First chancellor with acknowledged disability to fight ‘attitude problem’

Former disability commissioner says universities have lifted their game, but employers not so much

August 29, 2022
Graeme Innes CQU Central Queensland University

Australia’s first university chancellor who identifies as having a disability says things have improved since the days when his law studies revolved around whatever resources he could obtain in Braille or reel-to-reel audio tape.

“I had a smaller range of material,” said lawyer and disability advocate Graeme Innes, who was born blind. “My challenge was that I had to know that material better than other students who could research more broadly than I could.”

Computers and the internet have helped resolve such issues but not the “attitude problem” that confronts students with disabilities, particularly when they emerge into the workforce. Mr Innes secured 30 interviews after he graduated, at a time when qualified lawyers “were getting jobs relatively easily”, but was rejected every time.

“People assumed that a blind person wouldn’t be successful as a lawyer,” said Mr Innes. Eventually he did the public service examination and secured a job as a clerical assistant, “answering the phone and telling people the winning lotto numbers. Of course, you need a law degree to do that. We as people with disabilities are impacted by the limiting and negative assumptions that get made about us.”

Mr Innes is best known for his roles with the Australian Human Rights Commission, where he served as disability commissioner for nine years and was also a human rights and race discrimination commissioner.

He helped negotiate the United Nations Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities and has chaired the Disability Advisory Council of Australia and national blindness agency Vision Australia. He is an acclaimed author and conference presenter, occasionally riffing on subjects such as why blind people make ideal romantic partners (for example, they can read at night without turning on the light).

Now he has been named incoming chancellor of Central Queensland University (CQU), assuming the role in December. He said that as the first in his family to attend university, he had been drawn to CQU partly by its regional character.

“It looks to support students from the regions, students with disabilities, students who are first nations Australians, to utilise higher education to address social disadvantage. That plays right into my hitting zone.”

It also plays into the hitting zone of federal education minister Jason Clare, who has identified equitable access to university as a policy focus. Mr Innes said that while he took interest in all aspects of inclusivity, he would be “happy to express my views” on the sector’s treatment of people with disabilities – at all levels.

“One of the reasons that there aren’t many of us with disabilities in leadership roles is that people don’t aspire to it, because the community assumes that we won’t be able to do it. I’m hopeful that…my role as chancellor gives people with disabilities more cause to aspire to leadership roles in the community, because you cannot be what you cannot see.”

He said that people with disabilities took less sick leave, held down jobs for longer and had been “shown to be better managers” than the general population “because of our experience having to manage disability”. Yet they were 30 per cent less likely to gain employment. “The problem lies in the assumptions that employers make. There will be people in the higher ed sector who take a similar approach. I hope to…demonstrate that that approach is not correct.”

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