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June 2005

Thoughts on access

By Robyn Gobert

Australia? We need your help!

Disability Access is not working!

With the help of our fellow Australians we can make Australia an accessible country.

If you are an able-bodied person who is un-associated with disability, we especially need you to read this article and understand the issues, as we desperately need the knowledgeable support of the able-bodied population.

Australians care. Individually we've recently donated $200 million in cash to the Tsunami victims. But this cause is about Auzzies in need and it shouldn't cost you much at all. We need you to be aware, watchful and to speak up.

When it comes to implementing disability access, Australia is not performing in relation to its world peers. In countries like Canada, Denmark and Hawaii, disability access is taken seriously and embraced. Disability tourism is a growth industry of which, perhaps, few are aware.

Robyn in wheelchair at the top of a flight of steps.

Why don't we SEE many people with disabilities in our communities?

They can't get out!

People with disabilities reportedly make up 20% of the population in Australia. With an Australian population of 20 million, that's 100,000 Australians, or one in five of us if my sums are right?

At least, that is the figure recognised by the Federal Government. But within those figures we've only counted the people who have a disability so profound that they receive a disability pension. Disability pensions are not easy to get and are subject to ongoing reviews.

The actual figures are estimated to be closer to 35% of the population at any given time.

This hidden percentage would incorporate:

Using a chair doesn't mean dependant: Robyn hang gliding

As we age, our chance of living with a significant disability rises. By the age of 75 we have a 68% chance of having a significant disability. "Significant" means a disability serious enough, or chronic enough, to be recognised by the Government as pensionable, ie unable to work and no cure in sight within the immediate future.

While we're considering this statistic, we might also keep in mind that even if you're fortunate enough to be in the current able-bodied percentage, you might end up being a carer.

What if you're left caring for a loved one who's old or frail, chronically or mentally ill, or physically disabled? In Australia in 2005, there are 2.7 million family carers of people with disability, many of whom are struggling and may be aging themselves. Many feel that state and federal governments leave them inhumanly unsupported. But what are the alternatives for our loved ones?

If a member of your family should join the "people with disabilities" group, you may still be, (inadvertently though profoundly) effected by "disability" issues - like lack of access and disability discrimination - in an immediate, hands-on way.

You might even work in the disability field as, with our ageing population, medical technology and the kind of lifestyles we live within our culture, "disability" is a growth industry.

Genetic engineering and stem cell research isn't going to wipe out disability. Even if we manage to reduce the incidence of disabilities at birth, we'll still have acquired disability to contend with.

Of course physical access and usability is not just about people with disabilities. If you've ever used a shopping trolley you have used "disability" access. Parents with prams, emergency services and delivery drivers are just a few of the other people who need this community access.

Disability Discrimination is little-understood by ordinary Australians.

Imagine this: You go to the pictures and, while in there, you see a person in a wheelchair.

You've paid for your ticket and you have a right to not be disturbed. We know that.

If that person was to take a call on their mobile phone or rattle a chip packet, you might be annoyed because they're interfering with your enjoyment of this movie.

But did you know, (or even stop to consider) that this person also has rights and is being discriminated against right here and now? They may even be putting their life in danger just by being there.

The person in a wheelchair is usually expected to sit in one spot in the theatre, probably with other people in wheelchairs, as this is the "accessible area" set aside for them. If the theatre has been accessed by a lift, what happens to this person in a chair if someone screams "FIRE!"? Who is coming to save that person before they're overcome with smoke?

Would you, as an able-bodied person, accept it if you were told you could always only sit in a choice of one seat? What about if you had to wait for a member of staff to assist you to access the building each time you went to the movies? How would you feel if, when you approached the counter to buy your ticket, the counter was so high it made you feel as if you were one metre tall?

Feel like a drink or some munchies? Well, find someone who will go and get them for you then because that area is inaccessible in our movie theatre too.

Now consider this: the person in the wheelchair has paid the same price for their ticket as everyone else has for theirs and they have the same rights as every other person under the Human Rights and Equal Opportunities legislation (HREOC).

