Preparations for the Olympics and Paralympics and inclusion of people with disabilities: the Australian experience

Dr Sev Ozdowski OAM
Human Rights Commissioner and Acting Disability Discrimination Commissioner
Australia

There is substantial attention in the international community being directed at present to the human rights of people with disabilities. An international convention on human rights and disability is being actively considered through the United Nations system. I would have been attending a regional meeting in Beijing in April this year as part of this process but this was cancelled because of the SARS outbreak. (It is relevant to note in this context that people who have or who may have infectious diseases are also entitled to protection against unjustified discrimination, and in Australia the Disability Discrimination Act covers these people, while recognising that reasonable measures may be taken to protect public health.)

Internationally, the case for a human rights Convention specifically dealing with people with disabilities seems strong, to give clearer guidance to national efforts to protect and promote human rights for people with disabilities than is provided by the existing general human rights Covenants, and more authority and profile for disability issues than is provided by the existing non-binding instruments on disability already adopted by the General Assembly (the Declaration on the Rights of Disabled Persons, the Declaration on the Rights of Mentally retarded Persons, and the Standard Rules for the Equalisation of Opportunities for Persons with Disabilities).

In Australia, substantial measures have already been undertaken to protect and promote equal rights for people with disabilities - inspired by international developments on human rights including the International Year of Disabled Persons in 1981, as well as by activism by people with disabilities themselves. Legislation at the national and also at the State (or provincial) level requires equal treatment and non-discriminatory access in a range of areas including employment, education, access to buildings, public transport and access to government services and information.

Australia's hosting of the Olympic and Paralympic Games in 2000 provided interesting tests of progress in moving towards a society that includes people with disabilities as equal participants.

The Olympic Games have become the biggest non-military event on our planet. The scale and complexity of the event is further increased by the Paralympic Games being conducted in the same venues immediately afterwards, as they were in Sydney and will be in Athens and Beijing.

It is well known that the Games provide a test and a showcase for a city and a nation's ability to stage large and complex events and to welcome the world's diverse people. Among many other challenges, they provide a huge test for how prepared we are to deal with the fact that human diversity inherently includes people with disabilities.

Many disability access issues involve very practical details, that require detailed and careful planning. Before that and most fundamentally, though, there needs to be this recognition of people with disabilities as part of the public who will be seeking to participate in the Games experience, and a commitment to ensuring that they can participate.

The experience in Sydney of planning and delivering Games intended to be accessible to people with disabilities has been documented in a post-Games report by the Olympic Co-ordination Authority. This report remains available at www.oca.nsw.gov.au/html/accessadvisory.stm for the benefit of people planning future Olympics and other large events. It details and evaluates strategies used and offers suggestions for improvement in future events. A range of resources on disability access issues, used in or based on the experience of planning and delivering the Games, are also available at www.oca.nsw.gov.au/access/html/default.cfm .

This paper does not seek to present all of this material in detail but to draw out some key issues and lessons.

The Paralympics highlighted the need to deal with issues of disability access and inclusion, but it would be a serious mistake to view these issues as only relevant to the Paralympics and not the Olympics.

Among visitors to both Games - and also among the volunteers who contributed so much to Sydney's success - there were people with disabilities in large numbers.

Although only a small number of mainstream Olympic athletes would have a disability raising access issues, accessibility in facilities for athletes (including accommodation and food service) was also required because the same facilities were to be used by Paralympians and Olympians

People attending the Games will be looking for accessibility in accommodation; booking and ticketing facilities and information; transport to venues (and at venues where there are long distances between different events at the one venue); food outlets and toilet facilities at venues; as well as in the many other aspects where a host city will be seeking to welcome visitors, such as restaurants and cultural venues.

Even with the long planning processes for an Olympics, not all of these issues may be addressed in time, particularly those concerning accessibility of facilities in the society more broadly away from games venues. After all, it has taken centuries to build a society which did not effectively include people with disabilities. It may be hard to change all of that in a few short years even with the huge and dedicated effort that goes into planning an Olympics. But working towards the Olympics did provide a major focus for addressing access issues in Australia, particularly in the areas of public transport, hotel accommodation and other building access issues.

Some of the lessons from the Sydney Olympic experience were these:

  • Planning and design for disability access will also benefit many other participants. For example, older people attending the Games may have similar access needs - in limited mobility and in restricted sight or hearing - to people with more obvious disabilities. Clear information for the benefit of people who have difficulty reading or understanding complicated information will benefit everyone in complex or crowded environments.
  • Disability access issues are easier and cheaper to address if access is built into planning and design from the start, instead of access issues having to be fixed later on. For example, the Sydney organising committee failed to give enough consideration early on to the information needs of blind and vision impaired people in the ticket booking process, and suffered an embarrassing loss in a discrimination complaint by a blind man because the ticket book was not available in Braille and the main Games website was not constructed to be accessible to blind people. The man complained because he wanted to be able to choose which events to attend with his children like anyone else could do. The evidence was that an accessible website would have been relatively simple to produce if the issue had been addressed in time. The decision on this complaint - ordering the payment of $20,000 damages to the complainant - is available in the complaint decisions section of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission website www.humanrights.gov.au/disability_rights .
  • Action to address access issues needs to start years ahead of an Olympics. For example, Sydney began replacing its bus fleet with accessible low floor, ramp fitted buses 5 years ahead of the Games - partly in response to complaints under disability discrimination legislation, partly to avoid embarrassment in not being able to cater adequately for Paralympic requirements, and partly because of an awareness that accessible vehicles would perform better in the mass movement tasks required during the Games. Even so, Sydney still did not have enough of its bus fleet accessible by the time of the Games to meet demands without difficulties. The time remaining until Beijing's Olympics and Paralympics is in this sense not very long.
  • Consultation with people with disabilities as part of all planning and implementation processes is an essential part of identifying access issues to be addressed, and in deciding on how best to address them. The material already referred to from the Olympic Coordination Authority details the consultative processes used for the Sydney Olympics.
  • This includes mechanisms for complaints about access issues, to ensure that people responsible for facilities and events are informed of problems that arise, during preparations and even during the running of the Games. Even the best planning process may not be able to identify and solve all access issues in advance - just as with other aspects of a large venture such as the Games. But where complaints identified issues even at a late stage, in many cases it was possible to come up with solutions, including through providing additional human assistance to make up for limits in available equipment or infrastructure.
  • In some instances, all that was needed were mechanisms for consultation and feedback to ensure that organisers were aware of disability issues and solutions. But it was also important in some instances to have an underpinning of legal rights, through disability discrimination law as well as through other provisions such as access requirements in building law, to ensure that disability issues were taken seriously before they became a problem or an embarrassment in the running of the Games.

Finally, changes made to provide accessibility and inclusion during the Games will have lasting benefits for the host city and nation and for visitors long after the Games are over. Less tangibly, but perhaps equally important, it was clear that the Paralympics as a celebration of the abilities of people with a disability had a positive impact on public attitudes to and awareness of disability issues in Australia. Let us hope for similar results from future Olympics and Paralympics in other countries into the future.

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