Alastair McEwin: “A perfect role for me”

alastair mcewin

BDN was delighted to catch up recently with Deaf Society of NSW President Alastair McEwin following his appointment to the post of Disability Discrimination Commissioner at the Australian Human Rights Commission which he describes as “a perfect role combining all my passions and experience”. He will become the first Deaf person to hold this position in Australia when he begins his term in late July.

Alastair McEwin was born profoundly deaf in a hearing family. He spent his first years on his family’s farm near Naracoorte in South Australia, and then moved to Adelaide with his family to attend the South Australian Oral School (now called the Cora Barclay Centre), where he learnt to speak and lip-read.

Alastair has over 20 years of experience as an effective advocate for the rights of people with disability in Australia and around the world. His contribution to the global and Australian Deaf communities, to the Australian communities of people with disability, and to the Australian community at large has been relentless since he entered the workforce. He is a sought after speaker at conferences and community events, often delivering powerful presentations using Auslan. He is a recognised and respected role model who works tirelessly to assist other people with disability to achieve their full potential.

Alastair lives in Sydney and Adelaide with his partner, Professor Michael Kidd AM.

Can you please explain the process and why you were tempted to apply for the post of Australia’s Disability Discrimination Commissioner? 

The process for appointment was through an open and transparent selection process based on merit. The Australian government distributed an advertisement for applications for the roles of Age Discrimination Commissioner, Disability Discrimination Commissioner and Human Rights Commissioner. Interviews were held for all three positions. The positions were approved by the Governor-General of Australia, on the recommendation of the Australian Government.

I saw this role as a natural progression and next step up from the roles I have held in the past 20 years. My current role is as Executive Director of Community Legal Centres NSW, which advocates for access to justice for all. I see the role of law as very important in realising the human rights of all people with disability; if people with disability cannot access justice, then it is difficult for them to achieve full equality before the law. I am also the current President of the Deaf Society, as well as the current Chairperson of the Disability Council of NSW – through these, and other roles I have a deep appreciation for the issues that face people with disability – I was therefore looking for a role where I can advocate on these issues for all people with disability around Australia. The Disability Discrimination Commissioner role is, to me, a perfect role combining all my passions and experience.

As far as I know, I am the first Deaf person to be appointed to this role in Australia since it was first formed back in the early 1990s. I cannot, however, say or comment on whether it is a first in the world. I am for example, generally aware that Deaf people in the USA have reached prominent roles in the government, however I am not aware of whether these are equivalent roles to mine.

What will the Government expect you to achieve during your term of office?

As I have not yet commenced in my role, I am yet to set the high priorities for my 5-year term. However, I can say that with the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) now being rolled out across Australia, I expect a significant part of my role will be to monitor progress of implementation of the NDIS and advise the government on any issues arising from this.

Will your Government consider following New Zealand’s model with a new Sign Language Act for Australia?

Whilst I am aware that there has been discussion amongst the Australian Deaf community of recognition of Auslan as an official language of Australia, I cannot comment on whether the government will consider this, without having seen any formal proposals to do so. That said, Auslan is recognised as a community language here in Australia and I will ensure, wherever possible, it is given appropriate recognition as the language of the Australian Deaf community. This would include ensuring access to Auslan interpreters to achieve equity of communication.

Can you please tell us what issues are most important to the Deaf community in Australia? 

As a long-standing member of the Deaf community, I know the most important issues include: access to appropriately-qualified Auslan interpreters in all areas of life (education, employment etc.); access to appropriate and inclusive education; access to visual resources, such as films and videos, through captions for the deaf/hard of hearing people (this includes increasing the amount of captioned TV programs and movies in cinemas).

After Drisana’s success in winning the Young Australian Award, and now your appointment, this is a good time for Deaf people in Australia. Can you explain how this feels?

Drisana Levitzke-Gray did a wonderful job of being an effective and passionate ambassador for the Deaf community last year during her term as Young Australian of the Year. She worked hard to raise the profile of Auslan as our language and was effective in getting many hearing people to talk about this. I am really grateful to Drisana for this and I look forward to continuing to ensure the wider community is aware of the importance of Auslan as the language of the Deaf community. It is a great time for the Deaf community and I feel very excited about the opportunity to work as the Disability Discrimination Commissioner as a proud Deaf man.

Anything else you would like to say to our readers?

I am honoured that the BDA has taken an interest in my appointment. I value the friendships I have with many Deaf people around the world. In my years of travels, including to World Federation of the Deaf congresses, I have learnt a lot about myself as a Deaf person. The support and wisdom I have had from my many Deaf friends, both here in Australia and around the globe, have helped me in my journey. I feel privileged that I have been appointed to a role that will enable me to advocate for the rights of all people with disability.

Here’s how Alastair’s friend and BDA Trustee, Robert Adam, reacted to the appointment:

“It was amazing for me to hear the news that my friend Alastair McEwin has been appointed as Disability Discrimination Commissioner at the Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission (HREOC) in Australia. We were fellow Board members of the Australian Association of the Deaf (AAD) more than 15 years ago when we were much younger, and we also worked together to organise the XVII World Congress of the World Federation of the Deaf in Brisbane in 1999.

“During my time as President of the AAD I had an opportunity to meet with previous HREOC Commissioners when we were lobbying for telecommunications access, television subtitling, cinema subtitling and other very important issues and so it is a great milestone that a Deaf person has been appointed to this role.

“It is a great achievement and I am very proud of my friend, Alastair. He will do well, and he will continue to be a great ambassador for Deaf people and people with disabilities.”