“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.”
So read the commentary of one disabled person contained in the Shut Out: The Experience of People With Disabilities and their Families in Australia report published by the Department of Social Services last year.
According to that report, the aforementioned individual was not alone in raising concerns. One university student talked of only one toilet on campus being large enough to accommodate his motorised scooter. Another talked of dentistry and other professional services being accessible only by staircases, being forced to use colder outdoor seating in cafes and restaurants (because they had steps in the entrance) and being shut out of recreational activities because cinemas and swimming facilities are often inaccessible. Others talked of being unable to attend a child’s end-of-year ballet concert because the venue had no access, and not being able to attend the cinemas as there were no screens with technology to assist people with a hearing impediment.
As the population ages and awareness about the need to cater for people with disability grows, one would have thought that experience of the built environment amongst those with disability would have improved. Indeed, amendments to the Disability Discrimination Act 1992 which came into effect in 2011 saw the introduction of new standards for accessibility in buildings and transport – although requirements in respect of the latter will not be in full effect until 2022.
Alas, there is still much work to be done. According to a recent report by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 30 per cent of all people between the ages of 15 and 64 who have disabilities and who live within the community said they did not leave home as often as they would have liked in 2015. Those numbers show no improvement compared with a similar survey in 2003, where 31 per cent indicated likewise. In a similar vein, the proportion of those with a severe or profound limitation within that age group who lived in the community but indicated likewise (51 per cent in both 2003 and 2015) also showed no improvement.
The built environment is a significant factor. According to the survey, more than one in four (27 per cent) of those between the ages of 15 and 64 who live within the community and have a disability and nearly one in three (32 per cent) of those with severe or profound limitation had experienced difficulty in accessing buildings in the past 12 months. Meanwhile, 72 per cent of those with severe or profound limitations reported difficulty in accessing public transport. Common complaints in regard to buildings include stairs, internal doors, corridor widths and approach areas (ramps, handrails, lighting and so on); those in respect of transport include steps, difficulty in getting to stops or stations and a lack of seating or difficulty standing.
Speaking first of buildings, George Xinos, principal consultant at Functional Access Consultants, says the new standards delivered improvements such as wider doors and better circulation.
Nevertheless, he points out that the requirements are mandatory only for new buildings or older buildings which undergo a refurbishment or upgrade for which a building permit is required. As a result, he says, much of the pre-2011 building stock remains as it was prior to the standards being introduced.
Another challenge, he says, lies in spaces between buildings. Concrete ramps at street curbs, for example, are often poorly constructed and built in a way which failed to comply with the relevant Australian standards. Despite being increasingly available in places like Sydney and Melbourne, accessibility maps which help to alert people of potential barriers such as the gradients of paths are not necessarily well known and used, he adds.
In respect of the standards for transport facilities, Xinos says that whilst less costly items such as signals, signs and lighting are expected to have been brought up to scratch quickly, higher dollar value items such as toilets, access ways, doorways, lifts and stairs have been given more time and are allowed to be brought up to scratch more progressively until 2022.
Inside the home, meanwhile, Xinos says little is happening in terms of liveable housing and delivering housing which can be adapted to meet the needs of different types of residents.
“There is progress being made across the board, but it is faster in some areas and there are other areas which are a lot more challenging,” he said.
Joe Manton, director and access consultant at the Institute of Access Training Australia, says progress has not been occurring anywhere near as quick as was needed.
To be sure, Manton said improvements have been made in terms of the 2011 standards setting benchmarks about what needs to be done and awareness about the importance of accessibility having grown amongst businesses and the community.
Appreciation is also growing about universal design – a concept Manton says differs from the regulatory focus of accessibility in that it encapsulates a philosophy whereby the needs of a diverse range of end-users are incorporated into design strategies irrespective of whether or not they in fact have disabilities. In Victoria, for example, anyone wanting to receive funding from the state government to construct a recreational facility, for instance, must demonstrate how they incorporated universal design principles into the design of the facility concerned.
Nevertheless, she says, outcomes are being held back by several factors.
Prior to the current standards, Manton said, the Disability Discrimination Act talked about providing equity and justice but afforded little guidance as to how this applied to the built environment. Given that, she said improvements which are expected as a result of these standards will take time. This is particularly the case in transport. Whilst new busses might be well designed, for example, Manton says many existing busses will remain in service until their life cycle is complete.
Whilst the minimum standards set a benchmark, meanwhile, Manton says not all building owners yet fully appreciate the importance of accessibility as an investment and tend to view the standards as being ‘the standard’ to which you build rather than the bare minimum. Moreover, these standards are not always being met, and some developers still view access as a cost rather than an investment and seek ways to avoid the need for access.
Even when standards are met, Manton says research upon which these are formed was conducted as long ago as the 1980s and may thus not be reflective of challenges experienced by those with disability in the contemporary environment.
Finally, whilst the standards should deliver better outcomes in buildings, Manton is less confident about less-regulated areas such as streets and parks. That said, she acknowledges improvements in awareness about the need for accessibility in these areas amongst the broader design profession and says there is ample opportunity for innovation in these spaces.
Going forward, Xinos says more needs to be done between destinations. Whilst encouraging efforts are occurring through initiatives such as changing places program involving toilets with hoists and full-sized change tables being installed in major public areas, he said these should be mandated under the National Construction Code rather than voluntary and dependent upon government funding.
Progress must also be made in terms of liveable housing, whilst more effort is required to deliver housing which is within reasonable proximity to transport hubs and community facilities. Given difficulties associated with private motor vehicles and public transport, meanwhile, he says sensible regulation in respect of things like Uber and the taxi industry is critical.
Manton says improvements are needed across several areas. To promote further awareness, she said accessibility considerations needed to be incorporated into the courses of designers, builders and building surveyors. Greater rigour and more thorough checking is needed to ensure that accessibility requirements were being incorporated into design and construction as required by the standards. To ensure this happens, use of qualified and accredited access consultants could be mandated, she said. More up-to-date research, meanwhile, would ensure that access standards were informed by an understanding of the contemporary needs of those with disability as opposed to those which existed in the 1980s.
Finally, Manton says the focus should revolve around access rather than disability itself.
“We need to focus on access not on disability. If we look at access for everyone then by default, we are going to incorporate the needs of people with a disability,” Manton said. “If we focus on disability, the community then tend to feel that the issue is a marginalised one and that we are only talking about a small group of people within the community.
“That is incorrect, but often, it’s about changing that understanding in getting people to relate to the idea of access for everyone rather than only those with disability.”