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Monday, 14 September 2009
Page: 9529

Mr SHORTEN (Parliamentary Secretary for Disabilities and Children’s Services and Parliamentary Secretary for Victorian Bushfire Reconstruction) (5:22 PM) —I rise to congratulate the Legal and Constitutional Affairs Standing Committee led by my colleague the member for Isaacs, for its hard work in examining the draft Disability (Access to Premises—Buildings) Standards. I would also like to acknowledge the work of the countless number of people from the disability sector who made submissions. There were also constructive contributions from many in the property sector, including Peter Verwer, the head of the Property Council of Australia.

The Rudd government is still finalising its response to the report, I can advise the member for Hasluck, but I believe that the thoroughness of the consultation process and the work that has been done will influence the final decision. The battle for access to public buildings for people with disability is one that has been fought for many years and unfortunately despite some victories is not over. I believe that without access to buildings and public spaces there cannot be true equality for Australians with disability. Until people with disability can enter shops and cafes, enter workplaces, get to appointments that are not on the ground floor and enjoy the same concerts and sporting events as the rest of the population then their inclusion in society cannot be considered complete. Too many Australians are literally on the outside looking in.

Throughout the history of all civil rights struggles, access to public premises has been a key test. Whether it be black Americans forced to ride at the back of the bus, or Aboriginal Australians barred from public swimming pools, second-class citizenship has always been clothed in physical exclusion. Despite the passing of the Disability Discrimination Act in 1992 and the progress that has been made since then, people with disability are still excluded too often in society in terms of access to premises. I believe that this exclusion is generally not through active malice but through a combination of indifference and neglect that sometimes takes refuge behind a spurious economic argument.

It has been suggested to me by one advocate that buildings that are not accessible should be required to have signs prominently displayed telling the public which classes of people with disability are not welcome in the building, and therefore we could shame people into changing the way they build their buildings. I think this suggestion shows the importance of this issue to people with disability and how keenly exclusion is felt. The idea that we would design labels on buildings saying, ‘You’re not welcome here,’ would be anathema to Australians. But that is exactly what happens with disability standards and access to premises.

The Rudd government recently released the Shut out report, the result of consultations on our national disability strategy, which is due next year. This report is an honest look at the frustrations of having a disability in Australia today and the barriers that are routinely and needlessly placed in the path of people with impairments. Twenty-seven in every 100 respondents to the massive survey in the Shut out report said that lack of access to the environment acts as a barrier to their full participation in the life of the community. The report quotes one as saying:

“We want to contribute to Australian society but we usually find that we can’t access the workplace, can’t access public venues, can’t have a holiday because there is no suitable accommodation.”

Another was quoted as saying:

“Many professional services [such as dentists] are based on secondary levels with stair access only. Many cafes have step entry. Cinemas and swimming facilities are still often inaccessible. This prevents me from participating in these recreational activities with family and friends.”

This inability to access facilities compromises a person with a disability’s quality of life and acts as a persistent reminder that they are only partial members of the broader Australian community. Nothing reinforces the sense of internal exile that many feel more than the experience of arriving at a shop or restaurant only to find that they are effectively locked out. If they are not locked out, they might be forced to go around the back, through the kitchen or up the goods lifts—made to feel less than the person they are.

People with disability have the legal right not to be discriminated against with regard to access to premises and the built environment. The Disability Discrimination Act affirmed those rights when it was enacted in 1992. This act has done great work, and in the hands of dedicated advocates for people with disability it has been used as a tunnel-boring machine driving through the rock line of entrenched prejudice. However, the act does not provide detailed guidance as to what a building owner, designer or manager needs to do to ensure accessibility. It is clear, and has been clear for some years, that the Building Code of Australia needs to be amended to outline the legal responsibilities in detail. Premises standards would harmonise the requirements of the Building Code and the Disability Discrimination Act. As well as providing more access for people with disability, premises standards would provide more certainty to the building industry by letting them know in advance what is required. It is obvious to anyone who has renovated a house that including accessibility features in the original design is far cheaper and easier than trying to retrofit them to an existing building.

We have reached a point, I am pleased to say, where environmental sustainability is automatically considered as part of the design of a new building, reinforced by the star-rating schemes established by the states. But where is the same treatment for people with a disability? Are they less important than our environment? I think not. We are not at the same point with disability access. It is still seen as an add-on cost, something separate from the main design of a building. In my role as the Parliamentary Secretary for Disabilities and Children’s Services I am constantly being presented with issues of accessibility—from poorly located disability parking places and ramps leading straight into grilles that a wheelchair could not negotiate to shortages of disabled toilets. I am grateful for some research from the Australian Federation of Disability Organisations for the following paragraphs:

Disabled toilets appear to be a particular issue. Even in new buildings, such as Rod Laver Arena and Federation Square in Melbourne, or the Pacific Fair Shopping Centre on the Gold Coast, there are issues with the quality and access of disabled toilets.

I hear that the toilets are often not suitable for people who require a hoist, or for those who require assistance and an adult-size change table.

In one case reported to me, the lock on the door required both hands to open and shut—making it difficult for some people with disability to enter.

Often these toilets are combined with baby-changing facilities. Presumably this is to save space, but it increases the demand on a scarce resource.

I know that people with disability are frustrated by the sporadic application of accessibility principles and the number of new buildings that appear to have been built without any thought about or input from a person with a disability. I am also aware that local councils are all too often failing in their responsibility to their ratepayers with a disability by allowing exemptions to accessibility standards for new construction.

I am also concerned about the way our houses and apartments are being built in Australia. The issue of residential premises is not covered by these draft standards, but I believe it is one that will become of increasing importance as Australians age. I would love to see more builders embrace the concept of universal design, the simple yet powerful idea that houses should be able to change as we change and to adapt to our changing needs as we go. Along with ageing Australians, there are approximately 1.3 million Australians with a severe or profound disability, and this number is likely to increase. It is also obvious that most people prefer to age in their own homes, on their own terms, with as much independence and dignity as possible. Some of the practical features of universal design are simple: solid walls in bathrooms so that rails can be easily attached; showers where a person does not have to step over the side of a bath or another obstacle to get into them; benchtops in kitchens at both sitting and standing heights; extra living spaces on the ground floor of homes to accommodate future needs; a level main entrance to a house and a sloping landscape to allow easier access; and windows that can be opened or closed with one hand by a person in a sitting position. None of these items adds significantly to the cost of a new house, and indeed the builders would find a greater market to purchase these houses.

The battle for equality for people with disabilities is not one that is going to be won overnight, as many decades of struggle would indicate. I suggest that it is a series of small victories and incremental changes. However, measures such as these building standards are an important signal to the building industry that the needs of people with disability and their right to access buildings easily and with dignity are important. I think these draft standards show that we in this place no longer accept that the needs of people with disabilities are secondary to the needs of other Australians. We accept that they need to be included and consulted when buildings are designed.

For too long people with disabilities have been told they are the ones who have to adapt to their environment rather than having the built environment adapt to them. They have had to waste valuable time and energy dealing with products, rules and systems that have been put in place with no thought for how a person with an impairment might deal with them. Need I add that we are all only one terrible car accident or, indeed, the effluxion of age away from having the very same issues that we talk about when we refer to people with disabilities? This is not an acceptable situation for people with disabilities, who are, in fact, us. I hope that the introduction of building standards will be a recognition that it is time for the rest of the community to begin more serious thinking about the needs of people with disability in every aspect of their lives.