Access policy

Aug 11

Oui, oui…

This article was published in a different form in Wednesday’s Heckler column in The Sydney Morning Herald. You can link to it here.

I have some sympathy for Gerard Depardieu. You know, sometimes when you’ve gotta go, you’ve really gotta go. Doubly so when your use of a wheelchair severely limits the number of public toilet options available to you.

Last Friday I was in the QVB and an excess of caffeine did what it does. For some inexplicable reason, the disabled toilets in the QVB are on the 1st floor and the lower ground floor, accessible only by a very slow and often crowded lift. After taking the lift to the 1st floor, I found the accessible toilet locked. And it wasn’t locked by an MLAK — the Master Locksmiths Access Key system that provides people with disabilities 24/7 access via a common key. It was locked by security. I couldn’t find security so I asked a cleaner who promised to find security. After 15 minutes waiting I gave up.

Next stop was the HSBC Building, across George Street. But there was a large sign on the door of the accessible toilet ‘Door locked — see security’. Again, no sign of an MLAK lock, and no sign of security. After a search of the floor revealed no security office, I decided that as I was now very close to Town Hall station, that was a better option.

As soon as I entered the station, there was a sign that looked promising. It lead me around several corners and finally to the base of a large set of stairs — the sign pointing straight up the stairs to the HSBC Building I had just visited.

At that moment, in Friday afternoon peak hour at Town Hall Station, with no accessible toilet anywhere to be seen, the aisle of an Air France plane seemed a pretty private place for a pee.

Finally my search of the station revealed another toilet but my heart missed a beat as I saw another sign on the door. ‘Toilets only accessible with MLAK key.’ Bless CityRail. They can do no wrong by me. Trains can run late, platforms can be crowded, the Waratah trains can never be delivered — but I’ll be the last man standing (ok, sitting) and defending them.

The MLAK system is simplicity itself. It ensures those who need access get it and those who don’t are excluded.

What is it about building managers that causes them to ignore a widely accepted method of access control in favour of a solution that suits no-one? When will they get that accessible isn’t accessible if you can’t get in the door?

All I know is that unless they get it soon, they may find themselves mopping up, in the words of Gerard Depardieu, a lot more oui oui.

Apr 11

Why can’t able-bodied people lock doors?


Twice in the last week I’ve pressed the ‘open door’ button on disabled toilets to reveal a seemingly able-bodied person sitting on the loo — in one case reading a newspaper. It’s bad enough to use the disabled toilet when you don’t need it. But the least you can do is lock the door!

I think I know what has happened. The locks on some modern shopping centre toilets are time limited. If you don’t unlock it within 10 minutes, it unlocks itself. One centre even had to put up a sign to remind people (see picture above).

So the folks I’ve rolled in on have committed multiple sins — using a toilet to which they are not entitled, not keeping the door locked, and being bloody slow! Wise up folks.

After these two occasions I’m now going to have my phone at the ready when I press the open door button. The next person I catch is getting posted on this blog.

Jan 11

CityRail’s allergy to MLAK

MLAK is a great system. It stands for Master Locksmith’s Access Key, and it is a (near) universal system for gaining 24/7 access to disabled toilets in public facilities around Australia. To get an MLAK, you simply visit your local locksmith, show your disability parking permit, or a letter from a doctor or other service provider, and they issue the key. Mine cost $12, but I’m not sure if that’s a standard cost. In return, you get access to clean, well serviced, accessible bathrooms in any location where the facility has chosen to fit an MLAK lock. The lock, of course, keeps those who don’t need accessible facilities out. There’s rarely a queue for MLAK fitted toilets.

For whatever reason, CityRail in Sydney has chosen to mostly not use MLAK. They fit a different lock, with a sign above it saying ‘to use toilets, see station staff’. I recently wanted to use the bathroom at Circular Quay Station, so I first tried my MLAK, and after finding it didn’t work, sought out the station staff. The staff member at the exit gate looked at me blankly, then picked up her radio and called another staff member. Five minutes later, a staff member arrived with a key on a big wooden keyring, and instructed me to follow them. They let me in, and then waited outside to ensure the door was locked on my exit.

