Sydney City Access Forum

6 September 2006

Graeme Innes
Human Rights Commissioner and Disability Discrimination Commissioner

Graeme Innes


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

I would like to thank you Councillor Kemmis and your CEO Monica Barone for the invitation to attend this Forum as it gives me an opportunity to discuss the critical role that Local Government can play in ensuring people with disabilities have access to, and are able to contribute to, the social, cultural, economic and political community in which we live.

It also gives me an opportunity to comment on recent initiatives the City of Sydney has embarked upon and to express my hope that these will result in changes that will make Sydney a city of best practice.

Areas to be covered

I want to start, however, by placing my comments within the broad debate about the role of local government in promoting sustainable communities.

The Sustainable Communities Network based at Edith Cowan University describes a sustainable community as one that:

" has an explicit systemic approach to the integration of ecological, social, cultural and economic features to meet the needs of the present without compromising the needs of the future. ... (It is) concerned with what it is that enables individuals or families to participate in the social and economic life of their communities in a sustainable way. It considers how to avoid the economic or social exclusion of some members of the community from the opportunities available to the community or nation at large".

When I think about the needs of people with disabilities in our community it seems clear to me that a sustainable community is one that, for example:

  • Does not compromise the future of our children or ourselves by constructing buildings and services that are accessible only to those who do not have a disability
  • Does not continue to exclude people with disabilities from contributing to the social capital and diversity of our community

On the contrary a sustainable community is one that supports and welcomes people with disabilities as participants in the cultural, political and economic development of a community.

It is not just the 20% of people currently identified as having a disability that will benefit from a more accessible community.

We are all well aware of the significant effect that an ageing population will have on our community over the next 20 to 50 years. A new report released by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare titled Life expectancy and disability in Australia examined whether the years of life lived with a disability are increasing along with overall gains in life expectancy. The report found:

  • As people live longer they are living a greater part of their life with a disability - on average people would expect to live with a disability for almost 20 years
  • The ageing of the population is leading to more people with a disability

Unfortunately when looking at the vast amount of material developed to benchmark Sustainable Community Indicators few, if any, have identified data relevant to the access needs of people with disabilities.

I may not have been looking in the right place, but it seems to me that the debate on sustainability has not yet sufficiently addressed questions of access, participation and community for people with disabilities.

The simple message I have given to Local Government throughout Australia is that a community that is not accessible is not sustainable.

Local Government contribution to sustainable communities

Perhaps I could give a couple of examples of where Local Government could, and in many cases does, contribute to the human rights of people with disabilities by developing and maintaining sustainable communities. The examples I want to give are those as Local Government as a direct service provider and as a body with authority over the development of public places and spaces.

Sustainable services

Local Government authorities as direct service providers or facilitator of services are in a perfect position to ensure today's services do not exclude or compromise tomorrow's citizens.

Clearly the way you design and deliver your services have important implications for sustainability.

Our understanding of how to make services available to all our citizens is much clearer than when the DDA was enacted 13 years ago. For example:

  • We know how to ensure services delivered through the Web are accessible to blind people
  • We know that our telephone information services should be supplemented by a TTY service for Deaf and speech impaired people
  • We know that public toilets provided at the annual fair must include wheelchair accessible toilets
  • We know that critical information sent out to citizens must be in plain English
  • We know that when we develop policies to allow pavements to be used by local businesses those policies must ensure access is maintained along the footpath.

Many Local Government authorities, such as City of Sydney , actively plan and commit resources to ensuring their services are accessible by developing a Disability Action Plan.

I want to come back to the question of what makes a good Action Plan later.

Sustainable public places and spaces

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

Historically, 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, as I am sure you are aware 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, and Sydney is one of them, 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.

One of the critical issues, and one I will return to later, is how to ensure compliance with the BCA and Development Control Plans in an environment where building certification is mainly undertaken by private certifiers and Council's have limited resources to audit developments themselves.

Much of the confusion and duplication that currently exists will be resolved when work has been completed on the proposed Disability Standard on Access to Premises and all I would like to say about that is that we are still hopeful of progress on the completion of that Standard.

What makes a good Action Plan?

The most commonly used tool in the DDA for pro-actively eliminating discrimination and planning for sustainable communities is the Action Plan.

In developing an Action Plan it was envisioned that service providers would benefit in a number of ways.

  • First they would enjoy the recognition of making a public commitment to the equality rights of people with disabilities.
  • Second they would be addressing their legal liabilities under both Federal and State laws.
  • Third they would be able to plan for change in a way that took account of other responsibilities and commitments, particularly budgetary commitments.
  • Finally they would provide themselves with added protection from successful complaints by having their Plan considered as part of a defence of unjustifiable hardship.

My view has always been that the investment required to develop an Action Plan is not warranted unless it achieves all those benefits for an organisation, and that it will not achieve those benefits unless it is done with the organisations full support.

While the Commission does not endorse Action Plans and has no authority to monitor their implementation we have, over the years, provided considerable informal input to service providers in the drafting process.

