June, 2010

Jun 10

Sampling the Best of Byron

I know, Byron Bay isn’t what it was. It’s now flashier, more expensive, less … Byron than it was 20 or 30 years ago. But change also has its benefits, especially in terms of improved access. Today, we spent the afternoon in Byron’s main street and out on the point – Cape Byron – and at every stage access was excellent. We had an excellent lunch at the Hare Krishner cafe just off the main drag, where you get kofta, dahl and rice for under $10. There’s a nice ramp to get in and the person behind the counter didn’t flinch at my written order. The outdoor tables where a good height and far apart enough to allow circulation.

From there we moved to Cape Byron to try to spot a few whales. As we drove to the cape, I was delighted to see a good path following the road for the entire distance. I assume it was built for cyclists but it would be ideal for a chair or scooter too. Once on the Cape, there are good paths running up to the lighthouse and down to an accessible toilet, built since the last time I was here, some years ago. There’s also a nice cafe – Cape Cafe – that I don’t recall being here last time. Sitting on Cape Byron, cappuccino in hand, watching five or six whales move slowly north, it’s hard to imagine much is wrong with the world.

Jun 10

June Opie Cottage, Christmas Cove Caravan Park, Laurieton, NSW

The outlook

When you arrive at Christmas Cove Caravan Park near dark, as we did, it’s not an inspiring sight. It looks rough, with several dead caravans littering the landscape. I feel it’s seen better days. Likewise, June Opie Cottage, with broken tiles in the bathroom, a slightly stale smell and a very 1970s feel about it, is nothing to write home about. But to only see these things is to miss the real beauty of the place. June Opie Cottage has a setting that is really quite lovely in daylight. From the verandah, you look out at a scene of remarkable tranquility. I envied the lone fisherman out in his small punt, on a perfect early morning, maybe 500 meters from shore.

When you look closely at the access setup in June Opie Cottage, it’s actually pretty clever. For a place clearly designed 40 years ago, there are some nice touches. Open shelves and recessed kick boards in the kitchen for a start. And nice ideas like putting the tap at the front of the sink, where I can reach it!

The hallways and doors (all sliding) are wide, allowing easy circulation and turning, even in my big powerchair.

The bathroom isn’t much to look at but it works. The bars are in the right places and there’s (just) enough room to get around. You can tell someone using a chair lived here long term. This is a practical setup, not an architect’s design.

I went for a big wheel around the grounds and it’s all pretty good. You share the road with cars but it’s very quiet. There are more residents here than visitors, I suspect, at least mid-week, when we were here. Aside from some deep gutters and high speed humps, the roads are easily usable by a wheelchair, as are some of the walking paths.

Now, it’s time to pack up and head for Byron Bay.

Jun 10


Bulahdelah seems a pleasant country town, set on the banks of the Myall River, 2 1/2 hours from Sydney, and the spot we’d had recommended by our NRMA serviceman as having a great bakery. We decided to stop, let the kids have a play in Wade Park, and use the public facilities there, which my iPad National Public Toilet Map app had told me were accessible. The Public Toilet Map is a brilliant tool, but even it can’t deal with just plain dumb facilities usage. You see, the problem was that the accessible toilet was locked. Not with an MLAK key, just locked from the inside, so no-one had access. Perhaps they were out of order (though as the only accessible loos in town that should be very rare). Perhaps the lock had been vandalised, though that’s still not excusable, as there should be regular inspections by council. Whatever the reason, it’s not good enough.

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

Australian Girls Choir Winter Showcase – The Hills Centre, Castle Hill

Looking from upstairs

The Australian Girls Choir is probably best known for their role in Qantas TV ads, singing ‘I Still Call Australia Home’ but the Winter Showcase Concert is one of two major performances the full choir does each year. It’s mostly a family affair, but easily of a quality outsiders could attend and enjoy. We always look forward to this show, not least because our daughter is a committed chorister and has been part of the choir for five years. This year was an exceptionally professional production once again, with a blend of choreographed performances of popular songs and more traditional pieces.

As a venue, The Hills Centre, in Carrington Rd, Castle Hill, is pretty good. There are only two disabled parking spaces, both in front of the main entrance. However, there is plenty of room to set down passengers on the main roundabout entrance. If you can, it’s a good idea to take advantage of this, because while there’s plenty of parking further away, you have to wheel on the road to get back – there’s no footpath and no shortcut.

Entry to the foyer is flat and very straightforward. The accessible toilet (only one) is to the left of the foyer and the lifts are immediately on your right. I’m not sure if wheelchair patrons are ever seated upstairs – on each occasion we’ve been we have sat on the floor level.

The wheelchair seating on ground level is good, with clear, unobstructed viewing and good sightlines. On this occasion we were offered the end of the 2nd row, but after the performance started, I moved to the 3rd row, which gave a slightly better angle.

