Ausnew Home Care | Heike Fabig is using technology and a mother's love

Heike Fabig is using technology and a mother's love to stamp out disability discrimination

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Bodhi, 15, is fed up with the discrimination he regularly faces.

"Many shops are not accessible. There will be a ramp but then stairs. It makes me so angry because I want to shop too," he says.

Bodhi and his late brother Kai were born with physical and intellectual disabilities, resulting from a rare undiagnosed genetic condition, and both used wheelchairs.

Their mother Heike Fabig says her children faced discrimination once a week, if not once a day.

Portrait of a teenage boy in a green hoodie. Ausnew Home Care, NDIS registered provider, My Aged Care
Chatbots and other online tools can help give people with disabilities a voice, says Bodhi. (Supplied: Heike Fabig)

But trying to change people's attitudes hasn't been easy.

For instance, a 2014 incident that took place on an aircraft when Kai was 14 years old still upsets her.

The family was flying to Fiji for a holiday and Ms Fabig was told that there would be an aisle wheelchair available for Kai to use to get around the plane.

Once onboard, it was clear there was no aisle chair. Without it, Kai was confined to his seat and could not use the bathrooms.

Ms Fabig was "gobsmacked" when the airline staff suggested that she change him in his seat.

"I said, 'well, he has to be cathetered. If the cathetering goes wrong and we spill urine everywhere, I'm not cleaning it up. Are you cleaning it up?'" she recalls.

"The assumption that he, as a 14-year-old boy, would not mind having his nappy changed in front of strangers was just absolutely mind-boggling to me."

Ms Fabig made a discrimination complaint about the incident to the Australian Human Rights Commission, one of many similar complaints she has made over the years.

The complaint was resolved positively but that experience got her thinking. 

"[It inspired me to] actually do something with the knowledge that I had as both a personal user of the complaints process and a law student to make this whole process easier for others."

As CEO of the National Justice Project's Tech4Justice lab, Ms Fabig is leading a team of Macquarie University law students to build chatbots that guide people through the process.

And she hopes that by calling out discrimination, she can help to create a safer and more inclusive society for people with disabilities.

Making it easier

With the right guidance and support, complaints can be an accessible and cheap way for people to seek justice. They can be used to challenge mistreatment by government, businesses and other individuals.

However, with over 65 complaints bodies in Australia, each with different requirements and processes, making discrimination complaints can be daunting.

It can also be hard to find a lawyer to help. Free legal services are over-subscribed and legal fees are too expensive for many.

This is part of a wider problem of unmet legal need in Australia. Only around 16% of people with a legal issue manage to seek help from a lawyer.

Tech4Justice aims to make the complaints process easier and more accessible by identifying who to complain to and helping to write the complaint.

This will hopefully help individuals to access justice as well as use the complaints mechanisms to bring about systemic change.

How does it work?

The chatbot guides complainants through the process and ensures they include all the important information.

The goal is for the tool to overcome the barriers Ms Fabig faced herself.

"You generally end up writing a complaint when you've come to that point where you are really angry and fed up," she says.

"But the problem is, if your complaint is not specific enough, it can impact your chances of success.

"And if you end up having to go to court later, if you have forgotten to mention something, the opposing party will do everything they can to say, 'See, but that wasn't in the original complaint'."

The bot asks a series of questions about the discrimination the person faced and then automatically generates a complaint to be submitted to the Australian Human Rights Commission.

It's being built in collaboration with the Macquarie University Law School and law firm K&L Gates, and it's part of a broader project that aims to make complaint making easier across a wide range of areas.

Woman in a wheelchair wearing a green polka dot top can be seen at a computer desk.
The Australian Human Rights Commission has received more than 810 disability discrimination complaints so far this financial year.(Getty: Maskot )

Ms Fabig's team chose disability discrimination as the focus of their first bot.

According to a spokesperson from the Australian Human Rights Commission, the organisation has received more than 810 disability discrimination complaints so far this financial year. This comprises 52% of the total complaints made to the commission during that time.

The team plans to build more chatbots to help with other complaints, including those regarding race discrimination.

Disability advocate Jonathan Shar has tested the Tech4Justice chatbot.

"For me, dealing with discrimination claims is an uncomfortable and sometimes intimidating prospect because it makes you confront the fact that having a disability in some way limits your opportunities, particularly having a speech disorder. Some in society use that as license to devalue my experiences," Mr Shar says.

"This was not the case using the Tech4Justice bot. It steps you through structured questions to only get the information relevant to your complaint and the fact that it is impersonal creates an easier environment for you to relive the trauma of discrimination."

Less daunting, more convenient

Chatbots are being used to make it easier to get legal help for a wide range of everyday legal problems

Kelsey Mortimer was involved in a minor car accident a few months ago. She was distressed after receiving a text message from a lawyer representing the other side, demanding payment for damages.

The nursing student and part-time chef turned to Marrickville Legal Centre's chatbot NALA (new age legal assistant) for assistance, one of more than 3,000 people to use the chatbot since its launch in November 2020.

Vasili Maroulis, the managing principal solicitor at Marrickville Legal Centre, says NALA is designed to make legal help more accessible for more people.

"It can be difficult to access us through the phone lines. We have a lot of clients which come physically to the office. But of course, if you have some sort of disability which affects your mobility, that's not so easy," says Mr Maroulis.

"Having additional options that clients can explore to try and make contact with our centre most definitely provides better access to justice."

For Ms Mortimer, the chatbot made seeking help less daunting and more convenient.

"If I was to call, I would end up waiting on hold. If I sent an email inquiry, I was worried that I would not get all the information I needed across"

"Because you put your own words down in the chatbot and someone calls you back to get the finer details, the lawyer is not wasting time getting the details from you, freeing them up to hear your concerns and assist you."

Not for everyone 

While chatbots may be a convenient way for some people to access legal assistance, they are not for everyone.

Many people face barriers to using this technology. Some may not have access to smart devices and the internet. Others may lack the digital and English language skills to use chatbots.

People with disabilities may also face other challenges, as every disabled person has unique abilities.

"Some limitations I have concerns about with chatbots are the possibility for unintentional bias for people with sensory and cognitive disabilities" says Mr Shar.

Ms Fabig can see the issue for those with visual impairments. She says chatbots need to be written in a way that a screen reader can manage it, which can be a challenge.

"On the other hand, if you have someone who is non-verbal, but who can read and write, they can easily manage a chatbot on their own," she explains.

"So for someone like that, it significantly increases accessibility."

Dr Daniel Ghezelbash is associate professor at Macquarie Law School at Macquarie University and the co-founder of National Justice Project's Tech4Justice Project. He is also an ABC Top 5 Humanities scholar for 2021.


Source: ABC

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