What a completely idiotic system! Just in terms of wasted staff time and cost, it is bad enough; to say nothing of the indignity of a person in a wheelchair having to ask to use a toilet when no other patron needs to.

CityRail has signs around stations at the moment, trumpeting their success in meeting certain benchmarks they have set themselves. One of these benchmarks is ‘better facilities for disabled passengers’. Their measure of success is that they have fitted MLAK locks on twelve existing accessible toilets at train stations (though they don’t say where). I’ve seen one — on Platform 5 at Strathfield Station (though the main accessible toilet on the ground floor remains locked with a ‘see staff’ sign).

I don’t know how much it costs CityRail to fit an MLAK lock, but my office fitted one and it was $50, plus 40 minutes labour. It seems to me that twelve MLAK locks is a pretty paltry effort. In the lead up to the NSW election, how about one of the parties do something really radical, and make a completely affordable, sensible, practical promise that will improve the commuting experience of an entire (albeit small) segment of rail commuters. I reckon it would cost less than $5,000 to convert them all. They’d save that in labour alone in the first month or two.

Oct 10

Unconscious bias – Diversity Council Australia journal

I was asked to do an interview for the September issue of the quarterly journal Diversity Matters, published by the Diversity Council Australia. You can read the interview, and the rest of the journal, here.

Aug 10

Andrew Peacock’s comments today

In the daily churn of news stories in an election campaign, I’m not sure how widely reported this will be, but Andrew Peacock was campaigning today in his old seat of Kooyong and said:

“You’d need to be pretty handicapped not to appreciate that this [Labor] government is dissolving before your eyes daily.”

That the Labor candidate in Kooyong is legally blind only makes his statement even more appalling.

You can read the whole story in the SMH Online edition here.

However, Peacock is a has-been, and what he thinks is pretty irrelevant. That’s not the case with the Opposition Leader, Tony Abbott. Abbott apparently thinks access and mobility issues are pretty low on the pecking order.

In making remarks about improving parliamentary proceedings, the federal Opposition Leader said:

“…to make sure that we go straight out of Question Time into the matter of public importance debate without waffly ministerial statements on things like the accessibility of cinemas. So I will change or I will seek to have the standing orders changed.”

I can see several sources reporting that he has now apologised for the statement. He was reported as saying:

“I was misinformed about that particular statement. It was a poor example to use. And I’m sorry if I have caused any offence.”

Personally, I’d have liked him to retract the statement. It’s not a lot to say “Clearly, I do not think providing access to cinemas is waffle.”  If, of course, that’s true.

Aug 10

20th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act

It was the 20th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act a few days ago. Here are President Obama’s remarks, which can also be found here.

Remarks by the President on 20th Anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act

South Lawn

6:26 P.M. EDT

     THE PRESIDENT:  Thank you.  Good evening, everybody.  (Applause.)  Thank you so much.  Well, we have a gorgeous day to celebrate an extraordinary event in the life of this nation.  Welcome, all of you, to our White House.  And thank you, Robert, for the wonderful introduction.  It is a pleasure and honor to be with all of you on the 20th anniversary of one of the most comprehensive civil rights bills in the history of this country — the Americans with Disabilities Act.  (Applause.)

I see so many champions of this law here today.  I wish I had time to acknowledge each and every one of you.  I want to thank all of you.  But I also want to thank our Cabinet Secretaries and the members of my administration here today who are working to advance the goals of the ADA so that it is not just the letter of the law, but the spirit of the law, that’s being applied all across this country.  (Applause.)

I want to thank the members of Congress in attendance who fought to make ADA possible and to keep improving it throughout the years.  (Applause.)  I want to acknowledge Dick Thornburgh, who worked hard to make this happen as Attorney General under President George H.W. Bush.  (Applause.)

And by the way, I had a chance to speak to President Bush before I came out here, and he sends heartfelt regards to all of you.  And it’s — he’s extraordinarily proud of the law that was passed.  He was very humble about his own role, but I think it’s worth acknowledging the great work that he did.  (Applause.)