The accessible toilet has solid rails but they are really too short to be much use. Perhaps they satisfy the Australian Standard but in my view they need to be longer for someone transferring alone. The basin is possible to wheel under (if you don’t mind bumping your knees) and the soap and dryer are within reach (though a bit of a stretch).There’s a sliding door but unfortunately, as I find with most sliding toilet doors, they soon go out of alignment and become impossible to lock, like this one. It appears that an electromagnetic lock had been installed but it didn’t work, at least not for me. The toilet doubles as a baby change room, meaning it can be in demand, especially at family shows.

In summary, The Hills Centre is a good place to see performances, but they really need to do some work on the accessible toilet and consider making all parking spaces at the front disabled only.

Jun 10

Disability Rocks Concert – Sunday, 1 August at 3pm


The Great Jim Conway

At the Seymour Centre on Sunday, 1 August 2010

Show you’re Mad as Hell about Australia’s current dysfunctional disability system and support lasting change for people with disability, their families and carers at a great afternoon of jazz, blues, dance and politics.

How better to spend a winter’s Sunday afternoon than lounging back to Blues, Jump and Swing; reveling in funky Dance moves of young performers, and listening to inspirational speakers intent on improving the disability service system in Australia?

Featuring entertainment from Jim Conway’s Big Wheel, The James Valentine Quartet and Studio Artes dance troupe and singers.

Jun 10

The Long Way Home

This story occurred a few years ago, when I both drove and spoke (though neither especially well). I’ve been meaning to share it for some time. The launch of Barrier Free has given me the forum to finally do so. Enjoy!

The day started simply enough. I needed to visit Concord Hospital to have some stitches removed, so, knowing how bad parking was there, I left my car at home and took a taxi to the hospital, intending to return later to pick it up. I was early, the appointment was on time, and I even found time for a coffee with an old work colleague I ran into in the lobby. I headed out of the lobby and a wheelchair cab was just dropping off a passenger. I was on fire! At this rate I’d be at work early.

As we headed along Concord Road on the 15 minute trip home, the driver saw a car pull out from a side street. He braked hard, perhaps a little harder than was required, and we jolted to a stop. He had just motioned ‘sorry’ to me in the back when we heard the screech of tyres and then felt a hard bang into the back of the taxi. Someone had run up our rear end.  

The driver got out of the taxi and walked to the side where the other driver met him. I heard him say ‘oh, the owner won’t like this mess’. And her reply ‘well, it’s not my fault’. From there the argument started. First shouting, then screaming, then she tried to kick him, then he tried to restrain her. Not a pretty sight. And the two cars are still parked in the middle of the road, while these two nutters go at it and the traffic builds up for miles behind us.

Eventually, the police arrived, first one officer on a motorbike and then a car load. Things eventually calmed down and the officers’ attention turns to me, still sitting (increasingly impatiently) in the back.  

The policewoman spoke to me, slowly, very deliberately and somewhat louder than normal speech (no doubt assuming I was hard of hearing) ‘Sir, you’ve been in an accident. We’ve called an ambulance to take you to be checked at the hospital.’ I explained that I didn’t need an ambulance. I wasn’t hurt. I was just sick of waiting while this mess was sorted out. I needed to get to work. The policewoman then offered to arrange for a taxi to take me to work after the hospital. Again I said no thanks. I needed to go home and get my car. I would drive myself, thanks all the same. ‘You drive, Sir?’

I figured the best solution was for me to simply get out, find another taxi and continue my journey.

It was then that we realised the damage to the rear of the taxi had a terrible consequence. The back hatch would not open and I was stuck.

Eventually, with the help of two police officers and a passer-by, the hatch was opened, and it was reattached sufficiently for the further 10 minutes drive to my house, which was uneventful. As we unloaded, the driver informed me that because of the mess up he’d only charge me $20, rather than the normal fare of $30. My voice was a little worn from talking to the police so much but I think my cry of ‘WHAT!’ was heard in the next suburb. He left without charging me.

Relived it was finally over I loaded my chair into my car and headed off to work. I’d already missed one meeting. I turned off Parramatta Road and into West Street, Petersham, following a tray top van with a load of windows. As I did, a car came out of a side street and collected the window van immediately in front of me. They weren’t going fast, but there was a huge mess and glass everywhere.

Finally, I made it to my office carpark and stopped the car. I needed a moment to compose myself. I realised then that I had the radio tuned to an FM station I never normally listen to. A breathless traffic announcer was giving the wrap-up; talking loud over the chopper noise. ‘Well, it looks like that smash and fracas on Concord Road has finally cleared but now there’s a doozy at West Street Petersham with glass all over the road. You should avoid that one at all costs’. I followed his suggestion.

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

Today’s Heckler in SMH

It’s titled Disabled Daily Strife and it’s by Stephen Hodges. You can find it here:


Well put, Stephen. Nice piece.

Jun 10

Animal Kingdom at Palace Cinemas Norton Street

My wife and I went to see Animal Kingdom today at Palace Cinemas Norton Street in Leichhardt. Rather than reviewing the movie, which others have done far better than I can, I’ll review the access.

