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Susan Ryan On Ageism And Feminism As She Departs Commissioner Role

'It was the only job where each time you had a birthday it was like a KPI achieved.'

29/07/2016 12:28 PM AEST | Updated July 30, 2016 19:51
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Ryan departed her role of Age and Disability Discrimination Commissioner on Thursday.

On Friday -- as Hillary Clinton made history formally accepting the Democratic presidential nomination -- Susan Ryan was embarking on her first day off, bringing to an end her tenure as Australia's Age and Disability Discrimination Commissioner.

Ryan made her own history a few decades ago, too, becoming the first female cabinet minister in a federal Labor government.

When she took on the role of Age Discrimination Commissioner five years ago -- and later, the Disability Discrimination Commissioner role -- Ryan realised the two issues weren't so different to the feminist agenda she'd fought for on the frontline.

"I'm often reminded of my experience as a young feminist at the beginning of the 1970s," Ryan told The Huffington Post Australia.

"We had all these barriers and you never saw women in senior positions anywhere, but now you do. Now it's a different world. It's not a shock to see a woman senior journalist, women judges, even women CEOs. There's not enough but they're not a shock when we see them.

"We see this, so then the prejudice that women can't do these things disappears and that's what I would like to see for older people and people in disabilities."

Age And Disability Discrimination In The Workforce

With an ageing country, this is becoming an increasingly important issue. The 2015 Intergenerational Report projected Australians aged 65 and over will more than double by 2055. The average life expectancy is increasing too, with men expected to live on average to 95 and women to 96 by 2055.

More Australians are wanting to work past 65 years of age and maintain economic independence for longer, said Ryan. However, they're facing discrimination and unconscious bias from potential employers and even their employers at times.

During her five year tenure, Ryan delivered recommendations to Attorney-General George Brandis, suggesting the public sector implement targets to get more elderly Australians and Australians with disabilities into the workforce.

In the private sector, Ryan put forward voluntary targets in the same areas with many Australian businesses leading the change.

"People with disability want the chance to have a job, have economic independence, live independently, have their own friends. They're things that every Australian wants and we shouldn't have unfair barriers preventing them from doing it," Ryan said.

As to what is the next fundamental change required to making that happen, Ryan said "nothing succeeds like success".

The four major banks are consciously hiring more elderly employees, with Westpac doing a significant work in the area, said Ryan. Insurance companies such as IAG and AMP have become notable leaders in this space too.

When it comes to hiring more Australians with disabilities, Australia Post and James Packer's Crown Resorts are leading the change on home soil. Crown hires three people with disabilities every month.

This gradual action removes the cultural prejudice, based on ignorance.

"Once people generally understand these things can happen -- because they are happening -- the prejudice starts to fade away," Ryan said.

Ryan's predecessor in the disability sector was Graeme Innes. Innes is a lawyer holding managerial positions at both Qantas and Westpac before becoming the Chair of People with Disability Australia.

He is also blind.

Alastair McEwin has recently been appointed the new Disability Discrimination Commissioner.

He is profoundly deaf.

"The demonstration power of that is great," Ryan said.

Elder Abuse

As Dr Kay Patterson takes over Ryan's role in the age sector, Ryan said there is still significant work to be done to remove the scourge of elder abuse across the nation, with financial abuse at the forefront of the problem.

Currently all states have differing laws around elder abuse and in particular, power of attorney laws which surprisingly causes a large amount of financial abuse. Victoria is the only state where there is a criminal conviction for misuse of the power of attorney position.

"I think the power of attorney issue really has to be developed," Ryan said.

The Law Reform Commission has begun a national inquiry into the laws surrounding elder abuse, but Ryan said a national database of power of attorneys needs to be established to monitor mistreatment.

"I feel even more distressed for older people, because they can't always do things for themselves.

"Mostly [the abuse] happens in the home, and mostly it happens to older people who are no longer going out and about. Unless someone picks up on what's happening, it remains hidden.

"I think in our communities we have to be much more aware of older people."

If Ryan had more time, she would have worked in the planning sector to encourage development of more inclusive communities starting from infrastructure -- building more community centres in suburbs.

"If old people can keep going out, keep going to their senior citizens club and just get out, they see other people. I think we should look at the planning of our current facilities because once there's loneliness and isolation, bad things follow," Ryan said.

"If people are going out and about, they're less likely to get caught into trouble as they have more advice available to them."

For the moment, Ryan is taking some time off, but her time in the workforce isn't over just yet.

Ryan is 73 -- an age she was more than proud of during her time as Age Discrimination Commissioner.

"It was the only job where each time you had a birthday it was like a KPI achieved."

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