Australian Blindness Forum
World Blind Union Asia-Pacific Mid-Term Regional Assembly
Reporting Country/Territory: Australia
Name of Person Reporting: Tony Starkey
Australian Blindness Forum
About the Australian Blindness Forum
The Australian Blindness Forum (ABF) is a not-for-profit organisation, whose purpose is to operate as the peak body representing the blindness sector for the benefit of people in Australia who are blind or vision impaired. In 2012, the ABF has 20 organisations as current financial members: Blind Citizens Australia; Blind Welfare Association of South Australia; CanDo4Kids; Guide Dogs NSW/ACT; Guide Dogs Queensland; Guide Dogs Victoria; Macular Degeneration Foundation; Royal Guide Dogs Tasmania; Royal Society for the Blind of South Australia; Vision Australia; Australian Deafblind Council; Blind Citizens WA; Canberra Blind Society; CBM Australia, RPH Australia, Blind Sports Australia, Humanware, Quantum RLV, Glaucoma Australia, and Blind Sports South Australia. The ABF is guided by a Board of Directors. In 20011-12, 3 out of 6 board members are people with blindness or vision impairment.
The mission of the ABF is to promote the effective functioning of blindness agencies by exchanging ideas and information and by influencing the policy agenda of governments.
The values of the ABF are:
- People who are blind or vision impaired are respected as individuals and are entitled to access the same rights as all Australians;
- Blindness agencies aim to provide quality supports to people who are blind or vision impaired along a continuum of care in ways that are efficient and effective;
- Blindness agencies involve people who are blind or vision impaired in the decisions and choices that affect them.
The objects of the ABF are to:
- Encourage exchange of information between members;
- Exert influence on government policy development;
- Enable blindness sector representation, both nationally and internationally;
- Enable Australia to facilitate its membership of the World Blind Union;
- Encourage and promote the development and equity of the level of services throughout Australasia.
Members Meetings and Forums
The ABF holds Member Forums two times per year, which cover key issues and important sector developments. These forums have focused on the proposed National Disability Insurance Scheme, and in hearing from the government, key policy makers, ministers and politicians to raise the ABF’s concerns and issues.
In 2012 the ABF grew in membership and the contributions to these debates and discussions continue to assist the ABF to address important issues to the highest levels of government.
Information and Policy
The ABF has met regularly with Australian Government Ministers, particularly the Parliamentary Secretary for Disabilities and Minister for Employment, as well as other ministers, politicians and local members.
The ABF provides a regular information newsletter which is highly valued by members. The newsletter promotes activities undertaken by the ABF, enables consultation on policy work, and provides information on national and international learning opportunities and other activities of interest to professionals working for service providers across the blindness or vision impairment sector.
The ABF publishes a regular update for members of the Australian Parliament. This update promotes the key issues for people who are blind or vision impaired, and provides information on the work of ABF members, especially on the new initiatives undertaken by ABF members to support people with blindness or vision impairment on both a national and international level.
The ABF works closely with National Disability Services (NDS) which is the national industry association for disability services, representing over 750 not-for-profit organisations throughout Australia. NDS’s members represent all type of disability, and range in size from small support groups to large multi-service organizations, and are located in every State and Territory of Australia.
As of 30 June 2009, Australia’s population reached 21,875, 000 (21.8 million) people. Of the total population, there were almost 575,000 Australians aged 40 or over with vision loss, and around 66,500 of this cohort were blind. Like many other developed countries, Australia’s population is ageing, due to sustained low fertility rates and increasing life expectancy. The ageing population means that a higher number of people will be expected to develop age-acquired vision disability in the coming decades.
By 2020, it is projected that there will be 800,000 people over the age of 40 who will be blind or vision impaired. It is believed that there are higher rates of blindness and vision impairment in Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, which is especially due to diseases of the eye and conditions such as cataracts and diabetes, and other factors like remoteness and access to services.
