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Interview: Alastair McEwan

Photo of Alastair McEwan
Alastair McEwan

You have held many roles over your working life in disability advocacy, what are your thoughts on the current legal rights and support systems in place for people with disability?

People with disability have protection from discrimination in many areas of public life, as covered by the Disability Discrimination Act 1992 (DDA). Since the DDA came into operation, we have seen many barriers in society removed, such as access to buildings, public transport, employment and education.

That said, many barriers remain, particularly for people with disability from very disadvantaged backgrounds, such as those who have intellectual disabilities or those living in remote areas of Australia. It is important that all people with disability are supported by a well-resourced disability advocacy sector, who can undertake individual and systemic advocacy on their behalf.

In recent years, we have seen many cuts and uncertainty to the funding of disability advocacy organisations. With the roll-out of the NDIS far from complete, and keeping in mind we still have many barriers, it is vital that we have a very strong advocacy sector that can provide people with disability with the right support to address discrimination.

The previous Disability Discrimination Commissioner, Susan Ryan was a person without disability. Why is it important to have a person with disability in this role?

Given the many issues affecting both older people and people with disability, I acknowledge the challenges Susan, as Age and Disability Discrimination Commissioner, had in managing both portfolios. She did an excellent job in highlighting the most significant issues for people with disability. This included her outstanding Willing to Work report, following an inquiry into workplaces issues for older people and people with disability.

It is important for the role of Disability Discrimination Commissioner to be held by a person with disability, as this means the person holding the role has direct and personal experience of discrimination issues that we are trying to remove. It also means that they have additional perspectives and empathy that a person without disability may not have of these issues.

The roll out of the NDIS has been faced with a number of challenges, what role have you had in ensuring people with disability can access this scheme and be supported through this process?

It is my desire to see an NDIS that is rolled out within a human rights and disability rights framework. This means, for example, seeing an NDIS that complies with the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). My role is to ensure people with disability, no matter where they live in Australia, are aware of the NDIS and what it might mean for them. I work collaboratively with the NDIA to ensure we are addressing human rights issues.

You’ve previously held a teaching role at the University of Technology Sydney, what barriers do you think academics face in supporting students with disability and how might they overcome these?

Whilst I am no longer teaching at UTS, I know there are still many barriers that don’t allow academics to provide a fully inclusive education to students with disability. This includes a lack of knowledge of disability and how it impacts students with disability in education. Academics are often not aware of the resources and support available to them, including how to provide adjustments to their methods of teaching and materials. The best way to address these barriers is to discuss the issues with the student directly and work with the university systems, including disability support officers, to implement solutions.

What issues do you think higher education students in Australia are facing today? How are higher education institutions helping or hindering those issues?

Many universities have systems that are cumbersome and difficult to navigate. This includes online registration and learning systems. This can be a particular barrier to students who are blind or have low vision. It is important for higher education institutions to provide online systems that are accessible to all; this can be achieved by using what is known as ‘universal design’. Another significant barrier is the way courses are taught and delivered by academics.

Often courses have been taught in a particular method for many years without change; this means it can be inaccessible to students with disability. An example might be students with learning disabilities. Solutions might include extra time to finish assignments and examinations, or to provide answers in electronic format and not hand-written format.

Your keynote is titled “A post-school future where everyone is included: how do we make that happen?” What skills do you hope to people who attend your session leave with?

In my talk, I will be exploring issues that people with disability experience when moving from school to post-school options. Often discrimination is so entrenched in the primary and secondary education system that it results in students with disability leaving school, or entering adulthood, with low self-esteem and low self-confidence in their abilities. I hope to leave people with ideas and solutions on how best to improve these issues of self-esteem and self-confidence for their students with disability.