Get to know Australia’s Disability Discrimination Commissioner – Alastair McEwin

As a 14-year-old boy growing up in Adelaide, I have a vivid and searing recollection of a particular lesson in history class one day.  We were studying ancient Greek history and I learnt that babies with obvious physical deformities were reported to have been routinely thrown off cliffs or left to die, deserted by their parents and families in the open or in forests away from the tribes. I well remember feeling a sense of shock and thinking that this was grossly unfair and unjust and that everyone, irrespective of how they may appear, has the right to a meaningful life in the community.  I have often looked back on this history lesson as one of my most formative moments that set me on the path to wanting to make a positive difference for people with disability.

As Australia’s Disability Discrimination Commissioner, it is my role and responsibility to promote and protect the human rights of all people with disability in Australia.  I came to the role with a strong background in advocacy.  A few years after that pivotal history lesson, I commenced combined studies in Arts and Law at the University of Adelaide.  I chose law studies as I recognised that having an understanding of the law would likely help me in my advocacy for disability rights.  I have a distinct memory of not being particularly interested in pursuing the traditional career path of a lawyer – becoming a solicitor in a law firm; I just couldn’t picture myself doing that.   Instead, I had visions of broad-scale systemic advocacy and policy work; I even had heady notions of working at the United Nations one day.  Becoming a Disability Discrimination Commissioner however was not even on my radar during those days as a young university student.

Following two years of post-graduate legal studies at the University of British Columbia (UBC) in Vancouver, Canada, the first year of which was on a Rotary Ambassadorial scholarship, I returned to Adelaide to work as an associate for a Federal Court judge.  A great year of learning opportunities, including observing the many different styles of advocacy on display in the court by barristers.  I then moved to Sydney to take up a graduate position with Accenture, a global management consulting firm.  From there, I moved into the not-for-profit sector, working at the Australian Centre for Disability Law, People with Disability Australia (PWDA) and, immediately prior to my current role, Community Legal Centres NSW.  In parallel with my professional career, I have also been on the boards of a range of disability organisations, such as Deaf Australia, the Deaf Society of NSW and the Australian Communication Exchange.  All my professional roles have given me vast experience in advocacy and policy work, as well as skills in management and leadership.

The role of Disability Discrimination Commissioner is one that I take as a great privilege and honour to serve the community in this way.  Fundamentally, the work I do is driven by the views and experiences of people with disability themselves.  When I commenced in July 2016, I saw it as important to consult with the disability community to ensure the work I do is reflective of their views on the important issues of discrimination that we face in Australian society.  To that end, I have six priority areas that shape and guide the work I do; these areas are: employment, education, housing, criminal justice system, NDIS and violence against people with disability.  There are many other areas that are also important and I keep a watching brief on these.  I am based at the Australian Human Rights Commission in Sydney and travel regularly around the country meeting with disability, community and government stakeholders.  Ultimately, at the end of my term, it is my aim to see an Australia that is far more accessible and inclusive than when I commenced in July 2016.

Alastair McEwin
Australian Disability Discrimination Commissioner

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