Disability access should be a source of significant concern for property owners and managers given the legal risks involved.
Building premises in Australia are subject to stringent regulations concerning the provision of access to members of the public who are handicapped or disabled.
This is considered of vital importance due to the copious number of Australians who possess various forms of intellectual or physical disability. According to figures from the Australian Human Rights Commission, nearly 4 million have a disability of some sort, including the 50 per cent of people over the age 55 who suffer from issues with mobility, hearing or vision.
The issue will become of increased significance as Australia’s aged population expands. By mid-century, as many as 25 per cent of Australians will be over the age of 65.
Disabled access to building premises in Australia is covered primarily by section 23 of the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) and the Building Code of Australia (BCA), as well as local state and territory discrimination laws.
Both the DDA and BCA require compliance, and should either of them impose stricter requirements than the other, these must still be met.
The purview of the DDA’s access requirements when it comes to premises is extremely broad, covering educational institutions, shops, cafes, restaurants and pubs; cinemas and sporting venues, as well as any “other premises the public or a part of the public is entitled or allowed to enter or use.”
In addition to this, DDA regulations apply to all buildings in Australia irrespective of age – including new buildings and heritage buildings.
Failure to comply with these regulations can lead to thorny legal complications for property owners and managers should complaints of discrimination be lodged.
Complainants in Australia possess ample recourse, with the right to submit their cases to the Australian Human Rights Commission, as well as the Federal Court or Federal Magistrates Court.
Thankfully for building owners and managers, ensuring sufficient access to premises is for the most part not too challenging, with requirements clearly outlined by the Australian Human Rights Commission's Disability (Access to Premises - buildings) Standards 2010.
Key points include the provision of accessible paths of travel to main doors or doors which are free of steps or other barriers such as bollards, inclines or coarse surfaces.
Paths must be wide enough to permit the passage of people using wheelchairs or walking frames, and must possess sufficient overhead clearance to ensure that those who are vision-impaired will not bump into any signs or branches.
Doorways within premises should not be too heavy or difficult to open, and must possess handles that are easy to operate, such as “D-shaped” handles, instead of round knobs which can be tricky to manipulate.
Doors made from glass should also possess a clearly identifiable colour-contrast strip across their full width in order to ensure that people with impaired vision can identify them.
Clear identification signs and tactile Braille information are also important features for reception desks, facilities, toilets and elevators in order to ensure that they can be readily identified by the vision impaired.
Should a premise owner or manager still find these or any other mandated requirements too challenging to implement, however, they can still defend themselves against a DDA complaint by proving to the Federal Court or the Federal Magistrates Court that providing access would cause “unjustifiable hardship.”
A defence of unjustifiable hardship can be made on various grounds, including cost, technical difficulties, specific uses of the premises, as well as the impact of mandated changes to the heritage features of a building.