We also remember those we’ve lost who helped make this law possible — like our old friend, Ted Kennedy.  (Applause.)  And I see Patrick here.  And Justin Dart, Jr., a man folks call the father of the ADA — whose wife Yoshiko, is here.  (Applause.)  Yoshiko, so nice to see you.  (Applause.)

I also notice that Elizabeth Dole is here, and I had a chance to speak to Bob Dole, as well, and thank him for the extraordinary role that he played in advancing this legislation.  (Applause.)

Let me also say that Congressman Jim Langevin wanted to be here today, but he’s currently presiding over the House chamber — the first time in our history somebody using a wheelchair has done so.  (Applause.)

Today, as we commemorate what the ADA accomplished, we celebrate who the ADA was all about.  It was about the young girl in Washington State who just wanted to see a movie at her hometown theater, but was turned away because she had cerebral palsy; or the young man in Indiana who showed up at a worksite, able to do the work, excited for the opportunity, but was turned away and called a cripple because of a minor disability he had already trained himself to work with; or the student in California who was eager and able to attend the college of his dreams, and refused to let the iron grip of polio keep him from the classroom — each of whom became integral to this cause.

And it was about all of you.  You understand these stories because you or someone you loved lived them.  And that sparked a movement.  It began when Americans no longer saw their own disabilities as a barrier to their success, and set out to tear down the physical and social barriers that were.  It grew when you realized you weren’t alone.  It became a massive wave of bottom-up change that swept across the country as you refused to accept the world as it was.  And when you were told, no, don’t try, you can’t he — you responded with that age-old American creed:  Yes, we can.  (Applause.)

AUDIENCE MEMBER:  (Inaudible.)

THE PRESIDENT:  Yes, we can!

Sit-ins in San Francisco.  Demonstrations in Denver.  Protests in Washington, D.C., at Gallaudet, and before Congress.  People marched, and organized, and testified.  And laws changed, and minds changed, and progress was won.  (Applause.)  

Now, that’s not to say it was easy.  You didn’t always have folks in Washington to fight on your behalf.  And when you did, they weren’t as powerful, as well-connected, as well-funded as the lobbyists who lined up to kill any attempt at change.  And at first, you might have thought, what does anyone in Washington know or care about my battle?  But what you knew from your own experience is that disability touches us all.  If one in six Americans has a disability, then odds are the rest of us love somebody with a disability.

I was telling a story to a group that was in the Oval Office before I came out here about Michelle’s father who had MS.  By the time I met him, he had to use two canes just to walk.  He was stricken with MS when he was 30 years old, but he never missed a day of work; had to wake up an hour early to get dressed —


THE PRESIDENT:  — to get to the job, but that was his attitude — so what.  He could do it.  Didn’t miss a dance recital.  Did not miss a ball game of his son.  Everybody has got a story like that somewhere in their family.

And that’s how you rallied an unlikely assortment of leaders in Congress and in the White House to the cause.  Congressmen like Steny Hoyer, who knew his wife Judy’s battle with epilepsy; and Tony Coehlo, who waged his own; and Jim Sensenbrenner, whose wife, Cheryl, is a tremendous leader and advocate for the community.  And they’re both here today.  (Applause.)

Senators like Tom Harkin, who’s here today, and who signed — (applause) — who signed part of a speech on the ADA so his deaf brother, Frank, would understand.  And Ted Kennedy, whose sister had a severe intellectual disability and whose son lost a leg to cancer.  And Bob Dole, who was wounded serving heroically in World War II.  Senior officials in the White House, and even the President himself.

They understood this injustice from the depths of their own experience.  They also understood that by allowing this injustice to stand, we were depriving of our nation — we were depriving our nation and our economy of the full talents and contributions of tens of millions of Americans with disabilities.

That is how the ADA came to be, when, to his enduring credit, President George H.W. Bush signed it into law, on this lawn, on this day, 20 years ago.  That’s how you changed America.  (Applause.)

Equal access — to the classroom, the workplace, and the transportation required to get there.  Equal opportunity — to live full and independent lives the way we choose.  Not dependence — but independence.  That’s what the ADA was all about.  (Applause.)

But while it was a historic milestone in the journey to equality, it wasn’t the end.  There was, and is, more to do.  And that’s why today I’m announcing one of the most important updates to the ADA since its original enactment in 1991.

