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Blind Citizens in Australia

Editor's Note: John Power is National Policy Officer for Blind Citizens Australia.

The issues facing people who are blind or vision-impaired in Australia are significant and varied. Fighting for equality and inclusion at this time, as in the past, requires dealing with a multitude of battles, and Blind Citizens Australia (BCA) has been at the forefront, serving as the national advocacy peak in Australia of and for blind people. Currently celebrating its 30th anniversary, BCA, known formerly as the National Federation of Blind Citizens (NFBC), is the only government-recognized peak advocacy organization in Australia for people who are blind or vision-impaired.

What follows is a snapshot of some of the major issues currently facing Australians who are blind or vision-impaired. While in most cases each issue will be discussed separately, it should be remembered that these matters are all inter-related; together, they form a matrix of discrimination and highlight the challenges that are part of everyday experience for blind Australians.

Welfare

People who are permanently blind in Australia are eligible to claim the Disability Support Pension for the Blind (DSP Blind) paid by the federal government. The DSP (Blind) was introduced after World War I to financially support the many impoverished blind war veterans and was the precursor to the disability pensions that exist today in Australia. Unlike the other disability support pensions, the blind pension is exempt from income and asset tests.

BCA has fought hard for people who are blind or vision-impaired to retain this pension, including the test-free elements. When the federal government intended to tax the blind pension in 1978, the NFBC rallied support from members and blindness agencies and presented a case against these inequitable measures. Responding favourably to our lobbying, the federal treasurer publicly stated that blind persons would not be taxed.

In 2001, the nation's current treasurer, Peter Costello, attempted to introduce an assets and income test to the blind pension. After hearing of protests by the blind and vision-impaired outside his electorate office (organized by BCA), he retreated from his policy.

The latest threat came under the federal government's 2004 "welfare to work reforms" handed down in last year's federal budget, when it was feared yet again that the test-free elements of the blind pension would be lost. Thankfully, however, this did not occur.

Issues Affecting Women

BCA established its Women's Branch over 15 years ago to deal with the unique issues affecting women who are blind or vision-impaired. Retiring branch President of four years, Lee Kumutat, explained in a recent interview the breadth of these matters: "Issues that are specific to women include access to health information, child care, employment, loneliness and isolation and then there are practical issues such as the social expectations of women, presentation and access to education."

The confronting issue of domestic violence is also a major concern. Tracey Cross, recently retired branch treasurer of three years, explained the importance and prevalence of this issue: "There have been statistics which show that over 50% of people with disabilities have suffered some form of abuse in one of their relationships, whether it be with their family or partner a lot of this not just physical but emotional and being taken advantage of because of their disability."

To counter these issues, the women's branch undertakes a number of activities including running workshops on self-esteem, providing mentorship, and disseminating important information through the branch's quarterly magazine titled "Aspirations". This magazine also acts as a vehicle for peer support through the exchange of ideas. Sometimes these issues can be quite sensitive, like loneliness and isolation. While Lee points out that issues such as these can be confronting, she also points out that branch members are quick to provide support to peers who express these vulnerabilities.

With these kinds of support services, it is not surprising that women's branch membership has grown between 10-15% over recent years. It is not all good news, however, as both Lee and Tracey acknowledge that the branch and its membership are subject to patriarchal bias within the blindness community. These male predispositions, they claim, are no different from those faced by women in the general public.

Education

Braille literacy for Australian children who are blind or vision-impaired is a major concern. This is especially so since the education system integrated children with disabilities from specialist schools into mainstream schools during the 1970's. While such integration policies may have welcome social benefits, they do not necessarily result in equal access to braille literacy for blind children.

A major factor contributing to this situation is the failure of teaching colleges to produce enough graduates who are literate and skilled in the teaching of braille. In April of this year, BCA made these issues known in its submission to the National Inquiry into the Teaching of Literacy.

Access to study materials is also a serious issue at the secondary and tertiary levels. BCA is constantly dealing with discrimination cases where education institutions fail to provide students who are blind or vision-impaired with course materials and other information in accessible formats, including braille, large print and audio. While the use of these legal measures can prove successful, what is required is systemic change of the education sector.

BCA is optimistic that the recently passed Standards for Education by the federal parliament will aid this process of structural change. The Standards for Education will complement the existing provisions relating to education under the federal Disability Discrimination Act (1992) to clarify the responsibilities of education providers when delivering their services to students with disabilities. The passing of these standards, which took ten years to develop, is a major breakthrough for students with disabilities, including those who are blind or vision-impaired.

Accessible Voting

BCA's position on accessible voting asserts that blind and vision-impaired citizens should be able to cast a secret, independent and verifiable vote in all Federal, State and Council elections. Currently, only the Australian Capital Territory has provided electronic voting (2001 and 2004), allowing voters who are blind or vision-impaired to vote in secret. This leaves federal elections, all six state elections, northern territory parliamentary elections, and all council elections throughout Australia providing no means for blind voters to cast a secret ballot.

BCA's advocacy, and that of other organizations, however, has helped to bring about some promise of change. A federal parliamentary committee recently recommended that a trial of electronic voting that is accessible to people who are blind or vision-impaired be conducted during the 2007 federal election.

International Involvement; "The Honest Broker"

The Australian blindness community today, as in the past, has a considerable presence on the world stage. David Blyth, inaugural President of BCA, served as President of the World Blind Union (WBU) from 1992 to 1996 and is now a life member of the global organization. Maryanne Diamond, former executive officer of BCA, now executive officer of the Australian Federation of Disability Organizations (AFDO), is currently serving as the First Vice President of the WBU. As well, former BCA board member, Graeme Innes, who is currently the Deputy Disability Discrimination Commissioner for the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC) and Chairman of Vision Australia, is serving as President of WBU, Asia-Pacific.

When questioned in a recent interview as to why BCA has such a strong presence at the global level, David Blyth referred to Australia's reputation internationally as "the honest broker" between the major players in Europe and America: "We are not a threatening people. We are seen as a very progressive people who have a very strong commitment to the lives of blind people; and BCA is clearly focused as a consumer organization."

While acknowledging this important brokering role, current BCA President, Robert Altamore, also attributes Australia's strong involvement in international blindness affairs to "the calibre of individual Australians who have been involved at the world level going back to the 1950's and 60's like Hugh Jeffrey and service providers like John Wilson, through to present day participants such as Maryanne Diamond and Graeme Innes."

Other noted strengths Australia offers include possessing a preparedness to learn and having a good attitude towards developing countries by supporting programs on development that assist people in learning how to help themselves.

Conclusion

The blind and vision-impaired community in Australia is a strong and vibrant one. BCA, through its integrity of service as a true consumer-advocacy organization, has gained a great deal of respect over the last 30 years, both domestically and internationally. As this snapshot of the Australian context demonstrates, the issues that occupy BCA today, as in the past, are considerable and varied. However, there is no doubt that in the next 30 years, as with the last, BCA will continue to be the leader of advocacy for the blind and vision-impaired community in Australia, and continue to contribute greatly on the world stage.

For more information on Blind Citizens Australia, visit: www.bca.org.au

To view BCA's policy submissions mentioned in this article and other related material, visit the National Policy page at: www.bca.org.au/natpol

If you have any feedback on this article, please email John Power: john.power@bca.org.au

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