By Emma Bennison

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As always, a lot has been happening at BCA. I want to give you a summary and then offer some reflections on a recent personal highlight.

The BCA board and senior staff met face-to-face in July. The meeting coincided with the launch of the NSW/ACT State Division. A key element was a review of BCA’s strategic plan. Good progress was made, and consultation with our members and key stakeholders will now take place, to refine our strategic direction over the next two years.

Guide Dogs Australia’s National Policy Advisor, Jaci Armstrong, provided us with practical insights into how we can ensure our engagement with Ministers and politicians is as effective as possible in achieving positive advocacy outcomes. We also resolved to formalise a well-being strategy to actively provide support to our organisation’s leaders, aspiring leaders and staff.

State and National Conventions were also on our agenda. We confirmed that our National Convention will be held in Hobart from 29 March to 1 April 2019. You can find some preliminary information about the Convention elsewhere in this edition.

The organisation’s commitment to Aboriginal people was also reaffirmed. In particular, the importance of continuing the work commenced by BCA and First Peoples Disability Network as part of the first Aboriginal Blind Persons Gathering in 2017. The gathering highlighted the unnecessary burdens on the lives of Aboriginal Australians, and the unique challenges they experience in accessing the NDIS and My Aged Care, public transport and appropriate services and disability diagnoses, particularly in regional and rural areas.

Whilst on the subject of ensuring we reach marginalized communities, we have taken another important step recently, by adding a language translation feature to our website. The language feature is located at the very top of the webpage (on all pages) and is accessed via a dropdown menu. We welcome your feedback on the new feature, and hope to continue improving the ways we communicate with people from non-English speaking backgrounds.

We have had a number of staffing changes of late. We said a reluctant farewell to Lauren Henley, our Policy and advocacy Manager. We also said a temporary good-bye to our NSW/ACT Coordinator, Krystel Malcolm, who is now on maternity leave. On behalf of members and staff, we congratulate Krystel and her husband Nemoy on the birth of their new baby boy, Nathan.

Angela Jaeschke has stepped into the role of Acting Policy and Advocacy Manager, and Sally Aurisch is Acting as NSW/ACT Coordinator. Finally, our NSW/ACT Administration Officer, Melea OConnell, has moved on to pursue new opportunities. We are currently recruiting for a new Project Officer and a new NSW/ACT Administration Officer, so watch this space.

So now, some reflections on my personal highlight. On the 24th of July, a conference hosted by the Australian Human Rights Commission marked the launch of a major project looking at the intersection of technology and Human Rights, and the release of a discussion paper that will direct consultations over the next two years.

I was honoured to be invited to join Disability Discrimination Commissioner, Alastair McEwin, and CEO of the Centre for Inclusive Design, Dr Manisha Amin, on a panel discussing the impact of emerging and future technologies on people with disability.

Amongst other things, I took every possible opportunity to highlight the fact that Australia lags behind other OECD countries in relation to audio description. I also talked about the fact that when touch screen devices and other new technologies are developed in consultation with people who are blind or vision impaired from the design phase, they can be very accessible.

But too often, we are either completely forgotten, or not consulted until the testing phase, when it is too late to make significant hardware changes.

Further, I suggested that one of the most effective ways to ensure people with disability are not excluded from technological development is to employ them in technology companies. Another key area we discussed was the effectiveness of the disability Discrimination Act in relation to improving access to technology.

The panel agreed that the legislation had been effective to some extent, and that we are very fortunate to have the DDA, but that it requires reform. I made the point that the system relies on people with disability to prove discrimination, and that process can be time-consuming and exhausting.

Somewhat fortuitously as it turned out, on the morning of the conference, I discovered that the lift in my hotel featured neither braille nor large print numbers. I was able to use a new technology called Aira to quickly locate the button I needed and get to the conference. For those unfamiliar with Aira, it is a new remote visual interpreting technology which connects people who are blind or vision impaired with trained agents via their smart phone. Agents can provide immediate description via the phone’s camera, or via a camera mounted on a pair of glasses.

This story perfectly demonstrated how new technology has the potential to revolutionise the lives of people who are blind or vision impaired, providing it is affordable and accessible. But such technology, I pointed out, also has the potential to make us complacent in our advocacy efforts. For instance, if I can complete an inaccessible PDF form with the help of a service like Aira, will I be less likely to contact the content creator to request an accessible version?

I hypothesized that it would have the opposite effect. I reflected on how significantly my stress levels have been reduced as a result of being able to access sighted assistance when and where I needed it, leaving me with more time and energy to advocate for change. I also reflected on the significant positive shift I had noticed in relation to people’s attitudes towards me when using this technology while travelling, and my belief that over time, it has the potential to positively impact on public perceptions of people who are blind or vision impaired. I certainly hope that is the case.

The panel session was recorded for the ABC’s “Big Ideas” program, which you can play or download online. Perhaps listening to it will inspire you to offer your perspective on how technology is impacting on your human rights for the next issue of Blind Citizens News.

I look forward to reading your contributions, and to continuing these conversations with some of you at the upcoming NSW/ACT State Convention.

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