Today, the Department of Justice is publishing two new rules protecting disability-based discrimination — or prohibiting disability-based discrimination by more than 80,000 state and local government entities, and 7 million private businesses.  (Applause.)  And beginning 18 months from now, all new buildings must be constructed in a way that’s compliant with the new 2010 standards for the design of doors and windows and elevators and bathrooms — (applause) — buildings like stores and restaurants and schools and stadiums and hospitals and hotels and theaters.  (Applause.)

My predecessor’s administration proposed these rules six years ago.  And in those six years, they’ve been improved upon with more than 4,000 comments from the public.  We’ve heard from all sides.  And that’s allowed us to do this in a way that makes sense economically and allows appropriate flexibility while ensuring Americans with disabilities full participation in our society.

And for the very first time, these rules will cover recreational facilities like amusement parks and marinas and gyms and golf facilities and swimming pools — (applause) — and municipal facilities like courtrooms and prisons.  (Applause.)  From now on, businesses must follow practices that allow individuals with disabilities an equal chance to purchase tickets for accessible seating at sporting events and concerts.  (Applause.)

And our work goes on.  Even as we speak, Attorney General Eric Holder is preparing new rules to ensure accessibility of websites.  (Applause.)

AUDIENCE:  Yes, we can.

THE PRESIDENT:  Yes, we can.

We’re also placing a new focus on hiring Americans with disabilities across the federal government.  (Applause.)  Today, only 5 percent of the federal workforce is made up of Americans with disabilities — far below the proportion of Americans with disabilities in the general population.  In a few moments, I’ll sign an executive order that will establish the federal government as a model employer of individuals with disabilities.  (Applause.)  So we’re going to boost recruitment, we’re going to boost training, we’re going to boost retention.  We’ll better train hiring managers.  Each agency will have a senior official who’s accountable for achieving the goals we’ve set.  And I expect regular reports.  And we’re going to post our progress online so that you can hold us accountable, too.  (Applause.)

And these new steps build on the progress my administration has already made.

To see it that no one who signs up to fight for our country is ever excluded from its promise, we’ve made major investments in improving the care and treatment for our wounded warriors.  (Applause.)  To ensure full access to participation in our democracy and our economy, we’re working to make all government websites accessible to persons with disabilities.  (Applause.)

We’re expanding broadband Internet access to Americans who are deaf and hard of hearing.  We’ve followed through with a promise I made to create three new disability offices at the State Department and Department of Transportation and at FEMA.

And to promote equal rights across the globe, the United States of America joined 140 other nations in signing the U.N.  Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities — the first new human rights convention of the 21st century.  (Applause.)

America was the first nation on Earth to comprehensively declare equality for its citizens with disabilities.  We should join the rest of the world to declare it again — and when I submit our ratification package to Congress, I expect passage to be swift.  (Applause.)

And to advance the right to live independently, I launched the Year of Community Living, on the 10th anniversary of the Olmstead decision — a decision that declared the involuntary institutional isolation of people with disabilities unlawful discrimination under the ADA.  (Applause.)

So HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan have worked together to improve access to affordable housing and community supports and independent living arrangements for people with disabilities.  And we continued a program that successfully helps people with disabilities transition to the community of their choice.  (Applause.)  And I’m proud of the work that the Department of Justice is doing to enforce Olmstead across the country.

And we’ve finally broken down one discriminatory barrier that the ADA left in place.  Because for too long, our health care system denied coverage to tens of millions of Americans with preexisting conditions — including Americans with disabilities.  It was time to change that.  And we did.  Yes, we did.  (Applause.)

So the Affordable Care Act I signed into law four months ago will give every American more control over their health care -– and it will do more to give Americans with disabilities control over their own lives than any legislation since the ADA.  I know many of you know the frustration of fighting with an insurance company.  That’s why this law finally shifts the balance of power from them to you and to other consumers.  (Applause.)

No more denying coverage to children based on a preexisting condition or disability.  No more lifetime limits on coverage.  No more dropping your coverage when you get sick and need it the most because your insurance company found an unintentional error in your paperwork.  (Applause.)  And because Americans with disabilities are living longer and more independently, this law will establish better long-term care choices for Americans with disabilities as a consequence of the CLASS Act, an idea Ted Kennedy championed for years.  (Applause.)

