to the contribution volunteers make, you may be interested to know that we are looking at around a $5 billion dollar a year contribution to the South Australian economy from volunteers; that is clearly an input that our state could not afford to fund.  And of course that picture is replicated across the country.

It is disheartening to know that fewer people with disabilities are participating in the workforce than they were 20 years ago.  The indications are clear that there are still significant barriers to people with disabilities getting a job, and getting a position that provides them with a living wage.

Some of those barriers are physical – ramps, adjustable desks, screen readers and accessible toilets – the everyday essential practical kind of things.  But the bigger issue that can’t be seen, is the attitudinal barriers that people with disabilities face from potential employers and workmates.

There’s a culture of low expectation, there’s fear, there’s the view that it’s OK to pay someone with disability three dollars an hour when the rest of us are supported by laws that guarantee us a minimum wage.

Recently, the SA public sector embarked on a special three month long campaign aimed at increasing the number of people with disabilities employed by the government.  You can see it on the website, they thought they’d have a big push internally to find positions for people with disabilities.  I can report that this campaign resulted in just 8 new positions for people with disabilities.  Now, with a public sector workforce of 103,000 I know we can do better than that.  Actually, I think it’s shameful.  But to do better than this we must all take action to create the inclusive future we want to see in the world.

So, in coming along today, I’ve been asked to explore what “Equitable and Dignified Access” is, and how we can get more of it!  Yes!!

I think I have been talking for a while, and I am sure you have had many experiences of not getting equitable and dignified access.  So I’d like to throw it over to you for a while – can you think about a time when you have had an access fail.


You know, people who don’t have a disability can be surprised at how much checking ahead needs to be done to make sure places are accessible.  For me, the real frustration is that at times, despite all the best efforts to ensure access, when I arrive at a place it just isn’t what it was cracked up to be.  It’s disappointing, and disruptive – and it still happens too often.

So, in thinking about “Equitable and Dignified Access” can you tell me how you recognise it?

Can someone give me an example of feeling included through seamless access, where you can get to a door, open a door, find your seat, find the toilets – with your assistance animal working by your side – not being patted and oooh’d and aaaa’d over?

What are effective strategies for action when we don’t receive it?

Your effective strategies are going to depend on the circumstances.  And in what I call your level of “complaint literacy”.  Making an effective complaint is a process that starts at the bottom and works up.  So you begin your comments with the person you deal with on the phone, through the internet, or in person.

If you need to take it further – or what is termed to “escalate” the complaint, then you may ask to speak to a supervisor, a manager or the person in charge.

Of course the word escalate can coincide with the feeling that your blood is boiling – so it’s important to ensure that cool heads prevail, take it calmly to ensure your message is clear and understood.

I would always suggest that you keep good records of phone conversations, dates etc.  You should have an idea of what you want to achieve as well.  Do you want to be refunded because you couldn’t get access to something?  Do you want an apology, and if so, do you expect that to come from someone senior in the organisation, and does it matter what format it comes in?  Do you want to keep it personal – relating just to your own experience, or is it more important to you that no one else has to be excluded the way you were.  There’s that thought again about the personal being political.

Is this an issue you can raise with your local council, state government or federal government?  Is there an app that you can use to record your complaint?  You could contact a member of parliament in your area, or go to your state equal opportunity body, or to the Australian Human Rights Commission.

Can someone give me an example of either a successful or unsuccessful complaint that they’ve taken or heard about?

What is the relationship between access and inclusion?

I’ve also been asked to examine with you today the relationship between access and inclusion.

I can sense I’m heading onto a tangent here, but there are many catch cries within management these days around diversity, and when the concept of diversity is unpacked, disability is one of the issues that tumbles out.  A Deloitte study for the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission in 2012 suggested that a combined focus on both diversity and inclusion can result in better business performance.  The report found that disability plus inclusion equalled an 83 percent improvement in the ability to innovate; a 31 percent increase in responsiveness to changing customer needs and a 42 percent increase in team collaboration.  So although this isn’t rocket science, the results are certainly very clear and impressive that when organisations take action to include their staff and embrace diversity they improve innovation and performance.

But we’re talking about actual access, and actual inclusion, the things that we – as people with disabilities need – to be included and involved in our society.  It’s semantics, but words get hijacked by different sectors and begin to be understood differently.

We’re living in a very connected world, and just as my own advocacy story illustrates, social media as well as traditional media gets results.

So to finish up my part, I’ve given you some of the potted history of Kelly and Dignity for Disability, talked about my own experience of advocacy as well as discussed with you some basics of complaint literacy, as well as looking at some of those barriers to inclusion.  I wish you all well for today and tomorrow, the opportunity to network creates a kind of synergistic magic that I personally love, so I hope those gems of connection come to you here.

Now – if there are some questions or discussion points you have I think we can use the rest of our time on that.