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Monday, 14 September 2009
Page: 9522


Mrs MOYLAN (4:52 PM) —Access all areas: report of the inquiry into Draft Disability (Access to Premises—Buildings) Standards addresses many of the inequalities those with a disability encounter when going about their day-to-day activities. I congratulate the Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee and its chair, the member for Isaacs, for their work in drawing to the attention of this House the impediments faced by people with a disability in accessing buildings that the rest of us take for granted.

Those affected by a lack of access to buildings, and indeed affected by the fitout of some buildings, are not an insignificant group because one in five Australian people are estimated to have a disability—that is 20 per cent of the population. Indeed, I would suggest that number will grow quite rapidly as our country faces the ageing of our population. So it is a very important matter which has been on the agenda for some time. I am not a member of the committee; however, I feel so strongly about this matter that I wanted to take the opportunity to say something about it. I suppose I first became aware of the difficulty people with a disability face when I had ministerial responsibility for disability services in 1996. I have continued to take an interest in these matters, particularly as I moved to the role of chair of the Public Works Committee, a role that I undertook for nine years—I think it was nine years; it seemed like an awful long time anyway!

During that time, I felt very proud of all members of that committee, both in terms of their interest and the interest they took in questioning the adequacy of access for people with a disability in new buildings, and refurbishments, that were being proposed by government agencies, or agencies of the Commonwealth, that came before that committee.

Disability does cover many different conditions. It can include people who are wheelchair-bound, blind, and indeed, older Australians. People suffering from rheumatism and arthritis sometimes have great difficulties with access to buildings. For those of us who do not face living with these extra challenges, I think, it often escapes our notice that without specific attention to the way buildings are constructed and fitted out, the daily routine for people with a disability can be seriously compromised. The Disability Discrimination Act was passed in this parliament in 1992, just a little before my election to parliament. Its 16 years of operation have highlighted not only some of the positive steps forward in providing for people with a disability within the community by not discriminating against them, but it has also highlighted some of the deficiencies in its operation.

Of course it is true that there have been many positive changes, both in accessibility to buildings, and, I think, to community attitudes towards people with a disability. But surprisingly, there are still difficulties and challenges for people with a disability in accessing buildings for work, for necessary services and for leisure. That isolates many people with a disability, both socially and from being able to access the workplace and generally going about their day-to-day business.

This report specifically looks critically at the intersection and operation of the Disability Discrimination Act and the Building Code of Australia. While the act enshrines the right of access to premises by people with a disability, it is enforced, in the first instance, through the Australian Human Rights Commission complaints mechanism. But it is up to a person with a disability to take action to have the provision of the act enforced. It is therefore not surprising that few people exercise that right due to the financial and emotional cost of initiating such access. If conciliation is not successful then the aggrieved party must initiate an action in the Federal Magistrates Court or in the Federal Court of Australia. Very few people with a disability, I would suggest, would want to actually pursue that course of action.

I am pleased to see that the report makes a recommendation in regard to the fit-out, and to apply disability standards to places other than buildings. Primarily, the committee was asked to inquire into, and report on:

the appropriateness and effectiveness of the proposed Premises Standards in achieving their objects;

the interaction between the Premises Standards and existing regulatory schemes operating in state and territory jurisdictions, including the appropriateness and effectiveness of the proposed model process to administer building access for people with a disability;

whether the premises standards will have an unjustifiable impact on any particular sector or group within the sector; and

any related matters.

Under the current arrangement there is too much scope for confusion and uncertainty which does not serve to encourage building owners to comply and it risks leading to a high level of complaint from people with a disability.

The Attorney-General does have the power under the Disability Discrimination Act to codify standards and to give greater clarity. This has led to the government’s announcement that it will introduce premises standards in the hope of achieving greater clarity. The premises standards have the potential to ensure that the Building Code of Australia and the Disability Discrimination Act is harmonised and incorporates an access code into the building code. This should assist those engaged in the industry to comply with these acts and ensure that buildings meet disability access requirements.

