Greg Killeen on the cost of discrimination

If you have a disability, like me, you have probably experienced the way disability discrimination can affect your daily life’, writes Greg Killeen on the ABC site, Ramp Up.

I have spent the past five years fighting the discrimination I experienced when using wheelchair accessible taxis (WATs). My fight to achieve justice has been a long one. Here, I share some of the battle and the lessons learnt.

So-called ‘wheelchair accessible taxis’

‘I acquired quadriplegia many years ago after a spinal cord injury. I rely on an electric wheelchair for mobility and I use the Sydney WAT service for about 99% of my transport needs.

‘In early 2006, I got a new wheelchair after carefully researching its size to ensure it would fit inside the WATs. However, it quickly became evident that some of these WATs were too small for my new wheelchair.

‘It often happened that I would book a WAT only to find that when it arrived, and when I tried to get in it, the door would not close or the access ramp could not be folded inside the vehicle. I would then have to book another WAT and was often late for medical appointments and meetings.

‘The Federal Disability Standards for Accessible Public Transport prescribe the minimum amount of space inside a WAT. The standards are mandatory and are meant to ensure that public transport is accessible.

‘Given the research I had done on my wheelchair size, I came to the view that many WATs did not comply with the standards.

‘It was not just me who encountered this problem. I soon discovered many other people with disability were experiencing the same thing.


The battle

‘So I decided to take this issue on. In June 2006, I wrote to the NSW Transport Minister; without result.

‘I then took the complaint to the NSW Ombudsman. After 18 months, and despite a number of positive recommendations, the Ombudsman did not address the crux of my complaint.

‘I wanted all WATs in NSW to be audited for compliance with the standards, and to be retrofitted if they weren’t compliant.

‘With the assistance of the Public Interest Advocacy Centre (PIAC), I then filed a disability discrimination complaint with the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC). The complaint was against the NSW Department of Transport, two Sydney taxi companies and two vehicle conversion companies. A conciliation meeting was held in September 2009 but it was unsuccessful.

The costs of justice

‘The choice I faced was to drop the complaint and allow the discrimination to continue, or I could pursue the complaint in the Federal Court. I didn’t want to give up and so I decided to go to court.

‘However, there is a huge disincentive in pursuing a disability discrimination complaint in the courts. Even if you and your lawyers believe it is a winnable case, nothing is certain. If I lost the case, I would be liable to pay the legal costs of the respondents.

‘To avoid this possibility, PIAC asked the court for a ‘costs cap’. The court and the respondents agreed. This meant that if I lost the case, there was a limit to the costs I would have to pay.

‘As well, PIAC secured indemnity funding from IMF Australia and Spinal Cord Injuries Australia. Both of these organisations agreed to cover costs if I lost the case.

‘Finally, after five long years, the complaint has successfully resolved. From October 2011, all new WATs in NSW will have to provide more room in the allocated space without encroachments.

Is there a better way?

‘It should not be up to people with disability, like me, to pursue disability discrimination complaints in the courts.

‘I believe there is an urgent need for the Federal Government to amend federal discrimination laws so that the AHRC has the power to make orders against discriminatory organisations. Alternatively, the AHRC, or another body, could be given the power to undertake discrimination complaints in the courts on behalf of people with disability.

‘When I decided to pursue this complaint I couldn’t have imagined the rollercoaster ride that was ahead of me. I was not seeking any financial compensation but I did want justice for myself and other people with disability. I decided to fight because we need wheelchair accessible taxis that are wheelchair accessible!

‘I wish to thank the Public Interest Advocacy Centre, IMF Australia and Spinal Cord Injuries Australia, and my barristers, Alan Robertson SC and Kate Eastman. I would not have been able to pursue this complaint without their advice, time and support.’

Greg Killeen lives in Sydney and is a disability advocate.

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