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Disability no justification for inequality

By David Heckendorf - posted Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Geneva, Switzerland, may seem a long way away from the final week leading up to Australia's 2013 Federal Elections for Australians with disabilities to be engaging with the Government over their right to equality before the law. Yet, through our representative disability organisations, a small delegation is setting off this Friday to do just that.

In 2008 Australia was proudly among the first countries to sign and ratify the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (New York, 30 March 2007) - [2008] ATS 12 (Disability Convention), which obligates it to take appropriate steps to ensure that the rights of people with disabilities are protected.

As with other multilateral human rights treaties, the Disability Convention requires that the ratifying countries (the 'state parties') to report to the Disability Convention's Committee every five years on their progress towards moving the society towards a truly equal community free from discrimination and poverty.


During the last week leading up to the elections it is Australia's turn. Australia has previously provided the Disability Convention Committee with a draft of its report and next week the Committee will once again hear from Australia before making its recommendations.

In the same week that the Disability Convention Committee hears from Australia's official delegation, it will also hear from Australia's Shadow Report delegation. A team of ten representatives from various disability representative organisations who will speak to the Disability Convention Civil Society Parallel Report (Shadow Report). Six of whom were chosen on merit through an expression of interest (EOI) process and four drawn from the Shadow Report's development project team.

This Shadow Report is far from a quickly patched-together report. Rather, it has been five years in the making and its development involved national consultations with persons with disabilities and the pro bono assistance of the Sydney based legal firm DLA Piper.

A critical issue for me

A critical issue for me, as a member of the six chosen through the EOI process, is equality before the law.

Why? It seems to me that equality before the law underlies all other human rights.


Without true equality before the law comes justification for treating people differently in a discriminatory manner. Nazi Germany in the 1930s and 1940s may come to mind as an extreme case in which Jews, homosexuals and people with disabilities were killed or mandatory sterilised. It may not be such an extreme case however. It is not commonly known that the practice of sterilising people with disabilities preceded the Nazis: in Northern American the practice commenced closer to the turn of the century and continued into the 1950s. Furthermore it has only been early this year that Australia has held its latest inquiry into whether parents of minors with intellectual disabilities should be permitted to have their children (most often girls) sterilised for non-therapeutic reasons.

There are some ways in which we treat people differently. For instance, a boy will not usually be permitted to play on a single-sex girls' basketball team or to use the women's change rooms. These types of limitations apply to all boys and men: not simply those who have a sight impairment or, like me, be in a wheelchair. The distinction is that certainty activities and facilities are set aside for the benefit of a particular gender. As a civilised society we recognise that there is a social good to be had in catering for particular groups in ways that accommodate for their biological and/or psychology needs.

How does inequality under the law affect other human rights?

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About the Author

David Heckendorf has profound Cerebral Palsy, which affects his physical ability to care for himself. Notwithstanding these limitations he holds a Masters of Laws Degree from the Australian National University and has in excess of a decade employment experience within the Australian and ACT Public Service. The opinions he expresses are his own.

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