The difference is, perhaps not all people with disabilities have the same ability and drive it takes to speak up for ones self.

They have also, in one way or another, paid their taxes that fund the infrastructure in which we all live. That is, the parking bays, the street-scape, the footpath etc and yet, daily, our environment continues to be built like a jail around us and few are aware, let alone speaking up for us!

Consider also that, on your outing to the movies, if you went to dinner or shopping beforehand, unlike you, our person in a wheelchair would have had limited choices about where they were able to go due to inequitable access.

I'm using the example of a person in a wheelchair to denote "disabilities" here as most of us think of a wheelchair when we see the word "disabled".

But let's also spare a thought for those among us who live with other disabilities such as different kinds of mobility impairments, hearing or vision loss or mental issues.

Robyn with the film crew of The Great South East, onboard the accessible Quicksilver Trimaran on the Great Barrier Reef.

To top it all off, no one actually seems to care! Until it happens to them!

Isn't the Government doing something about this?

The short answer is "not effectively".

Disability discrimination laws came into force over a decade ago, but many people don't even know they're available to them, let-alone how to access and utilise them. Some people do not even know that they are being discriminated against! and others, who do know, can be daunted by the possibilities and commitment required of them within using these laws.

In short, we are asking the most from the people who can often afford it the least, be it the expenditure of time, money or effort.

As you access Australia, you might see a ramp or two here and there and, if we think about it at all, we imagine that disability access (or "disabled access" as we see on insulting signage everywhere) is being adequately taken care of. I'm sorry to say, in fact, it simply is not.

The Australian Building Standards - after ongoing reviews in an attempt to achieve a set of standards that actually WORK are in place.

One might believe that, "while it won't be fixed overnight, it will happen eventually." Right? As old infrastructure and old buildings give way to new, we'll eventually have an accessible society?

That is the plan, but it is not the reality.

The reality is, while "some disability provision" is required to be made by most Australian Councils when passing new building projects, the reality and usability of the outcome is often far from realistic or equitable.

Having a disability parking bay, a ramp out the front and doors wide enough to allow entry by wheelchair users is a great start, but if a person in a chair can't move around in the premises and shop with equity (ie, the same as everyone else) then what is the point?

Even providing a disability toilet is not enough on its own. I've been a disability access advocate and consultant and I've inspected a great number of "disabled toilets" that are just not working properly as in my experience few seem to actually get it right.

Isn't this a huge waste of money?

Yes! And in a lot of cases, it's YOUR money being wasted. Your rates and taxes, or if you're a developer, your capital.

If you're a shop owner, you're missing out on income if you're excluding shoppers from your goods and services.

Robyn using the disability water lift, Great Barrier Reef

To incorporate disability access and usability into a new project, the price tag is usually around 10% of the total project cost.

However, if one has to retrofit to include workable disability access and usability, the costs blow out to around 200% ON EACH AND EVERY ITEM that is retrofitted (or changed to suit need).

This is the 21st century! Why is this happening in Australia?

Because we, all of us, are letting it happen! We are largely uneducated on this subject and, because of our lack of knowledge, we do not "support the cause". We tolerate it out of ignorance.

In Australia today we celebrate youth, beauty, health, sporting heroes, movie stars, thin people ... I'm sure you can add to the list.

But the only time we celebrate people with disabilities is when we talk about how "brave" they must have been to have achieved something. We do not interact with people from this sector very often. Many of us can be uncomfortable around people with disabilities. We do not know how to interact with these people and if they aren't out and about, not only don't we have the chance to get to know them, we don't really care. It's not our problem... until it happens to us.

People with disabilities are among our most discriminated against Australians.

Perhaps we've sometimes felt resentful that our hard-earned taxes go to support these people? But have you considered that, of the people with significant disabilities that are able to work, 65% of us do? We also pay, through the GST and rates etc, our share of the rates and taxes.

Yet the reality is that we are far from enabled to live an equitable, or barrier-free, lifestyle within this life we're paying for. We're actually funding the able-bodied population.