1. Highlights of the Past Two Years
National Disability Insurance Scheme and Aged Care Reforms
In August 2011, the Australian Government announced it endorsed the development of a new and more equitable scheme to support Australians with a disability, no matter how they acquired that disability. The National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) came out of recommendations from a Federal Government Inquiry into Disability Care and Support, and following a great deal of work and advocacy from the disability sector. The ABF, member organisations and individuals contributed to the Inquiry, with the Inquiry receiving over 1,000 submissions. However the ABF is not convinced that our members will be better off under the new scheme.
This year the Australian Government committed AUS$1 billion in to implement the NDIS in five trial sites, and to develop how the Scheme would look and operate. The start date for trial is mid-2013.and will be fully implemented 2018-19.
At the same time, the Government conducted an Inquiry in the Aged Care sector, and the outcome from this review is a reform of the provision of Aged Care services which impacts on the clientele of the blind and vision impaired sector.
It is still unclear how people who are blind or vision impaired will fare in an NDIS, and also the interface between the NDIS and the Aged Care sector. Of concern are many issues including the crossover to Aged Care and ensuring sight issues are not bundled into Aged Care Services, the episodic nature of access to services and maintaining the clear distinction in access to services and assistive technology by people in our sector. It is also not clear what the impact will be on fundraising if the NDIS is implemented.
The ABF continues to work with its members, sector stakeholders, and Australian governments at state and national levels to ensure that the needs of people who are blind or vision impaired will be met by the new Scheme.
Work Experience Program for Blind Or Vision Impaired Students
The ABF is operating a Work Experience Program throughout Australia, for students who are blind or vision impaired to work in a Government Department, initially the Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs (FaHCSIA).
The program has placed students in three states so far, and hopefully more students and in more states in 2013. The ABF meets with Directors in Disability Programs state government Education departments to identify students, and link them to the FaHCSIA.
So far the Program has been successful, with students very positive and keen to complete work experience, and the workplace benefiting from the experience of working with someone with a disability. The program highlights the student’s capability and skill set, and the ABF hopes that it sets the student on the path to ongoing employment.
Review of Disability Standards for Education
A report on the Review of the Disability Standards for Education was released in Australia, with the Government endorsing the findings and committing to working to address the findings.
The report provides valuable information on what needs to happen to support students with disability in education. The Review found that although the Standards provide a good framework for enabling students to access and participate in education, more work needs to be done to ensure the Standards are implemented effectively. As a result, the Report makes 14 recommendations to improve the effectiveness of the Standards. These cover the following key themes:
- Awareness raising
- Improving clarity
- Access and participation, discrimination and inclusion
- Complaints, accountability, and compliance processes
- Contemporary education practice and related issues.
The ABF Education Committee compiled an evaluation of the recommendations of the Report on Education with how they relate to people who are blind or vision impaired, for use by its members.
2. On-Going Initiatives for UNCRPD Implementation
Proposed Changes to Australian Standards Including Wayfinding
The ABF Access to Premises Committee have been involved in working with the Australian Government on Standards for transport in Australia.
The ABF has been advocating for this Standard for many years and held a National Workshop in Adelaide in which ABF members, Attorney Generals Department, the Property Council among others and together with Standards Australia formulated a plan to ensure that by the 2015 review of the Access to Premises legislation a Wayfinding Standard is ready for inclusion.
That was two years ago, and now this project is a reality with the results of the recent workshop being presented to a Standards Australia reference group shortly it is hoped that the actual work to formulate new Standards will begin.
It is anticipated that the Standard will be ready for public consultation within 18 months to two years. The other Standards being worked on are Adaptable Housing and Fixtures, and Fitout within the 1428 set of standards.
Talking Set Top Boxes for Televisions
In another case of equality and providing the same level of accessibility to other Australians, people who are blind and vision impaired were discriminated against in being able to watch television. In Australia, the government is switching over from analogue television transmission to digital transmission. The government has a program to provide digital set top boxes to those that cannot afford to convert their television to the new format. The ABF and member organisations including Blind Citizens Australia successfully advocating that people who are blind or vision impaired should receive audio- describing, or ‘talking’ set top boxes. However, the Government still took a long time to understand the needs of the blind sector, and people who had already been switched over had to fight for their talking set top box, and did people who had a digital television already.
