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Confessions of a good listener

Sydney Morning Herald

Saturday March 26, 2011


Blindness has been no barrier to this lawyer with great expectations, writes Helen Pitt. The human rights lawyer Graeme Innes hears what others don't. He listens not just to what people say, but how they say it.Innes, who has been blind since birth, is acutely aware of patronising tones, laced with what he calls the "soft bigotry of low expectation" many people have of him and others with disabilities.He hears them all the time: recently on a flight from the United States after attending his stepson's wedding, when the stewardess scolded him for using the first class toilet but complained to his wife, not to him. He heard it last month from a Canberra politician who chose to address the work experience girl he was with rather than talk directly to him.On the day we meet for lunch at Bar Fiore, the federal disability and race discrimination commissioner hears a very loud jackhammer on the street that is amplified by a long city arcade. He's a regular here, the staff know him and his guide dog, Arrow, and that he likes a Romano focaccia with a decaf flat white.As we eat, Innes navigates the chronology of his life in much the way he feels his way around his plate, finding the sandwich, the salad and his knife and fork, waiting for aural cues like the sound of the coffee cup being placed on the table.Listening to his life story, it's clear the things he hears but refuses to accept, like the phrase "you can't do that", are key to his resilience. He's not only one of the first blind lawyers to graduate from the University of Sydney, he's played state cricket in a blind and vision-impaired team since childhood, is a keen sailor and part-owner of a yacht moored in Greenwich, and before becoming a human rights commissioner was a councillor on Ku-ring-gai Council."One of the things that drives me is people telling me that I can't do something. That's been true ever since I was a kid. My parents and family learnt very early that if they really wanted me to do something the most effective way to get me to do it was to tell me I couldn't."The man who helped shape much of the anti-discrimination legislation in this country knew from about the age of 12 he wanted to be a lawyer. Born in Ashfield, the middle child of three, he's not sure of the exact reason he was born blind - doctors think perhaps his mother came into contact with a chemical when she was pregnant."It's just the hand I've been dealt."He recalls an idyllic childhood roaming the grounds of the Masonic Hospital in Ashfield (now Sydney Private Hospital), where his family lived (his father was the hospital chief executive). He began to realise he was different from kids who could run around without bumping into things. His parents worked hard to treat him no differently from his siblings."Some kids with disabilities get wrapped in cotton wool a bit. That's a very understandable thing for parents to do but you miss out on all those really important life experiences of trying things and failing. It must have been tough for my parents when I'd run into things and hurt myself but they did take the 'have a go' approach."His parents also introduced him to their local member for Ashfield, David Hunter, who was the first blind member of NSW Parliament and an early mentor. "He showed me blindness was not going to be a limit to what I could do."Innes travelled many hours a day to what was the North Rocks School for the Blind, where he learnt Braille and other skills, like how to navigate Sydney's rail system (by memorising a tactile map of it). It is a skill he still uses on his daily train trip from his Roseville home to his city office.It was at the school that he learnt by feeling: touching a model of the Sydney Harbour Bridge to imagine its span, understanding a bird was different from a cat or a dog by cuddling it. It was there, too, he fell in love with his first great passion: cricket.He was sitting in the car one night waiting for his father to come out of a P&C meeting, when a Test cricket broadcast came on ABC radio. He was hooked. He started spending most of his Sundays wicket-keeping in the blind and vision-impaired team, travelling the country representing NSW. He's still a self-confessed cricket tragic and always attends the third day of the Sydney Test.He sat the HSC at Ashfield Boys High, and then went to the University of Sydney and the College of Law. After graduating he spent most of 1979 looking for a job."I went to about 30 job interviews that year in legal firms and in legal positions in government and my guess is that 15 of those positions I was the best applicant but they just didn't employ me because they didn't see how a person who was blind was going to work there."So he sat the NSW public service exam and got a job with state lotteries, answering the phone telling people the winning Lotto numbers. He finally got to test his legal skills when he went into the Department of Consumer Affairs, when the pioneering minister Syd Einfeld was pushing through reforms to protect the rights of consumers.His big break came in 1981, the United Nations' International Year of the Disabled Person, when Carmel Niland asked him to join the NSW Anti-Discrimination Board. This led to work with the Human Rights Commission, where his fine listening skills helped make him a standout conciliator and mediator.By 1987 a relationship he was in ended and he started to feel like life didn't have a lot of direction. He moved to Perth, to the Western Australia Equal Opportunity Commission, taking the job of a fellow commissioner, Maureen Shelley, who he married a few years later in Britain. In the 1990s the couple moved back to Sydney for Innes to take a job with Qantas, helping to get more people with disabilities employed with the airline. In retrospect he sees there was not enough commitment at the top level of the company.Transport is a huge issue for people with disabilities, he says, and airlines have had a dismal record of late, forgetting people on planes and at airports. He's had a pilot refuse to take off until his guide dog was put in the cargo hold. Earlier this year he took a taxi driver to court for refusing to take his fare and his guide dog.By his mid-40s he had travelled the world several times with a white cane, but he took to using a guide dog as a way to minimise his stress when he began working as a hearing commissioner for a number of tribunals. His first guide dog, Jordie, travelled with him six times to New York to work on the UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities.One of his proudest professional accomplishments is his work on the Same-Sex: Same Entitlements report, which led to more than 100 laws that discriminated against people in same-sex relationships being changed. "I have always been a firm believer if you are a human rights advocate, you are advocating for everyone's human rights; you can't pick and choose which human rights you want."His proudest personal moment has been becoming a father, to Rachel in 1997."The overriding thing for me in the disability field is working to achieve attitude change. The way society needs to see people with disabilities is just as agents of our own destiny. Getting on, living normal lives, raising children holding down jobs ... One of the hugest compliments for me is when people walk off without remembering I need to hang on to their arm. It means they've forgotten I'm blind for a moment, and I am Graeme or just the guy they are with - the disability has become irrelevant to the situation."As we finish lunch and his guide dog emerges from under the table to lead him back to work, I ask about the diamond stud sparkling in his left ear, which he explains is a teenage legacy of his refusal to hear "no"."It was the days when not many blokes wore earrings and I was talking about how a friend had got his ear pierced, and I said how neat I thought that was. My mother said, 'You're not going to get your ear pierced'. Well that was it, then. I went out and did it the next day."Life and times1955 Born in Ashfield.1959-71 Attended North Rocks School for the Blind. Represented NSW in national blind and vision-impaired cricket competitions.1971-73 Completed HSC at Ashfield Boys High.1974-78 One of the first blind students to study law at Sydney University and the College of Law.1981 In International Year of Disabled Persons asked by Carmel Niland to join fledgling Anti-Discrimination Board.1987 Moved to Western Australia where he met his wife, Maureen.1993 Volunteer advocate for the passage of the Anti-Discrimination Act.1995 Awarded medal in Order of Australia for work in disability.1997 Daughter Rachel born.2005 Appointed federal disability discrimination commissioner.2009 Race discrimination commissioner added to his responsibilities.

© 2011 Sydney Morning Herald

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