Behind the Ha Ha Walls

Funny name, a Ha Ha wall.

Not a funny concept.

Here's your learning for the day. One of the distinctive features of both Kew Asylum and Beechworth Asylum is the use of a variation on Ha-Ha walls around the patients courtyards. These ha-has consisted of a trench, one side of which was vertical and faced with stone or bricks, the other side sloped and turfed. From the inside, the walls presented a tall face to patients, preventing them from escaping, while from outside, the walls looked low so as not to suggest imprisonment.

Supposedly, we got rid of the Ha Ha walls when we decommissioned the asylums. But they're still there - man made structures that are insurmountable from the inside. I'm talking about our man made prisons - institutions, sheltered workshops and 'special things for special people'.

In late 2012, two intellectually and physically disabled men, Gordon Prior and Michael Nojin, successfully scaled the Ha Ha walls and sued the government for discrimination, successfully arguing that they were discriminated against because of the test that is used to assess their competency and productivity to determine their pay. Both filed claims in the Federal Court in February 2009 alleging unlawful discrimination under the Disability Discrimination Act 1992. Victoria-based Prior is legally blind and has a mild-to-moderate intellectual disability. Stawell Intertwine Services Inc, an Australian Disability Enterprise (ADE), employed him on less than $3 an hour to maintain gardens. NSW-based Nojin has cerebral palsy, a moderate intellectual disability and epilepsy. He earned $1.85 an hour destroying documents for ADE Coffs Harbour Challenge Inc.

Ha ha. Joke's back on you. Nojin and Prior, who didn't seek any financial compensation for back pay, climbed over that wall and left the ladder there - 20,000 others waited behind, ready to climb out.

Unfortunately, the business of entrapment and discrimination is a lucrative one. FaHCSIA spent no time appealing, and asked for an exemption, effectively standing in front of the ladder and asking people not to climb it for another five years.

You can read what some of the disability sector thought about that here. The appeal continues.

There are too many Ha Ha walls in existence today. I listened to a man from Activ at a conference, telling us proudly that the sheltered workshop employees worked in a partnership with Kmart to bring the prices down for the Kmart shoppers. Sea containers are unpacked and shoes paired and products wrapped. There's even a little write up in the Activ newsletter.

'On 23 June 2012, the Activ Business Services supported employees and support staff working at Kmart Canning Vale were presented with Kmart safety awards. Activ CEO, Tony Vis was on hand to assist Activ Manager, Bill Chrystal and Kmart’s Bill McGuillan in presenting certificates and gift vouchers at a special morning tea. “Activ working with Kmart is a great business success story,” Bill Chrystal said. Over the past year, the work has grown from two to six teams, made up of 36 Activ supported employees and six Activ staff to supervise. Given this growth, they are now all based at Kmart Canning Vale where they work alongside Kmart staff at the warehouse. Activ Transport does a bus run to and from the warehouse. The work involves unpacking a range of apparel which arrives at the warehouse in boxes.

Activ people remove the plastic wrapping and put the stock into crates, ready to take to Kmart stores. This unpacking makes it much easier for Kmart store staff to access the apparel and keep the store shelves well stocked with different sizes and ample quantities, available for customers to purchase.

The Kmart safety award was a great opportunity for Kmart to show their appreciation for the hard work and dedication to safety that Activ people have displayed while working at the Canning Vale facility. Kmart officials said the safety award was one way they can celebrate and publicise nationally the fantastic working relationship Kmart WA has with Activ. They are keen to use Perth as the ‘best practice model’ for Kmart to engage other Australian Disability Enterprises like Activ in other parts of Australia. Due to this success, Kmart have also nominated Activ for another award, which is an annual award called the K Award. This is presented to a community organisation which has set up a successful Business Partnership with Kmart.'

I have known many people without disability who are not particularly productive workers. Those in the public service - ineffectual politicians, mainstream employees. I cannot imagine how the world would howl if they decided to introduce a competency and productivity scaling test - perhaps it would be a good thing, keeping only the performers. The people playing the 'Devil's Advocate' will argue what happens to the 20,000 who scale the wall. Will they be supported to access mainstream employment on the other side of the wall? Will they want to scale the wall in the first place? And will they be encouraged and supported to climb the ladder, given that it leads the way to uncertainty?

Ha ha. Joke's on us. But Mr Nojin and Mr Prior, I salute you. You have done more for human rights than any other two individuals in recent Australian history - and you did it from behind the walls.


  1. Job Service Network Providers linked to Centrelink have told me that
    1) I won't get a job BECAUSE VISION IMPAIRMENT
    2) that they will NOT ALLOW ME to apply for jobs as a Job Service Network person because 'we all have experience of social work' to which I reply that I have a Master of Social Science and formerly worked for the Dept of Health in SA as a Community Health Worker, losing my job after being refused disability access and after months of a manager bullying me for my inability to sit ergonomically at a computer screen without disability access. But I'm not allowed to apply for those jobs. Some JSN providers have indicated they MIGHT allow me to apply for a receptionist job for which I do not meet the criteria (must have 5 yrs experience F/T in busy receptionist role)
    3) A JSN provider person told me 'you WILL BE GRATEFUL that I will not FORCE YOU to apply for factory-line positions'.
    4) I've been told that, as a disabled person, the best (read: probably the only) possibility I have for future employment is working as a disability carer. Because, y'know, they've gotta round those crips up and keep them out of the way, so if I absolutely insist on working, then they might allow me to work with other crips.

    Yes. I *am* bitter. :P


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