Equal access.  Equal opportunity.  The freedom to make our lives what we will.  These aren’t principles that belong to any one group or any one political party.  They are common principles.  They are American principles.  No matter who we are — young, old, rich, poor, black, white, Latino, Asian, Native American, gay, straight, disabled or not — these are the principles we cherish as citizens of the United States of America.  (Applause.)

They were guaranteed to us in our founding documents.  One of the signers of those documents was a man named Stephen Hopkins.  He was a patriot, a scholar, a nine-time governor of Rhode Island.  It’s also said he had a form of palsy.  And on July 4, 1776, as he grasped his pen to sign his name to the Declaration of Independence, he said, “My hand trembles.  But my heart does not.”  My hand trembles.  But my heart does not.

Life, liberty,  the pursuit of happiness.  Words that began our never-ending journey to form a more perfect union.  To look out for one another.  To advance opportunity and prosperity for all of our people.  To constantly expand the meaning of life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness.  To move America forward.  That’s what we did with the ADA.  That is what we do today.  And that’s what we’re going to do tomorrow — together.

So, thank you.  God bless you.  And God bless the United States of America.  Let me sign this order.  (Applause.)

                                     END                          6:44 P.M. EDT

Jul 10

Promoting Livable Housing Design in Australia

Yesterday marked a significant day in access for those of us with mobility limitations. Bill Shorten, Federal Parliamentary Secretary for Disabilities, launched a new voluntary code for ‘Livable’ housing.

While personally I don’t think the code goes nearly far enough, it’s a move in the right direction and should be applauded for what it is.

As soon as I can get hold of a full copy of the guidelines I’ll publish my analysis here.

Until then, I’ll just report the spin and what real information I can find. Here’s Bill Shorten’s media release, which you can also link to here.

Promoting livable housing design in Australia

Leaders of the housing industry, disability sector and community have today agreed to an aspirational target that all new homes will be built to disability-friendly Livable Housing Design standards by 2020.

Today’s announcement is the outcome of the National Dialogue on Universal Design, convened by Parliamentary Secretary for Disabilities Bill Shorten last year, to improve the availability of Livable Housing and get industry and disability groups working together to promote it.

The voluntary Livable Housing Design guidelines consist of three levels: Silver, Gold and Platinum and outline the key features required to meet each standard.

Mr Shorten said Livable Design aimed to build houses that could be adapted to meet the changing needs of residents over their lifetime.

He said that it would become increasingly important as Australia’s population aged and disability became more common.

“These are houses which are easier to live in, can be adapted more cheaply, and will be easier to sell,” Mr Shorten said.

“Livable Housing Design is housing which meet the needs of all people, including people with disability and senior Australians,” Mr Shorten said.

“Families with young children, anyone who suffers a temporary injury, or has a friend with disability to stay the night, will also benefit from Livable Design.

“A few simple design features, such as a reinforced bathroom walls, a flat entry to the house and wide corridors and doorways can make a home suitable for an older person or a person with a disability at minimal cost.”

“A Livable house can give a person with disability a life of independence and dignity, and improved their chance of employment and involvement with the community.”

The industry has also agreed to a set of voluntary guidelines for housing, which will be used to inform consumers and the industry about Universal Design, and increase its application.

The Gillard Government will invest $1M over four years to drive an innovate partnership with leaders of the construction and property sectors to promote Livable Housing.

Although the standards are voluntary key industry groups including the Property Council, Master Builders Australia and the Housing Industry Association have supported them and committed to the 2020 target.

They will also provide useful information for consumers seeking to introduce universal design features into a new home and could also be readily applied within an existing home.

Dialogue members have agreed to develop a national awareness campaign and brand for Universal Housing Design.

Property Council CEO Peter Verwer said that developing the guidelines had been a great example of collaboration between the industry and the disability sector.

“Livable Housing has great potential for the future. It has low costs and huge returns both for homeowners and the broader community.”

Australian Bureau of Statistics research shows that between 1981 and 2003, the number of people with a disability more than doubled from 1.9 million to 3.9 million.