According to the evidence given to the inquiry by the Victorian Disability Advisory Council:

The standards are long overdue. The [Disability Discrimination Act] and the Victorian Equal Opportunity Act have been in place for 17 and 13 years, respectively. The industry has had 17 years to regulate itself and to progressively and cost-effectively implement changes that would meet their obligations under the Acts. Had they done so, many of the cost arguments mounted today would be irrelevant. Industry has in fact been cost-saving for 17 years at the expense of a large percentage of the population. It is now time to restore that balance.

And while cost is frequently argued as a reason to do nothing, it is hard to sustain that argument in the case of new construction. The regulation impact statement estimates that the cost of compliance for a new building or new buildings as a proportion of overall building costs is low. The RIS indicates a scale of cost based on case studies, and for the most part the costs are estimated at between one and five per cent for new buildings, with the bulk of case studies falling between a cost of one and three per cent of the total cost of building. Really, no-one could argue that that is unreasonable where a new building is being contemplated and planned for.

Of course cost needs to be considered. None of us in this place is naive enough to think that it is something we should not consider. I suppose, especially with regard to existing buildings, there is certainly a much higher cost in retrofitting existing buildings and perhaps even greater difficulties when it comes to heritage listed buildings. The costs for retrofitting such buildings rise sharply, with the RIS estimating between a two to 20 per cent cost relative to the value of the building. However, that should not prevent us from seeking a sensible way forward to ensure that people with disability are not excluded from accessing necessary services and from social exclusion.

I was also pleased to see that the committee did take particular note of the heritage issues. At 4.56 of the report, on page 65, it says:

The Committee supports the inclusion of a heritage value provision in determinations of unjustifiable hardship. However, the Committee also agrees with the arguments raised by many submitters that providing access to heritage buildings does not have to diminish the heritage value. The Australian heritage industry could look overseas for examples of how a compromise might be reached.

These problems have been addressed in some countries where the buildings were built many, many years ago. They are not new challenges or new problems and I am sure they are ones that could be overcome. They are surmountable. The committee report did go on, at 4.57, to point out that the term ‘heritage value’ is a bit ambiguous. It is unclear, and it wanted greater clarification of those particular words. I think they are sensible suggestions in this report.

In the little time I have available, I would like to mention that I thought, looking through some of the submissions, that Vision Australia made an excellent submission to this committee hearing. I cannot go through the whole submission, it is quite a detailed one, but they did raise a matter which is probably relatively easily addressed in all buildings, whether they are existing buildings or new buildings—that is, braille and tactile signage for people who are vision impaired or blind. Vision Australia felt that this is a particularly important matter. They said that the provision of tactile and braille signage is the only way finding device included in the draft standards, and they did not regard features such as hazard warning TGSIs and luminance contrasts as way finding devices per se, rather they are safety features. They said:

However, there are several cases where there is no specific requirement to provide braille and tactile signage even though other signage is required …

They went on to say:

Perhaps the omission of the words ‘braille and tactile’ in these cases is an oversight. In any case, Vision Australia’s strong view is that if signage is considered necessary to provide useful information to the public, then people who are blind or have low vision are just as entitled to this information as other members of the public.

They also said:

Braille and tactile signage could be provided at minimal cost, and would have significant benefits for people who are blind or have low vision.

They also talked about the safety issues around moving people out of buildings.

I have to say that a matter that concerned me as the Chair of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Public Works when we were approving proposals for Commonwealth buildings was emergency egress from buildings for people who have a disability. I know that the committee at that time shared my views that this is a matter of considerable import. Vision Australia just highlighted the issue for people who are blind. They went on to say:

It goes without saying that people who are blind or have low vision should have their needs taken into account in the design of systems for the same evacuation of people from premises in emergency situations.

It is a very serious matter and some of those issues go to:

  • Adequate lighting of emergency egress routes
  • Braille and tactile signage of emergency egress stairways and exits
  • The need for wayfinding features such as directional TGSIs to provide an accessible path of travel from emergency exits to designated assembly points.

In closing, I think it is apt to quote from one of the submissions, from People with Disabilities in Western Australia:

Every person, with or without a disability has the right to enter and use buildings and facilities housed within the built environment. Stating that certain areas do not need to meet the Standards may prevent people with a disability from working, living, or socialising in specific areas. This is discriminatory.

Once again I congratulate those involved in putting this report together. I hope that this parliament can look forward to seeing some of the worst of these issues addressed in the very near future.