The Observatory

Q&A with Darren Fittler

Fresh from winning the Human Rights 2014 Human Rights Law Award, Darren Fittler talks to Vision 2020 Australia about what drives him in his career and in life.

  • Darren, your career has been filled with accomplishments, what have been some of the highlights for you?

It really is difficult to put my finger on any one career achievement. I have been fortunate to have the opportunity to be involved in many things. But if I had to choose, my top four career highlights so far would have to be:

Being admitted as a lawyer. This was perhaps one of the most rewarding days of my life as it marked the end of law school, the end of College of Law and the end of the practical legal component–in other words, I had become a qualified practicing lawyer … finally!

Establishing my own practice within Gilbert + Tobin providing legal services to charities and not-for-profits in 2010 as my specialty area of expertise.

Working at the UN on the International Convention of Rights of Persons with Disability. This was an amazing experience. Hard work but worth it for sure.

Receiving the 2014 Human Rights Law Award.

  • You have been blind since the age of 13 from retinal dystrophy. Can you tell us a bit about losing your sight and how this has impacted your life?

I was diagnosed with my condition when I was about five years old. As it was explained to me, the cells in our retinas naturally die over time but with Retinal Dystrophy these cells are not replaced with new ones and do not rejuvenate.

I lost most of my sight between the age of 12 and 13; just as I was transitioning from my little country town primary school to the much larger high school in Coffs Harbour. It was not an easy time, but looking back now I can say making my way through Coffs High, together with the support of my family and friends, gave me the character, resilience and independence that has helped me get to where I am today.

Not being able to see of course limited, and still limits today, the types of things I can do.  As a child, and later as a teenager and young adult, I would have loved to have played cricket, football and tennis and would probably have spent many an hour playing video games and pinball machines. Ah, pinball machines, I love the clatter and excitement of a good pinny. Indiana Jones would have to be my favourite. At university I remember giving people money to play just so I could stand by and enjoy the build-up of pressure, the breaking of records, finding and conquering new play features and the general interaction and strategy.

But I digress!

Anyway, there is no getting away from the fact that my vision impairment has and always will affect a good number of my life choices, none of which I resent. It is difficult to explain.

My impairment and the subsequent disability I am faced with is just part of me and part of my life. And while I always bring a ‘can do’ attitude to my personal and work life, I am also a realist and understand that being blind makes things a little tougher at times. It may mean that things take longer, that I need to do things in a different way and sometimes, and I mean only sometimes, it might mean that I cannot do some things at all.

Who knows where I would be and what I would be doing if I was not blind. Maybe I would have ended up as a lawyer in a top tier law firm regardless. But somehow I doubt it.

  • What part has technology played in assisting you over the years and how different do you think your life would have been without it?

Technology has played a massive part in helping me get to where I am now. Both accessible mainstream products and services, but also thanks to certain inventions that have been developed specifically for blind people.

In year nine, my world changed for the better and forever as I was given a custom built talking computer. For the first time, I could take notes in class, study and play the odd game independently.

I will be forever grateful and indebted to those who had the foresight to teach me to touch type from a very young age. At a time where typewriters were not found in class rooms and school computers were still years away, I was taken out of the regular classroom and taught how to type on a clunky manual typewriter.

Being able to touch type, knowing the shortcut keys and having screen reading software enables me to operate a computer independently. A skill that is taken for granted and essential in today’s world.

So now it is a lot more about how I can access the information, media, systems and tools I need to participate in all aspects of life and to contribute my best.

The inclusion of screen reading software as part of the mainstream feature set in the Apple iPhone was another game changer for me.  For the first time I had access to work emails, contacts and calendar just like all my colleagues.

And as the whole smart phone revolution has continued, the amount of data and features I now have available to me is mind blowing. GPS information, newspapers and magazines, books, music, bus timetables, social media, encyclopaedias, reminders, games, calculator, stock prices, weather and the list goes on and on.