The ABS estimates that the number of Australians with disabilities will continue to increase through the first half of this century, due to the ageing of Australia’s population.

The requirements of the Silver standard are as follows:

Silver Standards

  1. A safe and continuous path of travel from the street entrance and/or parking area to a
    dwelling entrance that is level,
  2. At least one level entrance into the dwelling,
  3. Internal doors and corridors that facilitate comfortable and unimpeded movement
    between spaces,
  4. A toilet on the ground (or entry) level that provides easy access,
  5. A bathroom that contains a hobless (step-free) shower recess, and
  6. Reinforced walls around the toilet, shower and bath to support the safe installation of grabrails at a later date.

The members of the National Dialogue are:

  • Australian Human Rights Commission
  • Australian Institute of Architects
  • Australian Local Government Association
  • Australian Network for Universal Housing Design
  • COTA Australia
  • Grocon
  • Housing Industry Association
  • Lend Lease
  • Master Builders Australia
  • National People with Disabilities and Carers Council
  • Office of the Disability Council of NSW
  • Property Council of Australia
  • Real Estate Institute of Australia
  • Stockland
  • Victorian Building Commission

Probably the most important document released so far is the The National Dialogue Strategic Plan which is now downloadable from the Property Council’s website, here.

Other coverage and reports today are:

From the Property Council of Australia, a media release.

From Architecture and Design magazine, a piece titled Guidelines for ‘Liveable’ Housing Released — But Voluntary.

There’s a good item in the Domain section of the SMH Online too. You’ll find it here.

I’ll post other links as I find them, but not just news reports, which all seem to say the same.

Happy reading!

Jun 10

Spotted Today in Summer Hill

Where's your sticker?

Now, I don’t mean to say there should not be police with disabilities driving around in patrol cars, but IF there are, this one didn’t have a sticker.

Jun 10

Inaccessible Pedestrian Environment in Delhi: An Essay by Shivani Gupta Before the Commonwealth Games

This excellent essay was written by Shivani Gupta, the Director of AccessAbility, a leading Universal Design and Disability Employment Specialist, based in New Delhi. It is reproduced here with permission.

In the flurry of preparing Delhi for the upcoming Commonwealth Games, Delhi has been revamped. There is the new BRT Corridor, the low floor buses, huge overhead bridges, accessible pathways and the swanky metro. All of these have accessibility incorporated in them. I should feel fortunate being a wheelchair user that now public transport and the pedestrian environments is accessible to me. But the unfortunate reality is that none of these so called accessible facilities are really accessible to the disabled and hence have not brought the desired mobility. Money is being spent in the name of accessibility but what we have really got are ‘teasers’. ‘Teasers’ being my way of describing facilities that are signposted as being accessible but are not usable by disabled people in reality.

Usability is the first and the basic requirement of accessibility and it is here that all these fail. Usability goes beyond blindly putting on ground accessibility standards, it is about how a user will actually interface with the given service/facility/infrastructure etc. it may also vary based on the social context, therefore what may be a working design in a developed country may not be so in a developing country. To increase usability is also the crux of Universal Design.

Just yesterday I went out on my wheelchair and thought of crossing to the other side from the overhead foot bridges that have been built all over Delhi. The bridge is about seven meters high with a ramp 89 meters long of 1:12 gradient to get onto the bridge and the same ramp on the opposite side. 

In India most people will say “there is a ramp to get on and off the bridge and that to 1:12 gradient, then what more do you want?” What they fail to see is that a wheelchair user will need to wheel two hundred meters, that too up and down a ramp to cross just a 10 meter wide road. So it’s 10 meters verses 200 meters.

Major Design Flaws:

  • To provide a ramp to negotiate a level difference of more than 3 meters is impractical and not usable by the disabled and here it is more than double that height.
  • A ramp to negotiate a level difference of more than 3 meters must have a gradient no more than 1:18 here the gradient is 1:12
  • Landings must be provided after every five meters, here landing is provided after 40 meters.

I am sure even athletes using wheelchairs will find negotiating this ramp difficult!