One does not have to be living with profound disabilities to be subjected to disability discrimination.

As a person with arthritis in my knees, I use a wheelchair. Yet I am unable to go out alone as the physical access is so neglectful, if I can actually get into a building, I often can't equitably use it.

My choices of the shops I frequent is limited as, once inside, I often can not get around without asking an assistant to move stock in front of me as I go. This wears thin when it becomes your normality day after day.

If I go on holiday I might have trouble accessing a plane and more trouble finding an accessible holiday destination.

Port Douglas, Far North Queensland

Where does all this failure to provide equity start?

We've recently been told on the news that it's believed there is wide-spread corruption within Councils throughout Australia.

I could show you a well-know, highly publicised new building project that does not follow the criteria of the Australian Building Standards when it comes to disability access.

Speaking with a builder on that project as he was building a ramped access to a demountable "disabled" toilet (and it was unusable!) on this project, I asked if he was following the Australian standards. He replied, "Ahh, look Lovie I'm not stupid. I know what a @#$&*! ramp looks like. She'll be right. Anyway, I got a copy of them standards and well, who could make heads or tails out of them, eh?"

Unfortunately, this is NOT an isolated incident.

On top of this, many of the Councils in this country are made up of locals. They are farmers and the "man in the street", sometimes they're relatively unsophisticated people who's understanding of these things may not include the nitty-gritty of the needs of people with disability.

I've spoken with one Councillor who told me that new building projects that passed through his Council's meetings were stamped and a hand written note on the bottom of the back page read, "Some provision for the disabled should be made".

This is not good enough! It is as wrong for it to happen once as it is for it to be happening as often as it is.

After completion of a project, a building inspector has to "sign off" on the project. As a Disability Access Consultant I was usually invited on-board after it had all gone wrong and a complaint was made. Wouldn't it have been wonderful if, instead of being asked when it was basically "too late", I'd been asked for input at the time the plans were being drawn up?

The ineffectiveness of redressing the issues after the fact, plus the prohibitive costs involved in retrofitting, were the prime factors inhibiting a successful and timely outcome.

My experiences were not of isolated cases. It was the rule rather than the exception. And the biggest mistakes were made by people going ahead and doing the job without advice. It was quite simply remarkable how WRONG people could get it when they had tried so hard.

For example? Like a mirror in a disability toilet that was at able-bodied person's height? Or the hand rail that was installed upside-down? Or the slippery, shiny tiles that were meant for the wall and instead used on the floor?

People themselves are terrific. They almost all want to do the right thing, but they are just unaware.

No one stops to think that people with disabilities often don't want help, like everyone else, they want equity.

Disability lift, Undarra Lava Tubes

The Prime Minister wants people with disabilities to go out and get a job?

How will we do that?

Did you know that all schools are supposed to be a community resource and all public buildings are supposed to be able to offer equal-opportunity employment?

They are not.

With our inequitably (in)accessible infrastructure (footpaths, curbs, shops, toilets, parks and gardens, buildings etc etc etc) and our inequitably (in)accessible transport system, HOW exactly are many of us expected to access these jobs?

With Australia's attitude toward people with disabilities in this country, how are we supposed to GET equitable jobs? We're not just talking about jobs that are the equivalent of a "sheltered workshop" here. What about a job without a glass ceiling on the promotions trail?

In my experience you, or "the average man in the street", are helpful and nice towards me, the person in the wheelchair. Then again, other than the chair, I "look normal". The reality is, I am normal, as disability is a part of normality.

But I'm privy to a lot of life-stories from people with all sorts of disabilities and the experiences of others are not so "polite".

That discriminating ATTITUDE I'm speaking of is largely perpetrated by the media in the first instance.

People with disabilities are seen as a sector within our community which needs "looking after". We are not, however, seen as people who want to access and live an equitable lifestyle.

While disability is simply not recognised as a part of normality, it absolutely is. There are people who are born with disabilities, who acquire disabilities through illness or accident or gain disabilities through ageing. Yet we seem to persist in setting this sector apart.

