The Mentor

There’s a story that Graeme Innes likes to tell about his early career.  After graduating with a Law degree from Sydney University in 1978 he went to 30 job interviews over 12 months.  He wouldn’t tell prospective employers over the phone that he couldn’t see.  No one offered him work, “So I took a job as a clerical assistant in the public service, the lowest level in the NSW public service.  I used to joke that I was the only clerical assistant in the public service with a law degree and my first job was answering the telephone and telling people the winning lotto numbers….finally I convinced the senior legal officer that I could work as a lawyer, and his change of attitude changed my life.”

The use of ‘attitude’ in this anecdote may well be deliberate.  The Attitude Foundation is the name of Innes’s latest initiative to change public perceptions and open the door to that leap of imagination that allows society to see disability as just another part of identity, one that should not exclude from work or community.  According to its website, the Foundation is planning to change attitudes by “looking at how people are portrayed in the media and how we can ensure there are more realistic inclusions of people with disability in the media.” The Foundation is currently in the middle of a funding drive to deliver on their central strategy to make a televised series “with people with disabilities telling their own stories in a non-sensationalist way.”

The aim, as I hear so often in these interviews, is to break down the tropes of the disabled as hero’s or tragic victims – the paternalism and condescension that combine with a fundamental lack of understanding to create what he calls the “soft bigotry of low expectations”.

There’s little evidence that low expectations were something that his family or Graeme had of himself.  His career, starting in those early days with the public service has the steady accretion of responsibility in the private and public sphere that has granted him a kind of cultural heft and ubiquity that sees him equally comfortable on late night TV interviews or in the boardroom.  After bouts with the Qantas and Westpac – working on their disability programs, Innes held down various roles with the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, later the Australian Human Rights Commission. In 2005 he became the Disability Discrimination Commissioner and doubled up as the Human Rights Commissioner.  He became Race Discrimination Commissioner in 2009.  The list goes on: he helped write the UN convention on the rights of persons with disability, he had a big hand in the final form of the National Disability Insurance Scheme.

Innes was also on the advisory committee for the establishment of Ramp Up, although he doesn’t overemphasise its importance. “The Advisory Committee was a bit of window dressing,” he tells me. “The senior people at the ABC were concerned that it was something they’d have to manage pretty tightly.”  His more direct involvement came through interaction with editor, Stella Young, someone he knew from their work in the disability rights sector.  “I worked with Stella (on Ramp Up) far more informally. We used to chat and email directly.”

An early supporter, he rated her performance highly, “… she built the portal from scratch, you know, and from there she really built both Ramp Up and her public profile.  She got a lot of people to write blogs, including me, and by the time it was defunded by the ABC it had quite a life.”

For Innes, it is important that people with disability are visible in public life:

“Well, you know, what’s the saying? ‘You can’t be what you cannot see’.  The women’s movement wasn’t as effective as it has been until women gained more of a profile. Same thing with the movement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people – any minority disadvantaged community really. And the disability community is a significant minority, but it’s also a significantly disempowered community, it is kept disempowered until it is seen to be raising its voice and speaking out and asserting itself.  Ramp Up was one of the ways that it could do that, and Stella was a very powerful advocate of that… (she had) a very powerful journalistic and comedic voice.”

Innes was incensed by the closure of Ramp Up.  He immediately began lobbying both the government and the ABC.  He has little truck with the argument that the ABC was (and still is) under extreme funding pressure from the government.  He argues that it is the national broadcaster’s role to represent diversity.  “It really proved its value in the years (it was running) and I just expected the ABC with its 400 million dollar budget to support its continuation… we were seeing a change in the way that the ABC dealt with stories relating to people with disabilities because of the impact that Ramp Up had… we were seeing a change in the way stories were presented and that’s where we wanted to get to, that’s where we saw the value.”

Young, although technically still an ABC employee and constrained in what she could say was also ‘incredibly’ disappointed, according to Innes.

The greatest shock was, of course, the death of Young from a suspected aneurysm less than six months after the closure of Ramp Up, on December 6, 2014. Innes had been to see her perform just the week before. Even now he seems deeply saddened by her early departure.  At a crowded memorial service on December 18, a visibly moved Innes spoke passionately about Young’s gifts and her sense of mission.  In opening, he thanked her parents for two things: one, the fine job they had done to raise her with a sense that her disability was “just one part of (a) multifaceted person”, and two, the gift to every one of a feisty, smart, funny woman, a great verbal and written communicator, and a passionate disability advocate… “

In the same speech, Innes outlined how the original vision of the Attitude Foundation was, in fact, to include Young on the board.  And though this wasn’t now possible, her influence would continue to be felt: “I will work for the Attitude Foundation,” he announced, “with you sitting at my shoulder: prompting, guiding, critiquing and encouraging…so all of you can join us, as we change attitudes towards people with disabilities, because I know Stella, that you already have.”

Ramp Up closed on the 30th of June 2014.  In this series of articles, Warwick Forster traces the history of Ramp Up through the voices of those who wrote for it. Next: The Maverick

Pete Forster, Editor

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