As a result we gained valuable experience in understanding the sort of factors that lead to effective plans. Some of these factors are:

  1. Obtain senior management commitment. If you have commitment from senior management for the development of the Plan, then you are more likely to ensure that sufficient timeframes and financial and human resources are allocated for implementation of the Plan.
  2. Identify one or two Councillors who will 'champion' the plan and ensure it receives appropriate time on Council's agenda.
  3. Promote a sense of ownership. The actual process of development or review of Action Plans can be used to promote a sense of ownership among staff and managers, and consequently a commitment to effective implementation.
  4. Establish mechanisms for drawing on the expertise of staff and residents with disabilities to identify barriers and find solutions.
  5. Allocate Action Plan implementation responsibilities to specific individuals. Responsibility for implementation should be delegated to a position of some authority, such as a section manager, to ensure that it is viewed as a high level activity. Preferably responsibilities should be written into the job description or Performance Statement of the delegated position rather than allocated generally to a Branch or section.
  6. Allocate priorities and ensure careful financial management. An Action Plan may include a large number of strategies and tasks to be performed. Some will be big ticket items involving considerable resource allocation over a period of time while others will be cost neutral. It is important that some system of prioritizing is included in the plan. It may sound obvious, but the commitments made in a plan have to be carefully budgeted for, and receive appropriate budget committee endorsement.
  7. Don't over commit. While an audit of services might identify a large number of issues to be addressed, it is important that the plan is realistic about what can be achieved over its life. Having said that, it is equally important that the plan vigorously addresses issues when commitments are made.
  8. Integrate the Action Plan with other plans. Organisations have many plans, including annual budgets, business and strategic plans, and it is important that the Action Plan is integrated with those plans if it is to have a better chance of being implemented.

The greatest value of an Action Plan is that it is achievable and reflects a real commitment to ensuring all citizens can enjoy what a city has to offer.

Monitoring the implementation of the Action Plan

The primary method for monitoring the implementation on the Action Plan is through checking that tasks are completed by due dates .

While this could be an internal mechanism on a day to day basis many Council's have also given their Disability Advisory Groups or Access Committees a role to play in monitoring progress.

While I believe it is up to individual Council's to decide what mechanisms to establish to provide input to the development and implementation of Action Plans our experience is that Disability Advisory Groups or Access Committees can play a very valuable and positive role. I believe, however, there are a number of important 'ground rules' that need to be agreed on in order for them to be effective.

First such Groups or Committees need to have clear Terms of Reference covering membership, role, authority and procedures in the event of disagreements between community members and Council staff or Councillors.

Second community members must come to the table with a willingness to negotiate to find solutions to problems rather than apportion blame.

Third Council staff must come to the table ready to learn from the experience of people with disabilities and respect the expertise they bring.

Forth while people come and go the best results are obtained by a consistent group of people learning over time how to work with each other.

Finally, while such groups must provide an opportunity for individuals to raise individual issues the culture of the group should focus on systemic approaches rather than 'closing the gate when the horse has bolted'.

Our experience is that where a Council has a specific disability worker that person plays a vital role in building bridges and establishing trust between members of the group.

Opportunities in the City of Sydney

Finally I want to comment on some of the recent initiatives the City of Sydney has embarked on and express my optimism about the changes that could occur over the next 12 months .

First I was very interested earlier this year to read of the appointment of consultants to develop an Inclusion-Access and Equity Needs Assessment Plan Study as part of the process of reviewing the City of Sydney Disability Action Plan .

Developing a new Action Plan based on the results of the Study and other consultations provides Council with an opportunity to review its priorities and integrate the plan with its other business plans. It also provides Council with an opportunity to review how it can best use the experience and expertise of people with disabilities to assist in its implementation.

Second I have been encouraged by the commitment shown recently by the Lord Mayor, and in particular the Director of City Planning to address non-compliance issues in the area of public building access. Council has shown it is willing to exercise its authority where there is evidence that new developments have not met Development Approval conditions in terms of access.

This may not sound remarkable to many of you, but I assure you it is refreshing to work with a Council willing to take action rather than wait for a DDA complaint to be lodged against the developer.

Third I am pleased to hear that Council staff training on general disability awareness for front line staff was progressing and that specific training for Council's Planners on design specifications for access is due to be completed by the end of the year.

Finally I was particularly encouraged to see that Council had appointed an Inclusion Officer whose role includes co-ordinating the Assessment Study and the review of the Action Plan.

Positions such as this are critical to establishing a trusting relationship between Council and advocates in the community and I would strongly urge both Council staff and advocates to recognise that Joanna's appointment provides an opportunity to do things differently in the future.

The forward to the 2002-2005 Action Plan stated:

"Our aim is to foster a 24-hour multi-use city of world standing, with a range of activities, services, facilities and opportunities that are accessible to all member of the community".

The next 12 months provides an opportunity for City of Sydney to vigorously plan how to achieve progress towards that goal and I would be pleased to offer my support as you work towards it.