The front doors from Norton Street are manual and very heavy. They’d be possible to handle alone, but not easily. The lift, located immediately to the right of the entry doors, is small but the buttons are within easy reach, and thankfully you don’t need to turn around – you come in through the front and out through the back.

Tickets are sold in any of three locations – one just as you enter on street level, and two locations upstairs. If, as today, tickets are being sold at the bar, you can take the opportunity to grab a wonderful variety of treats and drinks – far better than the regulation choc-tops you see in larger cinemas. And a boon for me – I could smell no popcorn.

There are only two cinemas and both are a short wheel from the lift. You sit in the back row but the cinema is small so it’s not a problem. I actually prefer that to being right at the front and needing to crane your neck to see.

Apologies to those who take less interest in the intricacies of disabled toilets than me, but the toilets at Palace Norton Street are excellent. First, there’s a very welcome sign on the door. ‘These toilets are for the use of disabled patrons only’. So there’s no waiting in a queue while half the cinema use the loo. Moreover, they are very thoughtfully designed, with an inward opening door, wheel-under sink, low mirror, and everything where you can reach.

In summary, the access compares well to major multiplexes, with the shorter distances involved a major plus. And it’s far, far cooler.

It was funny, as we sat waiting for the feature to start, we watched an ad for a restaurant nearby. The final line in the ad was ‘great to enjoy with anyone’. Sorry, not me. I know where that place is and, like too much of Norton Street, there’s no access.

Almost forgot the movie. I’ll give a one word review – brilliant. Go see it.

Jun 10

Trees at Wahroonga Station

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

Also found here: http://www.smh.com.au/environment/unkindest-cut-for-historic-north-shore-fig-trees-20100612-y4jr.html

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

The Rocks Fire Water, part of Vivid Sydney

On Saturday night, my daughter and I joined thousands of other Sydneysiders in The Rocks for Fire Water – a part of Vivid Sydney.

I love being in the City at night – especially when there’s an event on. I think the last time we were in was New Year’s Eve, so it’s not something we do every day.

This time, we took train to Circular Quay, which is a stress-free way to travel. Circular Quay is a good station, fairly compact and easy to get away from. Spoilt by my simple commute to work, we didn’t check the timetable, missed an Express train by 1 minute and had to settle for an all-stations service 20 minutes later. Still, it was a pleasant trundle. We opted for a taxi on the way home – just simpler, safer and easier with the time approaching 10pm.

We decided to check out the markets first. The markets seemed larger than I remembered, and several roads were closed. There’s an incredible feeling of freedom when they close roads for an event. Roads offer so much better access than footpaths. Think about it. They are smoother, better maintained, rarely dug up in private renovations and are unimpeded by tree roots. And why? Cars have great big wheels that don’t get stuck on uneven edges, they don’t trip over and have excellent suspension. Surely footpaths should be better than roads. I guess the difference is just a question of priorities.

Where the roads weren’t closed, access was only fair. The Rocks is an historic precinct so I assume the council is limited in making major modifications. But that doesn’t excuse footpaths you follow for 500 metres only to find there’s no gutter ramp at the end and you have to frustratingly turn back. Or gutter ramps encouraging you to cross the road, but without a corresponding ramp on the other side, meaning you have to wheel through traffic to find one. Or not putting ‘no parking’ signs near ramps, so they are parked out and you can’t access them. These things are not good enough.

Fire Water was quite spectacular. It was a beautiful night in the City – cold but clear and calm – and the Opera House was brilliantly lit up, giving us a full Sydney panorama.

All up, a good night out beside beautiful Sydney Harbour. Note to self: don’t wait 6 months before doing it again.

Jun 10

The Perils of Being Awake on Trains…

Regular readers will recall that I no longer allow myself to sleep on trains; lest I be declared dead-on-arrival (see The Perils of Sleeping on Trains… posted 10 May 2010). Yesterday, I found a new peril – being awake. As we passed through each station a man in the cabin started asking me if each stop was mine. I shook my head each time; sufficient indication, I thought, that I knew where to get off. Then, at Milson’s Point, he left the train, waited, turned, and came back onto the train. He said to me ‘I’ll stay with you’. I assume he was concerned that I would not be able to get off the train, or find my stop alone, and decided to accompany me to my destination. Whatever his intentions, I decided he was not accompanying me to my office. He spoke little during the rest of the journey, but just before we reached my stop, he took 50c out of his pocket and put it in mine. He said ‘save it, for when you need it’. I tried to give it back, but all my advances were refused. We reached my stop and I exited the train without looking at him. I scooted to the lifts as fast as I could, and out of the station equally fast.

I told several people in my office of the encounter, and each said ‘oh, I guess he meant well’. I’m sure he did. But well-meaning for him was especially irritating for me. I can manage my commute alone. Perhaps I need a sign that says ‘I’m fine thanks’ or if they don’t back off ‘I don’t need any help’.

I’d welcome readers’ views.

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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