Technology when done well is the most powerful of enablers. But when done badly can create the most difficult of barriers.

I am looking forward to one day owning my first driverless car!!

  • As someone who is blind, have you experienced challenges in the workplace or in the broader community and how have you overcome them?

Ah, yes, sure. Challenge is an everyday state of being for everyone I think. My challenges are just a little different to most others.

For me, life is an adventure. Which means that obstacles are challenges, puzzles to be solved, not roadblocks. Well, most of the time. Life can get overwhelming sometimes and it can be extremely tiring, and sometimes frustrating, to always have to find a way or to push, prod, cajole and sometimes fight to achieve what often seems so easy for others with sight.

It is amazing that in 2015 there is still a negative attitude towards people with disability. While this attitude of being less capable, a burden, of requiring protection and charity may well be, at least for the most part, subconscious and unintentional, the outcome is still the same. That is, higher unemployment, less favourable treatment and discrimination.

I experience this almost every day. Getting a bus to work (well getting the correct bus at all), buying a coffee, accessing my building, reading a scanned PDF document. All these things are made harder than they need to be by people’s attitude both directly (the way I am treated or ignored altogether) and indirectly (through the way that information, media and systems are designed and implemented–which all has human input at some point along the track).

While I have had great support here at Gilbert + Tobin, the fact that I cannot independently use a number of our internal systems is frustrating. And there is also the unconscious bias faced by all, well at least most, people with disability that strive to perform in a competitive work environment.

  • Darren, as a lawyer with Gilbert + Tobin you provide specialist advice to the charitable and not-for-profit sectors. How do the legal needs of not-for-profits differ from that of corporate organisations?

Charities and not-for-profit organisations and even corporate foundations and philanthropists have specific laws, regulations and regulators to comply with that most commercial for profit companies do not. However, the difference goes deeper than that.

While all charities and NFPs are subject to all Australian laws and share many of the legal needs as commercial for profit business, the underlying motivation is different. The motivation is not to make more money, to make shareholders happy or to grow for the sake of growth. The motivation is to fulfil a non-monetary purpose–protecting the environment, promoting the cure of disease, feeding the hungry, advancing the arts, promoting sport, providing overseas aid, supporting an industry, fighting for the rights of persons with disability, assisting Indigenous Australians … the list goes on.

In 2008 you attended meetings at the United Nations in New York, helping in the development of an international convention on the rights of people with disability. What changes have you seen in the way disability is addressed on both a national and international level in recent years? And what changes would you still like to see occur?

Being involved in the United Nations process was amazing. The development of the Convention on Rights of Persons with Disability had the most civil society involvement of any convention to date.

It was terrific to walk the halls of the UN and to be surrounded by hundreds of people with disability in addition to the hundreds of country delegates.  We spent a good deal of time using our Australian knowledge and experience to educate and positively influence both country delegates and civil society representatives.

The main change I would like to witness is for disability to permeate society and be accepted as part of the diversity of life. In my view, disability should be included in teaching curriculum, be a factor in all government policy, be something that employers embrace and something that individuals and communities accept. I would like the unconscious bias about the capabilities of people with disability removed altogether and for people with disability to be considered equal.

I know, I am not asking much!

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About the Author

Darren Fittler

As the lead lawyer in Gilbert + Tobin’s Third Sector Advisory Group, Darren specialises in the provision of legal assistance to charities and not-for-profit organisations. Darren was involved with the development and drafting of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disability at the United Nations in New York. Darren doesn’t let vision loss stop him from participating in a range of sports and activities. He qualified for 1996 Atlanta Paralympics in swimming; has trekked Nepal; raised $22,000 for charity on the back of a tandem bike peddling between Brisbane and Sydney in 11 days; was Australia’s first blind person to compete in the Tough Mudder. Earlier this year Darren worked with a team of people to create an accessible light installation as part of Sydney’s 2014 Vivid Light Festival and hopes to do something similar in 2015.View author's posts
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