Changing how the legal system views dis/ability 

“One of my specialised areas of practice and research is anti-discrimination law and I have been involved for almost 20 years in human rights monitoring,” says Associate Professor Anna Cody, Director of the Kingsford Legal Centre.  

“My focus is on marginalised groups and that includes women, culturally and linguistically diverse people, and people with disability,” she continues.  “I’m also interested in how we provide legal aid services so that we are accessible and provide equal access to all.” 

In terms of applied research, Cody has been involved in various international treaty monitoring processes that Australia is required to participate in, which includes the 2008 UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disability.  

“I have contributed to reports and consulted with government, always working to provide an alternative view to how human rights are being achieved within Australia,” she explains. 

As part of the UNSW Faculty of Law, the Kingsford Legal Centre provides free legal advice, casework and community legal education to people who live, work or study in the local area.  

Cody explains that people with disability face unique barriers to achieving effective justice, and although many people with disability commonly interact with various legal systems, legal systems are not specifically designed for people with disability.  

“There are inherent biases on our law and legal system and adjustments to the law that relate to people with disability are very much on the edges, rather than at the centre. This is worrying because recent research shows that people with disability are one of the biggest groups of people who have legal need but are often unable to have that need met by our current justice system.”  

An essential element of Cody’s work in this area is the provision of clinical legal education and teaching students to better understand ability and disability and its relevance to their work as future lawyers.  

At the Kingsford Legal Centre, students are encouraged to think critically about the law and the legal system while assisting real clients and working on projects. According to Cody, around 40% of these clients have a disability, so learning how to work effectively and sensitively with these clients is crucial.  

“The founding principle in any design process of clinical legal education programs concerning people with disability is ‘nothing about us without us.’ Rather than a paternalistic idea of making decisions for someone, this means the person with disability is at the centre of their case and making decisions about their life,” continues Cody. 

“Students must have specific skills when working with clients with disability, including the appropriate language to use, communication skills, and the connections between sexism, racism and stigma attached to people with disability. Reflection skills and the ability to analyse and critique the law are all essential elements of a program working with people with disability.” 

Cody is excited to see the establishment of the UNSW Disability Innovation Institute which she says recognises the importance of engagement, diversity and equity within our communities. 

“This is a key opportunity to build on existing UNSW research strengths concerning disability, across STEM, the humanities and the social sciences. The Institute provides a welcome way to leverage this multidisciplinary expertise and look for links and ways to create some really exciting projects.”  

To discuss potential research projects or how you can engage with the Disability Innovation Institute contact Dr Martin Bone, Business Development Manager m.bone@unsw.edu.au