Obstacles to a Secret and Independent Vote for People Who Are Blind
It was recently made public that the proposed method of voting for people who are blind in the next Federal election would once again be via a human in a call centre, as per the 2010 Federal election. This was an unexpected announcement, as this option had previously been presented by the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) as an interim step toward a form of electronic assisted voting which would not require any human assistance.
While the proposal for the next Federal election will allow a person who is blind to pre-register and therefore be able to cast their vote by calling the call centre from their home or work phone, we do not believe that it affords people who are blind the same level of secrecy and independence as citizens who are not blind. At best, it is only an extension of assisted voting.
Prior to the 2010 Federal election, the Federal Government passed enabling legislation that provides the AEC Electoral Commissioner with the authority to implement voting options for people who are blind without having to seek additional Parliamentary approval. BCA and ABF, as members of the AEC’s Blind Voting Reference Group, are advocating for the adoption of the I-Vote system which was developed for the 2011 NSW State Election. I-Vote, used by 45,000 voters across a number of eligible categories, offered fully accessible internet and phone interfaces that enabled blind voters to cast a secret and independent vote without the need for human assistance.
Following meetings in June, advocacy on this matter is ongoing, with further work and representation occurring at a Federal level to ensure that the voting mechanism used at the Federal election supports a secret and independent vote.
Trial of Audio Description on ABC 1
A trial of audio description (AD) on the national media broadcaster in Australia, the ABC, began on one channel in August 2012.
A 13-week trial that comprised of 14 hours of AD per week in primetime viewing occurred with programs with AD on air between 5pm and 12am every night of the week, with an average of two hours of programming per night.
Further information has not been released, but we are hopeful of more AD programs and at least a greater understanding of the need for AD programs for our sector.
3. Key Challenges
The key challenge for the ABF and its members is currently the proposed National Disability Insurance Scheme, and the Aged Care reforms, as mentioned above.
Both of these issues require our organisation and our sector to be engaged with Government on all levels to remain in the discussion, and to ensure that our needs are addressed.
4. Activities of the ABF and Members
Equipment Recycling Project
The Australian Blindness Forum is committed to providing as much assistance as we can to people who are blind or have low vision across the Asia-Pacific region. Low tech items are provided through the ABF Equipment Recycling Site at http://www.rsb.org.au/wbu/index.html Items such as white canes, recorders, magnification equipment, talking calculators, etc. have been distributed to requesting countries across the world.
Vision Australia is transitioning to a digital library, and they have made our analogue collection available to countries that would benefit. In the last four years they have sent shipments of audio-books to many countries in the Pacific including Fiji, Kirabati, Vanuatu, Samoa, and Papua New Guinea. The most recent shipment was a large container of Tape Aids for the Blind in South Africa.
Capacity Building Program for Visitors From Indonesia
In partnership with Nossal Institute, Vision Australia obtained a grant through the AusAID Australian Leadership Award Program to run a capacity building program for leaders from the Pertuni Blind Union in Indonesia. Pertuni is a national Disabled People’s Organisation in Indonesia, established to promote the interests and rights of Indonesia’s vision impaired community.
Nossal Institute coordinated the program and managed all aspects of the four week course that was held in Melbourne from 27 August to 21 September 2012.
There were a total of ten people in the visiting party, eight of whom undertaking the leadership program, being blind or having low vision. Guide Dogs Victoria supported the attendees, and their services are outlined in the next item.
Maryanne Diamond, President of the World Blind Union, and the General Manager International and Stakeholder Relations, Vision Australia, hosted the visitors at Vision Australia Kooyong for training covering advocacy, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities (CRPD), human rights and adaptive technology, for several days from 29 August. On 4 September, participants spent the day at Blind Citizens Australia for a program including an overview of BCA and the work they do.
A peer networking opportunity was also arranged at Blind Citizens Australia bringing together blind and low vision members of Vision Australia staff, and members of Blind Citizens Australia, to meet and foster relationships with the group. It was a delight to meet and spend time with these visitors and we wish them well upon their return to Indonesia.