Here I will also like to point out that accessible parking is demanded & provided closest to the entrance to ensure that disabled car drivers and passengers do not need to walk extra, but when it comes to pedestrian environments adding 200 meters to the journey is reasonable. Why this disparity?

A recent press release by the Delhi Metro said that there ‘Delhi Metro provides wheelchair facility to old and physically challenged commuters at all Metro stations. On an average, 149 physically challenged people and 78 blind commuters use the Metro system daily’ and ‘On an average, it is carrying about 800,000 commuters everyday.’ Just taking the figures published by them it is easy to calculate that there are only 0.02% people with disabilities who use this so called ‘accessible transport system’ to travel.

The pavements in Delhi are been refurbished and most with tactile guidance and ramps at the beginning and end. The amazing part is that the guidance breaks whenever there is an obstacle in the path like trees, poles etc., hence ensuring people with blindness bang into them and majority of the ramps are blocked by bollards, through which a wheelchair cannot pass.

I wonder when will people with disabilities stop compromising and accepting shoddy solutions to improve access. The UNCRPD talks about ‘Persons with disabilities to have access, on an equal basis with others’. It’s time we demanded it.


D8/8073 Vasant Kunj

New Delhi  110070

Jun 10

Trees at Wahroonga Station

In today’s SMH Online edition, an article by Peter Hawkins…

Also found here:

Unkindest cut for historic north shore fig trees

ANGRY residents could only watch as three historic fig trees were chopped down by RailCorp on Sydney’s upper north shore yesterday.

Workers with chainsaws felled the 100-year-old trees at Wahroonga station despite pleas from residents and a report asking for alternative measures to be investigated.

RailCorp said the trees had to be removed so the platform could be properly resurfaced and the roots did not cause further structural damage.

But a tree management plan commissioned by the heritage branch of NSW Planning said that, given the heritage significance of the trees and their amenity value, ”consideration should be given to their retention”.

The report’s author, Andrew Morton, asked for the installation of root control barriers to be investigated and tested to stop pavement damage.

Among those campaigning for the trees’ preservation was NSW Opposition Leader and state member for the area Barry O’Farrell.

But NSW Premier Kristina supported their removal, claiming the damage caused by the roots was a hazard for people pushing prams and those in wheelchairs.

Two other trees on the station platform will be cut down in October. All will be replaced by new trees and plants.

Ian Burt, who has lived in Wahroonga for 40 years, said the lack of pruning over the past 20 years was to blame for the damage.

”It is disgraceful they are chopping them down,” he said. ”If they had continued to trim the branches, the roots would never have come up.”

I noted in particular the Premier’s remarks that the trees were ‘a hazard for people pushing prams and those in wheelchairs’. Last time I looked (5 minutes ago) Wahroonga Station was not accessible. Sounds like a lame excuse.

Jun 10

Small Steps, Big Barriers

An edited version of this post appeared on the Letters page of the Sydney Morning Herald on 25 May 2010.

There’s been lots of discussion in the Sydney media about ‘universal design’ and Federal Government policy in the last couple of weeks.

Cynthia Banham waxed lyrical in the SMH (24 May 2010) about Bill Shorten and his efforts to introduce universal design principles to new houses built in Australia. Here’s the article, which can also be found here:

You never plan for a life-changing injury. It’s something you just hope never happens. Growing old is more of a certainty. But both events can have a profound impact on the way you feel about your home: a sanctuary, or a kind of prison.

I know this first-hand. Catastrophic injuries from a plane crash changed my world forever. If not for the efforts of a family friend, a builder who extensively modified my home while I was still in hospital, I would not have been able to get in the front door, let alone my kitchen or shower.

But what really came as a shock was the impact my injuries had on visiting family and friends. Dropping in for a meal or a cup of coffee, to stay connected to people, is essential to a person’s mental well-being. Yet here I was, left in tears on a visit to my in-laws from the indignity of not being able to use their bathroom without help, unable to visit my parents’ home where I’d grown up because I couldn’t climb the stairs to their front door.

We have laws about accessibility standards in public spaces, but for private homes there are none and I never imagined this would change.

