Advancing human rights for people with disability

Alastair McEwin

(Words by Jerome Doraisamy, photograph by David Field)

Alastair McEwin in the offices of the Australian Human Rights Commission in Sydney.

Alastair McEwin in the offices of the Australian Human Rights Commission in Sydney.

In ancient Greece, babies with obvious physical deformities are reported to have been routinely left to die. The exposure of newborns was even advocated by Aristotle, who – when discussing congenital deformity – said “let there be a law that no deformed child shall live”.

 Alastair McEwin, who was born deaf, learned about this in his year ten history class. He remembers that lesson as a moment when he realised he wanted to make a difference for those living with disabilities.

 “I knew I wanted to help people with disabilities have a better life. I’ve faced a lot of discrimination in my life, and I want to make sure that people like myself don’t have to go through the same,” he said.

 Alastair was recently appointed as the new Disability Discrimination Commissioner for the Australian Human Rights Commission, a role which will see him prioritise the successful rollout of the NDIS and the ability of disabled persons to be successful, active members of the community.

 As one of the most prominent disability advocates in the nation, he sees positive change occurring – albeit incrementally – but there is still much work to be done.

 “What I’m seeing, in my current role, is a lack of understanding, bad attitudes and an unwillingness by many employers to change, even doing simple things or making small changes, in the workplace or educational settings to be inclusive of people with disabilities,” he noted.

 “Just because deaf people, for example, use sign language does not mean that they’re unintelligent or they can’t contribute meaningfully in the workplace, in education, or other areas of life. It doesn’t mean they don’t have ideas worth exploring.”

 Countering preconceptions is a first step toward greater understanding and appreciation for disabled persons’ capacity to contribute to society, he noted. A starting point for others in the workplace is simply to ask questions.

 “I think it’s important to never make assumptions, and also not be afraid to ask questions,” he argued. “Persons with a disability may not be able to function in the workplace without particular support – so the first question is, ‘How can I help you?’”

 Alastair is working to challenge these assumptions both on a policy and individual level.

 “Whenever I interact with or meet people, particularly those who have not ever had any exposure to disability, I can have a conversation and get them to think about things they hadn’t considered before,” he said.

 “Whilst it might not be an achievement in everyone’s eyes, I think if I can influence others who are influencers in their own field, then, to me, my job is done.”

 Getting over these preliminary hurdles will allow people to unleash their proper potential, by virtue of equal access and opportunity.

 “I would just like to see everyone, irrespective of ability, to live what we could call an ordinary life,” he explained. “For many people with disability, they need support to meet friends at a local café or go to university. Many people take that for granted.”

 There are socioeconomic benefits to advancing human rights for disabled persons as well, he added.

 “If you’ve got people with disabilities in the workforce getting paid and paying taxes, as perverse as that may sound, they can contribute to society in the same way as everyone else.”

 It is sometimes overwhelming, he conceded, to wake up every day and fight for equality.

 “There’s about 4.3 million Australians living with a disability. In some way, they’re all relying on me to have a positive effect,” he concluded.

 But public policy and perceptions are certainly moving in the right direction. With Alastair leading the charge, things will only get better.


Copyright Doraisamy, Field and Standish 2016-2017