Providing Access to All

Kuringai Municipal Council - Launch of new access policy and DDA action plan

2 December 2005
Dr Sev Ozdowski OAM
Human Rights Commissioner and Acting Disability Discrimination Commissioner

Sev Ozdowski

Introduction

Allow me to commence by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land on which we meet.

I also acknowledge

  • Mayor Elaine Malicki,
  • councillors,
  • people with disabilities
  • and other distinguished guests.

Diversity

I always commence public speaking engagements by acknowledging the indigenous history of the place, as an important reminder of our diversity.

Some of us are women and some are men; some of us brought new names and accents in recent decades and some of us have Australian ancestry reaching back tens of thousands of years; and some of us have one or more disabilities.

Well known Australian Bureau of Statistics figures tell us that around 20% of Australia ' s people have some level of disability. A closer look indicates that the numbers are likely to be quite substantially larger - considering some recent evidence that either of the categories of hearing impairment or mental health issues affect 20% of our population just by themselves.

As well as the 20 per cent plus who have a disability, around eight per cent of the community act as carers for family or friends with disabilities on daily basis.

We also know that all these numbers are growing and will grow further as our population ages.

This is one reason why providing access for people with disabilities is about access for all and not only an issue of minority rights.

Benefits of recognising diversity

Fortunately, I think we are starting to get past the point of regarding diversity either as something to be ignored, or at best a problem to be managed, and towards recognising the value of diversity.

Many of us as people with family responsibilities know what a struggle it can be to manage work and family commitments. But the other side of that coin is that we have experience in managing time and priorities and conflict resolution - all assets rather than negatives in working life.

It is less common to hear about disability as a positive.

That is not surprising. None of us really want a disability for ourselves or a family member. None of us look forward eagerly to the increasing probability of impairment of hearing or vision or mobility or memory or other aspects of life as we get older.

But disability is in fact an inherent part of the diversity of human experience.

And very often part of the experience of disability also involves acquiring skills and experience that can be valuable in working life and in communities.

Let me give a few examples.

Within the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, it was no accident that the disability team took the lead in taking advantages of communicating and publishing our material through email and the world wide web.

Team members who were blind, and others who couldn't use books easily because of physical disability, just naturally thought of information and communications in a broader way than just print on paper - years ahead of other areas of our organisation which still took it for granted that expensive boxes full of glossy print were the way information got distributed. Now of course everyone has caught on, and we save the taxpayers millions of dollars and do our job better.

Out in the real world - I mean outside the public service - we see over and over again how designing to meet the needs of people with disability actually meets the needs of a much wider range of the community.

The low floor buses with ramps and the railway stations with lifts are not only important in delivering effective and affordable mobility for people using wheelchairs. They help the dad or grandmother with one child in a pram and another to manage somehow; the lawyer wheeling her heavy bag full of laptop and papers; the usually fit young man who is on crutches for a few days after last weekend's rugby match.

Non-slip floor surfaces, which make buildings safer for people who can walk but have impaired mobility, also make it less likely the rest of us will acquire a mobility impairment by falling over - so they are good news for everyone who is not either a negligence lawyer, or else so vain that they need to see their own reflection in polished stone floors.

The captions on television that deaf and hearing impaired people rely on for access are also useful for anyone trying to check the cricket score in a noisy bar. Or so I am told by people who go to such places, anyway. Also, of course, captions are very useful if a plane flies overhead at the most important point of the film - a particular issue where I live in the Inner West, but an issue sometimes whatever community in Sydney you live in.

Role of HREOC and other bodies

I have chosen these examples because they are all areas where there has been progress over the last few years and I am pleased to say that the Human Rights Commission has been involved in that progress through our work under the Disability Discrimination Act.

We have not of course been alone in that work. Some results have been gained by people with disabilities using the complaint process under the legislation. Some have been the results of very large scale processes of negotiation of national standards, involving the expertise of industry bodies and different areas of government as well as disability advocates.

We now have standards in place for accessible public transport and for education. Particularly important to local government is the process, almost completed, of developing standards for access to premises.

Importance of local government role

Local Government authorities play a critical role in supporting and maintaining a sustainable built environment by exercising their building approval and certification functions.

As I have said, as the population ages all of us are increasingly likely to have one or more significant disabilities.

A built environment that forces people from their communities as age or disability affects them is neither economically nor socially sustainable.

Local Government has had responsibilities under building and planning laws to ensure that new public developments and renovations provide access for people with disabilities to a level described in the Building Code of Australia.

However, since the DDA came into force the Commission has held a view that Local Government should also do all it can to require access is provided consistent with the DDA.

Many Local Government authorities have responded to this by developing Access Policies or Development Control Plans which describe a level of access which is more consistent with the DDA.

Much of the confusion that currently exists will be resolved when work has been completed on a Disability Standard on Access to Premises.

When completed Local Government and private certifiers will be much clearer about what developers must do in order to meet their responsibilities under the DDA and I am confident this will have a major impact on our built environment of the future.

There will be some areas, such as pavements, public parks and picnic areas that will not be covered by the Premises Standard at least at first.

Local Government authorities may be responsible for these parts of the built environment, or responsible for approving them and it is important that principles of accessibility are also applied to them.

Action plans

A large part of the progress we have seen around Australia in recent years though has not come as a result of complaints and legal processes, or through national negotiation of standards, but through work at a very practical and local level, in many cases through the framework of developing and implementing a voluntary Disability Action Plan.

In particular, there has been strong take-up by local government of the invitation in the legislation to develop disability action plans. In fact this is one reason I thought it fitting that this event today should provide one of the last scheduled public speaking commitments in my term as Commissioner.

Over 140 local government areas around Australia have now lodged action plans with the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission. 52 of those at last count were from NSW - although I must tell you that the Victorians are ahead in this competition with 56. Perhaps the Mayor might have a word to a few of her fellow heads of NSW local government .

Conclusion

In concluding my address I would like to quote from my predecessor Elizabeth Hastings:

"A community which includes people with a disability is not some experiment of over-bold social engineers; it is the real community we have now, waiting to be acknowledged. Accessibility is not an experiment we can or should defer, while we procrastinate over whether this or that is really the right time or the right way to try it".

It is quite clear that Local Government authorities such as Kuringai not among the procrastinators. They are making enormous efforts to ensure our communities provide access for all.

I commend the Council and all involved in development of this new Disability Action Plan and access policy. I wish you all success in its implementation into the future, a future accessible to all.

Thank you.


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