*As Vision Australia transitions to a digital library, we have made our analogue collection available to countries that would benefit. In the last four years we have sent shipments of audio-books to many countries in the Pacific including Fiji, Kirabati, Vanuatu, Samoa, and Papua New Guinea. Our most recent shipment was a large container to Tape Aids For the Blind in South Africa.
Guide Dogs Victoria
Guide Dogs Victoria supported the 8 blind people from Indonesia (mentioned above) in August 2012 with orientation and mobility whilst in Melbourne.
The attendees were provided with apartments and given orientation and mobility training around their apartments and within the “hustle & bustle” of the city of Melbourne. Orientation and mobility training involved flexibility around prayer time (Muslim), orientation to restaurants that were Halal, navigating supermarkets and universities to further develop a range of mobility skills.
At the end of the first two days, clients were unable to achieve independent travel to many of the objectives however as a group they certainly felt comfortable and safe to travel together. It was impressive how well these adults supported each other. At the end of the two days, the clients learnt what is possible with orientation and mobility training in relation to the following:
- Self and Sense
- Thinking and Problem Solving
- Environments and Access
- Route Travel
- 10. Mobility Aids.
Guide Dogs Victoria staff have also worked with other countries as required however it may be possible as a result of the learning’s from this project to develop a more formalised international aid project in Orientation and Mobility.
A Vision for Bhutan – Royal Society for the Blind
A Paediatric Ophthalmologist and an Orthoptist from Bhutan visited Adelaide in August 2011 to learn more about low vision and low vision client services from local leaders in the field of blindness.
Dechen Wangmo and Abi Narayan visited the Royal Society for the Blind (RSB), South Australian School for Vision Impaired (SASVI), CanDo 4 Kids, the Royal Adelaide Hospital and the Children’s Hospital. The visit was coordinated by the Sight For All Foundation and the RSB.
Wangmo and Narayan attended the RSB Low Vision Centre Clinic at RSB’s Knapman House, where they met with an RSB Ophthalmologist to learn about low vision rehabilitation and other RSB services. Wangmo and Narayan were able to follow the continuum of care offered by the RSB from entry at the point of referral at the Low Vision Clinic, to assessment by RSB Ophthalmologists, counsellors, adaptive technology, Peer Support groups, Support Workers, Mobility and Orientation Instructors, Employment Services and the RSB Guide Dog Service.
These services are provided free of charge to RSB Clients and can be accessed when needed or required to enable each client to live as independently as possible.
The visit is part of a capacity building program referred to as the Low Vision Fellowship. The training program aims to assist in the education of eye health and eye care professionals in developing countries. Capacity building is about strengthening and developing the skills of eye health professionals from developing countries to assist them to develop their own eye health programs best suited to their own countries conditions.
Training in PNG
The National Board for Disabled Persons in Papua New Guinea have requested the assistance of Vision Australia to conduct a one week Assistive Technology awareness and training workshop. Delivered from Port Moresby, the workshop will include participants from the four regions of Papua New Guinea, assistive technologists from tertiary institutions, the National Special Education Co-ordinator, representatives from Australasian Disability Professionals/ National Board for Disabled Persons/NACD, the Department of Community Development and vision impaired persons.
The workshop will focus on building local capacity by establishing networks, demonstrating various software options, sharing resources and providing hands on training for approximately twenty individuals. The training will be facilitated by two Vision Australia staff experienced in Assistive Technology training and assessment.
NDVA Screen Reader Development
NonVisual Desktop Access (NVDA) is a free and open source screen reader for the Microsoft Windows operating system, developed in Australia. Providing feedback via synthetic speech and Braille, it enables blind or vision impaired people to access computers running Windows for no more cost than a sighted person. Major features include support for 36 languages and the ability to run entirely from a USB drive with no installation. NVDA is developed by NV Access, with contributions from the community.