The way in which the media enable able-bodied people in doing this is by the use of discriminatory terminology. We hear of "disabled" toilets, disabled parking, disabled access and disabled people. This terminology is inaccurate at the least and deeply insulting at worst.

Words are important they shape our thinking. They can also determine our experiences. We no longer use the words "spastic", "lunatic" or "nigger". Why then is it considered quite alright to refer to me, and those like me, as a disabled person? I work full time, I live a life probably not far different to your own, I've been very successful in my hobby-pursuits and I've raised a family. As "disabled" means "broken, not working or rendered inoperative", I'm afraid this doesn't sound like me. Like other people with disabilitys, I am not a "disabled person" I am a person living my life with disability. Its my normality! I go to accessible toilets and I use disability or accessible parking bays (if you're not parked in it "for just a few moments" that is.)

People who are in a position to make the laws that determine how we will each be treated seem to persist in seeing us as "something different" or "outside the scale of normality". Therefore, instead of integrating us, they "do special things" for us. They build houses "for us" for example. If you're an able-bodied person and you have family or visitors who need access, why not have houses built that ARE accessible? ALL houses?

There is a movement across the world to have Universal Design accepted. So, when building a new opera house, for example, instead of building a huge set of steps out the front and popping a ramp around the side, these standards maintain that ramps do not discriminate and so we should have a big ramp out the front and steps at the side. Everyone could then access the building equitably.

So what is happening to redress disability discrimination?

Ahh if you're not already aware, this is the information you need to know.

Ideally, to quickly redress our inequities, the Federal Government would initiate an ongoing media blitz that would clearly explain what people with disabilities need.

Shopkeepers would be made aware that lack of access means that dollars are wheeling right past their front door.

All architects and planners etc would be reminded that disability access is mandatory. Governments could provide an encouragement by giving tax cuts to those incorporating Universal Design into their development plans.

Who remembers the TV advertisement telling us we should make the effort to smile at and speak to the person in the wheelchair? I think we all did, because I get spoken to by strangers a lot more when I'm in the chair than when I'm out of it!

Surely if the man in the street knew how and when we were being discriminated against, they'd be more likely to help us redress the situation.

Government change is fuelled by votes and dollars. People with disabilities have been paying their dollars for decades, yet we do not see that money being equitably spent on provision of universal access. So isn't this sector getting ripped off?

Until now, with our ageing population bulge in the demographic, we have not had the numbers, either. That's votes, folks and we need your understanding and your support.

But we're not being supported. As things stand today, if a person with disabilities encounters a situation that constitutes discrimination, just like you, we each have the right to complain. But how many do? How many can?

For the sake of this exercise, lets imagine a person with disabilities has gone into a shop and there's stock everywhere, impeding their progress. The toilet is inaccessible, or unusable, and there's inadequate (or no) disability parking bays out the front. To get in, we have to ask for a ramp to be put in place. Worse still, people still believe that "people in chairs can just be lifted up by a couple of strong burly blokes". This is absolutely illegal unless lives are at risk.

Firstly, we complain to the store manager. They usually don't like it much. Some promise they'll address the issues, yet mostly, if one returns, little or nothing has changed.

By then our person with disabilities is so annoyed, they ring or email the HREOC.

Then the process starts. This course of action can often take an enormous amount of frustration, energy and dedication, but it can be well worth it if you're serious about your rights. The problem is, each time I go out I end up doing disability access advocacy as the lack of access is acute!

This isn't FAIR! Why should people with disabilities have to do this?

Because, to date, through ignorance of the facts, ordinary Australians are letting it happen!

The Australian Government does not provide ANYONE to police disability access issues.

The only people who are out there to do this job are you and me.

Are you surprised? So was I when I was told by my doctor, six years ago, to live my life from a wheelchair. I was outraged! And I remain outraged and I'm asking for your help.

OK. What would it take to fix this situation?

