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Getting there: access to public transport

Disability Disability Rights


Getting there: access to public transport

8th
International Conference on Mobility and Transport for Elderly and
Disabled People

Chris Sidoti
Human
Rights Commissioner and Acting Disability Discrimination Commissioner
Perth, 21 September 1998

Chris Sidoti

I
am particularly pleased to join in opening this international conference
on mobility and transport for elderly and disabled people and to be discussing
accessible transport here in Western Australia. The Government of Western
Australia deserves recognition for the commitment it is showing to making
public transport accessible: a commitment adopted in principle, policy
and plans and increasingly being delivered in practice.

Here,
I believe, we will see what can happen when a government recognises that
the community includes people with a disability and older people as essential
members and in large numbers.

Fifty
years ago this December 10, in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,
Australia and other nations committed themselves and their peoples to
ensuring equality of participation in economic, social, cultural and political
life for all human beings without discrimination. They did not say, "unless
you have a disability or are old, in which case forget it - you have to
accept segregation, second rate services or nothing". They said
that the rights they proclaimed were a common standard of achievement
for all humanity.

In
the 1980s and early 1990s State anti discrimination laws gave more direct
legal force to this recognition that all humanity does include people
with a disability. In 1992 the Disability Discrimination Act at federal
level followed similar State and Territory provisions across all mainland
Australia, other than the Northern Territory which followed a few months
later.

That
same recognition of disability and ageing as essential parts of the human
condition is increasingly making its way into public transport thinking.
I am pleased that the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission has
played its part in the positive developments in transport policy in this
State and nationally, through assistance in resolving complaints and advice
in the development of Action Plans under the Disability Discrimination
Act.

One
of the features of the Western Australian Transport Action Plan is its
commitment to implementation of the level of accessibility described in
the draft Disability Standards on accessible public transport.

My
understanding, indeed my expectation, is that following the completion
of a very long running and extensive Regulation Impact Statement process
the draft Standards will be considered by the federal, state and territory
ministers at the Australian Transport Council in December - two and a
half years after the draft was approved in principle by those ministers.

There
is an understandable sense of frustration by many people involved. But
I do not think I should discuss here the merits of the current draft standards
or any possible modifications to them. It does not seem appropriate for
me as a federal commissioner to comment in the middle of a federal election
campaign on the Regulation Impact Statement process, or its consideration
by a federal-state ministerial council.

It
is, however, on the public record that the Commission welcomed and supported
the initiative of transport ministers to prepare draft standards. In 1997
we issued an advisory note indicating our view that the draft standards
broadly reflect existing obligations under the Disability Discrimination
Act. Pending the conclusion of what even then seemed a protracted process
of consideration of draft standards, we thought it was important to give
transport operators as much certainty and clarity as possible about their
existing responsibilities and how to implement them, and to give people
with a disability as much certainty and clarity as possible about their
human rights and entitlements.

From
time to time in the standards process there appear to have been misconceptions
that we in Australia are still talking about whether public transport
should be accessible or not.

The
Disability Discrimination Act and the closely equivalent requirements
of State and Territory law in almost all Australian jurisdictions already
require that it will be.

So
the regulatory impact of standards, properly conceived, should not be
about the impact of implementing accessibility or not. Rather, the proper
role, and an important role, for the Regulation Impact Statement process
is to assist consideration of whether these draft standards, other draft
standards or other means are the most effective, efficient and appropriate
means of dealing with the existing legal requirements for accessibility.

My
understanding is that all Australian governments, federal state and territory,
remain committed to the appropriate consideration of standards and to
the RIS process in the light of that commitment.

If
for some reason standards are not adopted, existing rights and responsibilities
under the Disability Discrimination Act and its State and Territory equivalents,
and the complaint system, exemption mechanisms and other procedures for
dealing with those rights and responsibilities remain. Everyone involved
needs to be clear about this. The legislative rights and responsibilities
in this area continue to oblige transport providers to ensure accessibility.

In
any event, as the standards process approaches completion, there has already
been substantial progress in practice. Some of this has occurred in response
to complaints under the Disability Discrimination Act. Some of it has
occurred in response to the potential for complaints. Some of it appears
to have occurred as a result of public and private sector operators' own
views of accessibility as representing good business.

It
is difficult from my position at present to give or to get a systematic
national overview, but here are some points:

  • Public
    transport authorities in Western Australia and South Australia
    already have action plans in place under the DDA and have used the exemption
    process under the DDA as part of their management of the transition
    to accessibility. I encourage consideration of a similar approach by
    other authorities and operators. The Commission is bound to give positive
    consideration to exemption applications on terms which promote the objective
    of the legislation to eliminate discrimination as far as possible.
  • I
    hope to receive an action plan from Victoria's public transport
    authorities in the near future.
  • The
    Tasmanian government is reported to be working on an action plan.
  • The
    Northern Territory government does not have a formal action plan,
    but its commitment to full accessibility of the Darwin bus fleet was
    as far as I know the first such commitment by an Australian government.
  • Following
    a complaint in 1994 the then New South Wales Transport Minister
    undertook that all further railway station construction in that State
    would be accessible, including the Olympic and airport station facilities.
    Sydney Buses committed itself to accessibility of all further bus orders
    from 1995 in response to complaints.
  • Queensland's
    Department of Transport has a range of initiatives, including an
    Accessible Bus program whereby financial assistance is provided to bus
    operators on condition that they conform to the draft standards. It
    also has a major program of upgrading railway stations for accessibility.
    Brisbane Transport now specifies disability access as one of the basic
    requirements for tenders to supply it with buses.