It is important that people anywhere in the world, no matter what language they speak, get equal access to technology. Besides English, NVDA has been translated into 36 languages including: Afrikaans, Albanian, Arabic, Brazilian Portuguese, Bulgarian, Croatian, Czech, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, French, Galician, Georgian, German, Hebrew, Hindi, Hungarian, Icelandic, Italian, Japanese, Norwegian, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian, Russian, Serbian, Slovak, Spanish, Swedish, Tamil, Thai, Traditional and Simplified Chinese, Turkish, Ukrainian and Vietnamese.
See more about this free Australian invention at http://www.nvda-project.org/
Guide Dogs Queensland QLD – East Timor Eye Care Project
Guide Dogs Queensland Rehabilitation Services Manager Bashir Ebrahim OAM has been spending time in East Timor contributing to an exciting new support program called the ‘East Timor Eye Care Project’. The project is being run by the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons and the Australia/Timor Leste Program of Assistance for Specialised Services. Its aim is to establish training and support services for Timorese people who are blind or vision impaired.
As part of his contribution Mr Ebrahim helped establish a Low Vision Stakeholder’s Forum and is developing an orientation and mobility community-based rehabilitation workers course for the project. He has also worked directly local people needing orientation and mobility training and instruction in the White Cane.
The project has been supported by Vision 2020 and AusAID and Mr Ebrahim says it’s a privilege to have contributed to the team effort to improve life for people in Timor- Leste. He said the challenges faced by the local people who are blind are immense – there are no footpaths, obstacles at every turn and very little training and support in aids.
Aboriginal Eye Health Initiative
The My Eye Health Program (MEHP) was formed from a partnership between four key South Australian organisations – the Royal Society for the Blind (RSB), the Freemason Foundation, the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Ophthalmologists (SA Branch) and the Sight for All Foundation.
The MEHP has been working together in a partnership with the Adelaide Football Club (AFC) and the Aboriginal Health Council of SA (AHCSA) to develop strategies to increase awareness about eye health in Aboriginal communities in South Australia.
The Aboriginal community idolises their football heroes, so this was seen as a powerful conduit to relay eye health messages into these isolated communities.
The MEHP has been involved in the APY (Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara) Lands Development Week over the past two years (2011 and 2012). This program, organised through the AFC, gives football players from the APY Lands and Maralinga the chance to spend a week in Adelaide in training and development activities, culminating in playing the opening match prior to a major AFL game. A presentation about eye health is delivered to the young football players, with the idea that they will take back the message to their communities.
The MEHP also supports the ‘AFC Crows in Schools’ program in the APY Lands. The MEHP works closely with AHCSA to educate the AFC Crows players on eye health messages relating to trachoma prevention and regular eye checks. Sports and youth inspired resources have been developed to strengthen these messages including mini footballs and an eye health rap song!
Eyes – It’s a Rap!
Aboriginal artist, Caper’s new rap music video encourages indigenous Australians to check their eye health.
As part of the My Eye Health Program, the Sight for All Foundation approached Caper, also known as Colin Darcy, to write and record the song ‘Eyes’ as a way to raise awareness of the importance of eye health in Aboriginal communities where the risk of vision loss in adults is six times higher than the rest of Australia.
A collaboration in Australia is working on the first bionic eye. Bionic Vision Australia (BVA) is a consortium of world-leading Australian researchers that includes Bionics Institute (BI), The University of Melbourne, The University of New South Wales, the Centre for Eye Research Australia (CERA) and the National Information Communications Technology Australia (NICTA). The Royal Victorian Eye and Ear Hospital is the clinical.
The bionic vision system consists of a camera, attached to a pair of glasses, which transmits high-frequency radio signals to a microchip implanted in the retina. Electrodes on the implanted chip convert these signals into electrical impulses to stimulate cells in the retina that connect to the optic nerve. These impulses are then passed down along the optic nerve to the vision processing centres of the brain, where they are interpreted as an image.
To benefit from this technology, patients need to have a functional visual pathway from the retina to the brain along the optic nerve, as well as some intact retinal cells. As such, the two medical conditions that this technology aims to address are retinitis pigmentosa and age-related macular degeneration.
 Australian Bureau of Statistics (2009) Population by Age and Sex, Australian States and Territories, June 2009. Canberra: ABS Cat No.3201.0