Then eight months ago Bill Shorten, the parliamentary secretary for disabilities, asked me to speak at a meeting he had organised, with Therese Rein as patron, for executives from the housing industry and the ageing, disability and community sectors, at Kirribilli House.

The subject was “universal design” – building a house to last its occupants’ lifetimes so whatever happens, should they get injured or grow old, they will still be able to live independently.

If we introduced some minor, inexpensive changes to the way Australia builds homes – changes many times more expensive if done retrospectively – then no house need be a prison. Making houses accessible from the street or car park, slightly widening front doorways and passages, putting a toilet on the ground floor that could be used by someone with mobility issues.

I agreed, intrigued something could be done to improve the lives of 20 per cent of the Australian population with some kind of a disability, and encouraged this concept could have economic and social benefits for all.

Universal design ideas are already being implemented overseas, in Japan, Britain, Canada and Norway. They are gaining traction in Victoria.

What is the appeal? Like Australia, these places have ageing populations. Given the option, most would prefer to grow old in their own homes, retaining connections with family and social networks where they have spent their lives. But with the majority of homes, this is virtually impossible for older people with mobility issues.

It doesn’t stop there. A house built for a lifetime would be easier for mothers with prams and people with temporary injuries.

I started out thinking it was an extremely lofty ambition to get this diverse group to agree there was a case for universal design in Australia. The Property Council of Australia, the Housing Industry Association, Master Builders Australia, the Australian Institute of Architects and the Human Rights Commission are unlikely allies.

But Shorten is a superb negotiator, and the determination he has shown over the past three years to fight for a better deal for some of the less lucky Australians is remarkable.

The final details are being nutted out, but soon this dialogue will deliver concrete proposals to the government. These professionals have surprised even themselves with their ability to reach common ground on an issue that for many will be life-changing, in a good way.

Critics might say they don’t want to be told by governments how to build their homes, or they don’t want to live in houses resembling hospitals. That’s not what this is about. Making a doorway a few centimetres wider does not make a house more sterile, just more liveable.

Is it really that big an ask of Australians to give a damn about their fellow citizens with physical limitations, but still want to engage as fully in society as you, their friends, colleagues, families and neighbours?

You never know, one day you might just grow old.

I’m less in awe. Universal design principles are sensible, modest, but far from new. As Banham correctly points out, a number of countries have introduced them already. So why has Shorten set an ‘aspirational goal’ of all new homes to be of agreed universal design standards by 2020? Remember, this is not about retro-fitting an existing stock of buildings – it’s simply about ensuring new buildings conform to a new standard. Shorten himself argues that these are ‘a few simple design features’. So why must we wait? 

Shorten has appointed a working party to codify national standards but the working party has a very limited brief. There is no talk of encouraging – by incentive or requirement – even the most modest changes to existing houses. State and Federal Governments provide incentives and rebates to fit all manner of water and energy-saving devices, but if you want to remove an unnecessary single step at the front of your house and build a ramp to provide universal access, you’re on your own.

Similarly, small businesses, especially retailers, are provided with no incentives to make their buildings universally accessible. At my local shops, the cafe and the butcher have taken it upon themselves to remove steps at the front of their premises, and the deli owner installed an accessible toilet. But the newsagent has not removed a single 10cm step so I can’t buy a newspaper. In nearby suburbs, such as Concord in Sydney’s inner-west, you can see evidence of co-operation between business and the local council delivering excellent access to shops and restaurants in the form of disabled parking, easy street crossings, footpath dining and ramped access. But in other nearby suburbs, such as Leichhardt, you see no such partnership and much of Norton Street remains inaccessible. These issues cry out for a national approach. Why does Bill Shorten not take an interest? As Cynthia Banham also correctly identifies, these things are essential for staying connected to society. 

Shorten’s working party was announced on 27 October last year with the aim of achieving ‘substantial progress’ within 6 months. 7 months have now passed. Perhaps the progress has met Shorten’s definition of substantial. Banham says the details are still being ‘nutted out’ but proposals will be made to government soon. If the Government is returned, I guess we may see some progress in the next term.

Don’t get me wrong, Bill Shorten has done more to move disability issues forward than ministers before him. My beef is that his steps are small. And as anyone with mobility issues knows, a small step can remain a big barrier.

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