While
we would like to see other State authorities following Western Australia's
and South Australia's lead in lodging formal action plans, this is not
the only possible approach. Particularly in the case of smaller private
sector operators, exemption applications might be based more simply on
a commitment to a number of actions. A range of relevant information is
available on our internet site and our small but still active disability
rights policy section is more than willing to discuss options with any
transport operator.

  • A
    number of complaints involving private bus operators have been
    settled on terms including acquisition and co-operative trials of operation
    of accessible vehicles
  • Other
    private bus operators which have not been involved in complaints have
    begun acquiring accessible vehicles on their own initiative, reportedly
    in part in response to the Disability Discrimination Act but also to
    respond better to the market of older passengers
  • Positive
    discussions are being conducted between consumers and air operators
    about improving access to smaller aircraft.

This
is an incomplete picture, and I apologise to operators and authorities
whose initiatives I have failed to mention. The incompleteness of the
picture is not due solely to the demands of a very full conference program.
It is also due to a major problem in this area, in other areas of disability
rights, and indeed in public policy in very many areas in the Australian
federation. We simply are not nearly good enough at sharing information,
the hard won results of experience and experiment, consultation and thought.

There
has been some discussion during the transport standards process of an
information clearinghouse facility on better practice and implementation
methods.

Discussions
thus far in the standards process have indicated little prospect for any
funding for transport authorities or industry for the purpose of information
sharing. Australian participants here would be aware that our Commission
has very limited resources with which it might undertake such a role -
and in an election period I will say no more on that subject.

I want
to announce, however, that we have decided that on a trial basis the Commission
will attempt to provide a transport accessibility information facility
as far as possible within our existing resources. What that means in practice
is that we will seek to make available on our internet site information
provided to us electronically by industry and consumers. Our capacity
to distribute information in any other form, or to pass on information
not provided electronically, is very limited, unfortunately.

This
is one of the reasons why I am particularly keen to see action plans lodged
with the Commission by public operators, preferably in electronic format,
to make their experience and the products of the resources provided to
them by the public available for the benefit of other operators. We are
working at the moment to make as many action plans as possible available
from our new internet site which the Attorney-General launched here in
Perth last month

The
picture presented by action plans alone, however, is incomplete geographically
and in terms of transport modes. Formal planning processes may also be
less likely to be undertaken by small businesses in the transport sector,
which in many cases may nonetheless have important insights and experience
to share. There will also be important, current operational information
which is not covered in action plans.

I intend
to use the Commission's internet facilities to undertake a number of information
collection and dissemination exercises on public transport, seeking and
publishing information and questions from providers and consumers on achievements
and plans, successes and difficulties.

At
this stage, some particular areas of interest are

  • the
    accessibility of Sydney public transport systems, in view of the lack
    of information available to date through formal action plans and the
    imminence of the Olympics; the Commission would prefer if possible to
    avoid being faced with complaints seeking interim determinations in
    August 2000 to prevent aspects of Olympic transport arrangements going
    ahead because of lack of access, or alternatively urgent applications
    at that late stage for exemption to permit the Olympics to proceed
  • information
    on progress by state/territory systems which do not have action plans
  • voluntary
    implementation of accessibility by private bus operators
  • information
    from or regarding newer rail operators
  • issues
    covered in less detail by the draft standards
    • maritime
      transport
    • staff
      training
    • air
      transport including progress on smaller aircraft and regional airlines
    • communications
      access elements of public transport system accessibility.

How
this experiment works remains to be seen. On some issues it may operate
purely as an information clearinghouse for the transport sector. On others
the Commission may contribute more of its own questions and analysis,
approaching more of a public inquiry model.

The
Commission is working at the moment to make more information available
on complaint outcomes wherever possible, including on public transport.
I encourage state and territory discrimination agencies to contribute
similar information.

I also
intend - subject to consultation with parties to particular complaints
- to include public inquiry elements in future in the investigation of
public transport complaints and other complaints which raise broader than
individual issues, to permit wider industry and consumer contribution.

The program of this conference deals with many technical and operational
issues requiring continuing effort, research, and co-operation. There
are issues which remain the subject of heated debate. In Australia transport
regulators, the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission and other
authorities need to keep working to ensure that we adopt appropriate regulatory
and other mechanisms to support implementation of the objective of accessible
transport. But I am confident that the destination is now firmly set for
accessible public transport systems and that one way or another we will
continue to move closer to that destination, that important station on
the track to a fully inclusive, equal, human society.

 

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