Don’t forget the disabled in flood reconstruction
We must rebuild for everyone
I visited a woman recently who - for the last three years - has only left her house once a week. Not because she doesn’t want to, but because she can’t.
Ruth - not her real name - uses an electric wheelchair, and has almost no vision. She lives in public housing and - through a decision driven by crass and uncaring bureaucracy - has been placed in a house which has three steps at the front, and six at the back. She has been provided with a portable ramp, which she cannot put in place without assistance.
Not surprisingly, as Disability Discrimination Commissioner, I’m pursuing Ruth’s cause with vigour. But it made me think about how many Australians would tolerate not being able to move out their front or back door without involvement of others.
Our country, particularly Queensland, has just gone through a series of massive disasters that have been characterised by a terrible loss of life and property and shocking devastation. We all share in the grief and sadness that the people in these stricken areas have had to endure and will continue to endure for some time as they work to recover from these disasters.
Part of this recovery will be rebuilding. Getting this rebuild right is more than simply flood, cyclone and fire proofing our buildings.
If it comes to pass that we are to pay a flood levy, it is imperative that the funds for reconstruction benefit all Australians. And by ‘all Australians’, I am including people with disability - which in turn includes those of us who are ageing and who might need assistance to use buildings that have not been built with accessibility in mind.
It also includes those of us who might find, through illness or accident, that we suddenly have to live with some form of disability on a temporary or permanent basis. My point is that accessibility in relation to buildings – ensuring everyone can get in and out of a building and use its facilities easily - is not something that is just important to people who are traditionally viewed as having a disability. And it becomes much more important in the face of natural disasters.
If a flood levy is imposed for reconstruction purposes, it offers us more than one opportunity. Just as the new buildings will have to be flood or cyclone proof, shouldn’t the legislation also require that all public buildings, built with reconstruction funds, meet the requirements of the recently passed access to premises standards?
And shouldn’t the same legislation also require that all houses built with reconstruction funds meet the minimum standards for the design of liveable housing? The answer to both questions must be a resounding ‘yes’.
There are three actions the Australian Government could take in the development of the flood levy law, due in Parliament this week.
First, require that any public building constructed fully or partly with federal funds comply with the recently approved Access to Premises Standards.
These Standards, to take effect in May of this year, require more accessible entrances, more circulation space in lifts and toilets, better signage, more space in passageways, access features in lifts, more accessible seating spaces in cinemas and the like, better holiday accommodation access, and more accessible toilets.
Second, require that any housing built fully or partly with federal funds meet the principles agreed upon last year by industry and the disability sector for liveable housing design.
These principles include stepless entrances, wider doorways, switches and controls at an accessible level, and a bathroom which can be made accessible on the ground floor. These principles are to be phased in during the next decade, but this levy could give them a jump-start.
Third, require that any other infrastructure built fully or partly with federal funds - such as parks, footpaths and walkways, sporting and recreation facilities etc - comply with access principles. There are people with knowledge of such principles throughout our local government system, who would be best placed to have input into this work.
These improvements to the levy legislation are not complex, and would not inhibit the pace nor increase the level of difficulty of reconstruction. What they would do is ensure that people such as Ruth are not trapped inside, or kept outside, the places where Australians live, work and play.
When you consider that the great majority of us will find ourselves living with some form of disability due to the ageing process, requiring building to be accessible is actually something that is important to all of us, our families, friends and loved ones.
All Australians have been shocked by the awesome power that nature has recently displayed in our country. And we have all been deeply saddened by the devastation, pain and loss of property and of life.
So as we endeavour to increase our chances of survival and resilience, should we have the misfortune to face such tragedy again, we must ensure that everyone, including older Australians and people like Ruth, are not only living in strong buildings, but can get in and out of them just as easily as the rest of us.
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