It would simply take for people to have a heightened level of awareness and a willingness to speak out.

There are many people with disabilities who are working within their community to make a difference. We sit on advisory boards, assist councils and individuals and we are watchful. We complain and we make a small difference.

But if you ask for the opinion of a person in a wheelchair, that's what you'll get. That opinion may or may not be an educated opinion. Not all of these people are members of the Australian Consultants in Access. Not all are aware of a wide range of disability needs.

However, many Australians who are involved in disability, directly or indirectly, ARE politically and community active. Right across the country we are attending forums and meetings etc and doing what ever we can to try to fix each little town's access problems.

Within the numbers of those who do take a role, abilities and levels of knowledge can vary. While one person's experiences may be true for them, advice that is given is not always accurate or designed to fit the needs of the majority.

These helpful individuals may also be putting themselves at risk.

If, for example, an unqualified, lay-person person gives advice on a ramp on a building project then the builder goes ahead and takes that advice and builds the ramp to these specifications. What if its incorrect? If someone hurts themselves on it and sues the owner of the ramp, the owner then sues the ramp builder, whereupon he can sue the individual who provided the original advice.

There are a significant percentage of the disability sector who takes an active interest in these issues. There are a number of excellent chat-groups and lobby groups one can join and they are working quietly and slowly towards finding some of the solutions. The HREOC processes over 500 complaints a year and there are also the state human rights sites that are active. One should be aware, however, that if the case progresses to the Federal Court level, the person making the complaint might end up stuck with the bill! Yes, one can claim "hardship", but what if you're not on a pension? The costs of social justice could be unacceptably high.

The truth is, Australia, if we continue at the rate we're going, we're all going to be dead before our country becomes accessible and non-discriminatory toward people with disabilities.

UNLESS our governments start taking disability access seriously. UNLESS we, as a nation, refuse to allow it. We need to be aware and to speak out.

Why doesn't this 35% of the population with disabilities organise its self into an effective lobby group? They'd have the numbers!

The very nature of disability often means that individuals may not be equipped, or capable of, being a social activist. Many Carers are often too exhausted to be able to take on such challenges. When one's disability means it takes a few hours just to get out of bed in the morning, individuals might find it difficult to put their energies into writing the wrongs and inequities of their communities.

Think of other successful lobby groups like:

or the cycling access strategy...

The what?

Yes, did you know that in Australia, every year, multi-millions of dollars are being spent on providing access for cyclists? This is a powerful and successful lobby group who are united and focused. A decade or two ago they convinced the Government that green-house gasses created by vehicles, and the needs of the sheer volume of inner city traffic over time in regards to parking etc, meant that it'd make good sense if we all rode our bike to work.

While this idea seems sound on a number of levels, I am still surprised to know that Governments across Australia are so swayed by this that provision of cycling access is big bucks.

There are two things I feel must be pointed out, however:

  1. Cycling is an activity of choice and
  2. Some aspects of cycling access discriminates against people who use wheelchairs.

Now, while that means that much of this access can be equitably used by people who use wheelchairs, as well as people within all levels of fitness and age-groups who ride a bike, my point is:

If the "Cycling access" strategy became the "barrier-free access" strategy and was designed NOT to discriminate, we'd all be winning, wouldn't we?!

What is good for bike-riders is sometimes OK for wheelchair users,

BUT!

What is good for wheelchair users is terrific for bike riders!

What needs to be done?

We need to demand that the Government rededicate to disability access needs.

Disability access provision needs to be policed in Australia. Those providing our infrastructure, from Councils to developers (etc) need to be educated and then held accountable and fined if its not right. The policing and fining process needs to be seriously and swiftly dealt with, not being allowed to create an impossible back-log.

Jobs for people with disabilities? Who better than this sector, many of whom have an interest and knowledge base of the subject, to be taught and employed in these positions?

In the areas of Australia where the Council has embraced disability access and a dedication to inclusion has been included in planning, the difference is amazing.

Places like Hervey Bay, for example. They are striving to become a retirement destination and they really are providing an example for Australia.

