This piece continues from Part I of this series authored by Shirley Liu.
Access to information is a key component of the full enjoyment of human rights and fundamental freedoms. Without accessible, timely and complete information, people cannot live independent and full lives, and their safety may be at risk. The reality of this situation for the Deaf Community (those who use Auslan to communicate) in Australia during natural disasters such as the 2019-2020 bushfire crisis and global health crises such as the Coronavirus pandemic was made clear by Shirley Liu in Part I of this series. This second part sets out international legal obligations arising from the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), along with how these rights have been interpreted by the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (the Committee). Deafness falls under the disability framework as it is a sensory impairment which, in interaction with various barriers, may hinder a person’s full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others (CRPD, Article 1) – however it should be remembered that ‘it is the environment that is disabling, not the impairment itself’.
International human rights law
Australia ratified the CRPD in 2008 and has committed to respecting the rights of persons with disabilities, including deaf and hard of hearing people. While Australia has implemented the Convention in many areas, disability advocates have highlighted that people with disabilities still experience human rights violations, and some gaps remain in Australia’s inclusion of the Deaf Community. The CRPD requires States Parties to ensure that people who use sign language can receive information on an equal basis with others (Article 21). Use of sign languages should also be facilitated, recognised and promoted by states (ibid). Access to information is linked to accessibility, independent living and participation in the community, and Article 9 stipulates that States Parties shall take appropriate measures to ensure to persons with disabilities access, on an equal basis with others, to information and communications provided to the public, including emergency services, and shall eliminate obstacles and barriers to accessibility. States parties agree to ensure that private entities, such as corporate broadcasters, take into account all aspects of accessibility for persons with disabilities (Article 9). In situations of risk and natural disasters, States must take all necessary measures to ensure the protection and safety of persons with disabilities (Article 11).
In its interpretation of the CRPD, the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities has noted that States should ensure that all information pertaining to social protection measures is accessible through sign language (General Comment 2, para. 42). Accessible information and communication is considered to be a ‘vital precondition for the effective enjoyment’ of human rights, and the Committee notes that people with disabilities must be able to access emergency services, ‘or their lives cannot be saved or their well-being protected’ (General Comment 2, para. 36). States Parties must consider in advance the obligation to provide support services to persons with disabilities in all disaster risk management activities and ‘make sure that they are not left behind or forgotten’ (General Comment 5, para. 79). The Committee calls on States to enact and enforce laws, standards and other measures with the purpose of making information and communication accessible to all persons with disabilities (General Comment 5, para. 97).
Australia’s implementation of its CRPD obligations
In response to Australia’s periodic reporting to the Committee, the Committee has noted with concern that ‘disability needs are often not explicitly factored into disaster response measures’ (Concluding Observations 2013, para. 22). It further expressed its concern that Australia has failed to provide information in accessible formats and effectively promote and facilitate Auslan, and recommended that Australia recognise Auslan as one of the national languages of Australia (Concluding Observations 2013, paras. 43-44). In 2019, the Committee reiterated its concerns and recommended that Australia establish a fully accessible and inclusive mechanism to engage with persons with disabilities in the implementation and monitoring of the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-2030 (Concluding Observations 2019, paras. 21-22). The Sendai Framework advocates for a people-centred approach to disaster risk which integrates a disability perspective and empowers people with disabilities to publicly lead and promote equitable and accessible disaster responses. According to the Framework, persons with disabilities are critical in designing and implementing disaster risk and response plans. In regard to Article 21, the Committee expressed its concern that there are no legally binding information and communications standards that require information to be fully accessible, and recommended the adoption of laws and standards ensuring information is provided in Auslan and that Auslan be promoted and supported (Concluding Observations 2019, paras. 41-42).
By neglecting to ensure that the Deaf Community has consistent and enforceable access to information during times of natural disaster, Australia is failing to live up to its international human rights commitments under the CRPD. As explained by Shirley Liu in Part I, even where interpreters are present at emergency briefings, they are often not adequately included on screen in the broadcast. Auslan is a language distinct from English, and English captioning is not a substitute for picture-in-picture interpretation of critical information. Australia lacks a robust legal framework requiring Auslan interpretation and providing avenues for enforcement. Without Auslan interpretation, Deaf people do not have access to important social services on an equal basis with others.
The Deaf Community has long been advocating for a more inclusive disaster response framework. Deaf Australia’s Position Statement on ‘Provisioning of Accessible Emergency Announcement and Disaster Support’ provides guidance on minimum standards that federal, state and territory government agencies charged with providing access to information and disaster preparation and relief for deaf and hard of hearing people should meet, including adequate budgeting for sourcing interpreters, participation of Deaf Community representatives in disaster planning and policy making, and monitoring of broadcasts to ensure visibility of interpreters. In order to fulfil its obligations to deaf and hard of hearing residents, Australia should listen to the Deaf Community, ensure that they are able to participate in decision-making surrounding emergency planning and response, and implement their recommendations as to how to achieve equal access to emergency information for all.
Stephanie Triefus is a PhD Candidate at Erasmus University Rotterdam in the field of human rights and international investment law and an Assistant Editor of the ILA Reporter.