A vision of employing educators with disabilities

A vision of employing educators with disabilities

In 1994, the Disability Discrimination Act 1992 prohibited discrimination in limited situations, but 10 years ago the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities swept in a new disability human rights paradigm.

The convention has transformed state obligations towards persons with disabilities, promoting an ability equality agenda that is being realised in the education sector.

To Dr Paul Harpur, this has special significance to say the least.

At the age of 14, following a train accident, Harpur became blind.

“When I woke, alive, I promised myself I’d do something great with my life,” Dr Harpur told The Educator.

Dr Harpur went on to study law, become a Solicitor of the High Court of Australia and is now one of Australia’s leading international and comparative disability rights legal academics at University of Queensland, as well as a guest Harvard lecturer.

He says working in the education sector as a person with a disability has never been more exciting.

“Both sides of parliament in Australia are in support of the Convention and have committed to its far-reaching mandate,” Dr Harpur said.

“This involves improving what is already in place, and finding new ways to advance the journey towards ability equality.”

A range of initiatives have been rolled out that support and motivate businesses to offer work to the more than one million Australians with disabilities.

Employ their Ability for example is a Federal Government campaign designed to encourage businesses to hire individuals with disability, and raise awareness of the services available through JobAccess.

Dr Harpur says that moving to the new disability human rights paradigm requires not only compliance with existing anti-discrimination laws, but also a commitment from employers to be disability champions and visionary in how they approach ability equality.

“This is fast becoming a reality in some major educational institutions across Australia,” he said.

“A number of Australian educators have made a strategic commitment to promoting the rights of persons with disabilities, lodging disability action plans with the Australian Human Rights Commission.”

These involve aspirational targets and high level frameworks with measurable actions. Some, like the University of Queensland, publicly report on their implementation and monitoring processes.

“As Chair of the monitoring group under the University of Queensland Disability Action Plan, the Disability Inclusion Group, I have had the privilege of seeing what a difference high level support and leadership can have on ability equality,” he said.

“I encourage all universities to create a disability action plan and implement it into their strategic commitment.” 

Disability action plans must be reviewed and updated
A recent review by the University of Queensland informed the 2018-2021 iteration, which inspired an exciting innovation – to go one step further and invest in tangible research which will have direct benefits to the institution and will contribute to academic outputs. 

“Employing a person with a disability requires leadership and commitment, and it is far easier today to access the external funding, resources and technology required, than it was a few years ago,” Dr Harpur said.

“When I started law school in the late 1990s as a totally blind graduate I was continually asked by university staff, my peers and friends, ‘How could a blind person successfully study law?’. This prevailing question reflected the legal, social and technological position of the day.” 

Earlier this year, Dr Harpur spoke with a potential magistrate who happened to be totally blind and had connected with a group of other judges and magistrates across the globe who were all blind. 

Dr Harpur said the discourse was not whether they could do the job, but how they could use technology to become even more efficient than they already were.

“Today, for law students with vision loss, the sky is not the limit; there is no limit,” Dr Harpur said.

“Students with disabilities are exceeding expectations in teaching, research and leadership, becoming increasingly recognised and promoted. Let’s continue to build an environment in which they can do so.”