Oz has also embraced Disability Tourism. The tourism dollar spent by PWD's and their families is an enormous amount and people in business are realising that, if they are not providing an accessible and useable product, they are missing out on a lucrative asset.

Robyn feeding a bower bird at Lamington National Park while holidaying in Queensland.

By recognising that people with disabilities are being discriminated against in the most fundamental ways, by speaking out on our behalf and supporting our needs, we could have these issues being fixed straight after the next election. The measure of any community is how it chooses to treat its most needy.

While we continue to silently tolerate this discrimination against the people who are, perhaps, the least equipped to solidly unite and stand up for themselves and their right to live an equitable lifestyle, it will keep on happening. Why? There's no votes in "disability".

The problem is put in the "too hard" basket because no pressure is brought to bear. Why? Without your help, we are NOT a powerful lobby group. We're the ignored Australians.

In addition to that, while the able-bodied population are happily continuing to pay to have a jail built around us (and the people we love), aren't you going to feel inadequate if ever YOU are the one in the wheelchair and you can no longer live an equitable lifestyle?

What can you do to help?

In daily life, disapprove of the able-bodied person who is parked in the few disability bays we have if they are not displaying a disability permit. Peer-group pressure works!

When you see that shops are not providing access or usability, ask questions why aren't they? They are required to do so by law or they are discriminating against our need to access goods and services if they don't.

Do not refer to people with disabilities as "disabled people" or worse. That is deeply insulting and adds a burden to what might already be a very trying life! For example, people don't "give birth to a Downs Syndrome Baby" they "have a baby with Downs Syndrome".

People are PEOPLE first and they may also live with disability. But they are NOT "their disability". There is a subtle difference and words are important.

For information on the correct way to refer to people with a disability, please download the booklet Way With Words [PDF] from Disability Queesnland web site

Together, we have to bring the reality of disability issues out of the closet and speak about them openly. There is nothing to be gained from being in denial about disability.

When have you ever heard of disability issues being a part of a party platform? We're the forgotten Australians. It would seem that, as we're ageing, the Government suddenly realises there are too many of us to support, and we're treated like the "guilty party" and told to get out and find a job - but we're on our own in an inequitable world. How do we do that?

Will the costs involved in interviewing all of the people with disabilities in Australia and assessing them as to their eligibility to work be recouped by the revenue created by these new taxpayers?

By talking about this subject openly we can create awareness of need, and by doing this we can talk disability issues up into the spotlight where they'll just have to be dealt with.

The media in this country could begin to solve the problem by refraining from speaking of people with disability in a way that makes us the object of pity. The media should be held accountable for using derogatory terms when referring to people with disability as "the disabled". What other group still gets categorised by their physicality? Do we read headlines saying, "Big fat man wins golf tournament"?

The signage in Australia still sends the wrong message about people with disabilities, with the word "DISABLED" used rather than just the use of the wheelchair symbol or the word "accessible". Its attitudes, honed like this and held by the man in the street that shape our world.

Wouldn't it be nice to imagine that people's social conscience would over-ride the quest for the mighty dollar? If that were true, I'd go to the effort of asking all of the people responsible for development, building and infrastructure to be highly mindful of adopting universal design and implementing access of all kinds in a bid to actually provide an accessible country. Unfortunately, I believe Australia will have to introduce a policing and fines system before this would be followed diligently.

Australia? We need your help. Speak out for us, please?

…and who’s Robyn Gobert?

I am a person who uses a wheelchair. I am the mother of, the ex-wife of, the Aunty and the Great Aunt of, the grandmother of, the friend and cousin of… and the daughter of people with different disabilities.

Robyn has also worked in the disability field as an access consultant and is a well-known disability rights advocate and columnist in Australia with several articles on e-bility.com. Infact type "Robyn Gobert" into a search engine and you'll get about 26 hits.

Postscript: Robyn has recently remarried and her name is now Robyn Perham. She can be reached via Marine Surveyors, the Perham's business website.

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