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Right to read

Flourish 08 May 2017

Courage and self-belief fuelled Maryanne Diamond’s rise to become an award-winning international leader.

Maryanne Diamond sitting in a library

It’s ironic that the Australian woman responsible for helping millions of vision-impaired people worldwide to read is not a big reader herself.

Maryanne Diamond, who is blind, studied maths at Monash University, in part so she wouldn’t have to read stacks of unwieldy braille books.

Now the General Manager of Media, Communications and Engagement at the National Disability Insurance Agency (NDIA), Maryanne was World Blind Union President in 2009 and became a key voice in a battle to enable the 285 million people worldwide who are blind or have low vision to access books in formats such as braille and audio.

“There was me, the person who doesn’t like reading, who did a course that didn’t require reading … leading this world mission to get a treaty to help people read,” Maryanne says.

“It was always a bit of a joke among my peers.”

Growing up blind, books were largely denied to Maryanne, so it was a thorn in her side she yearned to pull out.

The long haul

The establishment of the Marrakesh Treaty, as it became known, was long and difficult.

The bureaucratic process began in 2009 and for seven years Maryanne had to summon every atom of tenacity, intellect and patience to convince 186 countries to modify iron-clad copyright laws and allow blind people the same right as sighted people – the right to read. Correspondingly, to get an education, perhaps even a job.

The Treaty was adopted in Marrakesh in Morocco, on 27 June, 2013, but needed 20 countries to ratify it before it become law on 30 September, 2016. Twenty-five countries are now members of the Marrakesh Treaty Assembly. The Treaty creates a mandatory set of principles that allow visually impaired, blind and print-disabled people to access published works.

Incredibly, in a world awash with information, accessible material remains a huge barrier for those who are vision-impaired.

“Even today, of all the books published globally every year, only seven per cent are in accessible formats that blind people can read,” Maryanne says.

Many view the Marrakesh Treaty as the biggest breakthrough for blind people since braille was invented early in the 19th century.

Maryanne’s work has been recognised with a swag of awards, including an Officer of the Order of Australia (AO) in 2014, the Henry Viscardi Achievement Award in 2014 and the World Blind Union’s highest award, the Louis Braille Medal in 2016.

Last year, Maryanne was a Victorian nominee for 2017 Australian of the Year.

Blind faith

Her success could be considered sweet revenge for the many who had extremely low expectations of her life, especially one person who told her, when she was 12, that perhaps she could aspire to be a telephone operator.

“I didn’t even know what a telephone operator was,” Maryanne says. “I said, ‘I’m not doing what you’re telling everyone to do’.”

Later, she firmly defied another person who told her she shouldn’t study maths at university “because you’re a female and you could fail”.

“I was kind of really shocked that someone would say that to me. And I just said ‘Well it’s my right to fail’.

“I didn’t fail,” she says. Far from it. After a successful IT career, Maryanne threw herself into advocacy for people with disability.

She’s also a mother of four. One of her children is blind.

Distinguished career

Maryanne was elected president of the World Blind Union 2008-2012, she was General Manager of Advocacy and Engagement at Vision Australia for seven years, Chair of the International Disability Alliance and a powerful voice in United Nations agencies and local boards, standing up for people with disabilities.

Maryanne joined the NDIA leadership team just over a year ago. The agency’s National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) is in the middle of a three-year transition, until its roll-out is complete in 2019-20. Maryanne’s role is to steer its communications.

It’s a mammoth task, even for someone who seems to eat challenges for breakfast.

“At the end of 2016 we had around 60,000 people on the scheme,” Maryanne says. “This year alone, 2017, we have to bring on 100,000 people.

“By the end of the three-year transition, 2019-20, there will be 460,000 people on the scheme. So it’s a huge undertaking.”

New challenges

Maryanne says the NDIS is a “complete change” for people with disabilities, families, and carers.

“Traditionally you’ve been pretty well told what you can have, what you can’t have, and someone else has quite often made that determination,” Maryanne says.

“Now we’re asking people to think for themselves, about what are their goals. It’s difficult. But it is exciting.”

words Dorothy Cook
photos Dean Golja
location Geelong Library & Heritage Centre

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