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Thursday, 16 May 2002
Page: 2407


Ms JANN McFARLANE (11:11 AM) —I am pleased to talk today on the Disability Discrimination Amendment Bill 2002. I have a longstanding interest in the issue of disability discrimination and in mechanisms to improve access. This interest comes from my time before parliament as a community worker. In past jobs I worked for the Liverpool-Fairfield Disability Resource Centre and for People with Disabilities (WA) Inc., organisations that represent and advocate for the rights and equity of people with a disability.

Improvements to access for people with a disability also have spin-offs for other groups, including parents and grandparents who take children out in prams and strollers and carers and families of seniors. As a parent and user of public transport I experienced great difficulties when my children were young in accessing public transport, my main mode of transportation in those days. Again, I experienced difficulties in taking my frail, ageing, veteran dad and, later on, my frail, ageing mother and mother-in-law out shopping. I very much relate to my constituents when they tell me of their difficulties with physical access to public transport, as well as to railway and bus station precincts.

Disability access to public transport is an important issue. A lack of accessible transport services and facilities is a significant barrier to quality of life, particularly for people with disabilities. As the member for Shortland said, we would hate that soft and easy ways would be found around the exemptions and regulations. Labor is committed to promoting the worth and dignity and improving the quality of life of people with disabilities and to support their full participation in community life. An important aspect of this commitment is improving access standards for people with disabilities to public transport and providing certainty in the system that administers these standards. Federal Labor supports the passage of the Disability Discrimination Amendment Bill 2002, as do the Labor state ministers for transport.

Briefly stated, the bill amends the Disability Discrimination Act 1992 to allow the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, in consultation with a prescribed body, to grant exemptions from disability standards dealing with public transport services and facilities. The act enables the Attorney-General to formulate disability standards in a range of areas. Last September the Attorney-General finally released a draft of disability standards for accessible public transport for public consultation, together with accompanying draft guidelines. Section 55 of the act currently enables the commission to grant temporary exemptions from the operations of provisions of the act. This power does not currently extend to exemptions from disability standards. The bill will therefore amend the act to allow the commissioner to grant exemptions from disability standards dealing with public transportation services and facilities.

Before granting an exemption, the commission will be obliged to consult with a body prescribed in regulations. The Attorney-General has indicated that the prescribed body will be the National Transport Secretariat. The role of the secretariat will be to provide the commission with technical advice. Importantly, the commission will be able to consult with any other body or person it considers appropriate. If the commission decides to grant an exemption to an operator, the exemption will provide protection from a complaint about a breach of that requirement.

Along with my constituents and groups in Stirling, I look to the Attorney-General to appoint people to the commission from a broad range of backgrounds and experiences. Our goal is to ensure that no transport service is allowed to find an easy way out of its obligations. The bill, by enabling public transport services to apply for an exemption from disability standards, will enable public transport providers to clarify their obligations up front instead of waiting to be sued under the Disability Discrimination Act, the DDA, and then raising a defence such as unjustifiable hardship.

The bill will also allow the commission to involve community stakeholders—groups such as People with Disabilities (WA) Inc., ACROD, Valued Independent People Inc., and the Development Disability Council of WA, along with a range of state and national peak bodies advocating for people with disabilities and their carers and families. It would be a wonderful thing to see these groups, who put so much energy into these issues, have input before the public transport provider acts in relation to disability access on its service—what is these days the so-called `honesty factor'. While it is important that providers of public transport comply with disability standards, there is sense in enabling any uncertainty about a provider's compliance with the standards to be resolved by the commission on a consultative basis rather than by litigation in the Federal Court. It enables disability advocacy groups to be involved and may spare individuals the trauma and expense of litigation.

I have recently dealt with a constituent of mine who faces trauma and considerable expense involved in litigation over a disability access issue in my electorate. Although not directly related to public transport, my constituent's issue serves to highlight some of the problems that can arise under the system of disability access regulation which this bill seeks to replace. In 1995 the Court Liberal government commissioned Main Roads to design a pedestrian overpass near Everingham Street across the planned Reid Highway extension in the suburb of Carine in my electorate of Stirling. Ignoring the 1992 Austroads Bridge Design Code and the 1993 Australian Standard 1428.1, Main Roads designed an overpass that did not meet the disability access requirements. Australian standard 1428.1 clearly states that the overpass should have been designed with a maximum gradient of one in 14 and that there should be rest landings at least every nine metres. Showing complete disregard for disability access, the Court Liberal government minister for transport signed off on the design of the overpass which Main Roads then constructed—an incredible scenario in the mid-1990s, especially as it was a good 10 years after the International Year for the Disabled and we had thought that these issues in society were no longer going to arise.

When construction of the overpass was completed, the overpass was as steep as one in 10 at the southern end, with no rest platforms at any point, making it grossly unsuitable for my constituents with disabilities who need to cross the overpass. I might add that this overpass was put at a point, after much controversy in the local community, at Everingham Street because there are four schools and children's services in Everingham Street that service a total of 3,000 children and the local high school there has five young people with disabilities, some of whom have to access this overpass.

One of my constituents has had to take Main Roads to court in order to get them to modify the overpass so far as is necessary to make it comply with the disability access requirements of the Australian standards. My constituents and Main Roads this year—not five years ago— are now involved in a protracted battle to determine whether it is acceptable before the act for Main Roads to have built the overpass the way they did after it has been completed. This costly and traumatic experience could have been avoided if Main Roads was required to make an application for exemption from the Disability Discrimination Act 1992 before it built the overpass, instead of simply deciding to go ahead and build it, hoping that no-one challenged them in the courts for their actions. This is clearly an unsatisfactory way to regulate disability access issues and it is for this reason that I support the model proposed in this bill.

Another important aspect of this bill that I mentioned briefly earlier is that it allows the commission to consult, in addition to the prescribed body, with any body or person it considers appropriate. I consider this to be crucial to the future success of this bill. It is only through frank and open consultation with all the stakeholders that the commission can hope to obtain a just outcome for people with disabilities with the new powers this bill proposes to give. Organisations such as People with Disabilities (WA) Inc. have been very successful in communicating the access needs of people with disabilities and will now make very good use of the model proposed in this bill.

Recently, People with Disabilities (WA) Inc. was instrumental in negotiating disability access for the circle bus route which passes through my electorate. The collective knowledge and experience of groups such as People with Disabilities (WA) Inc. across the country will provide the commission with additional expertise in ensuring that our community plans for and provides public transport that is responsive to the needs of all Australians and ensures consultation and certainty instead of litigation. I commend the bill to the House.