We must rebuild for everyone

And if it's rebuilt with federal funds, don't forget the ramps. Image: AP.

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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    • Catching up says:

      06:43am | 11/02/11

      This would be one of the houses that the levy would help to rebuild.  The opposition was so incensed that the treasurer had said that homes would be among the things the levy would rebuild.  Not all people live in private dwellings.  Public Housing is also a government facility.  It is sad that the Opposition spends so much of its energy nit picking and not working at making Australia better.

    • fairsfair says:

      10:30am | 11/02/11

      Lets look at this situation away from the Government level and at a personal level.

      I am a home owner and I live in a flood zone/cyclone zone/bushfire zone/any zone that could produce an accident that would see significant damage or total loss to my asset. IE - I live anywhere in Australia. I am not destitute. I am actually quite comfortable in my lifestyle but I am heavily mortgaged and in a bit of credit card debt. I work hard, I contribute to society. Lookit here, my insurance bill has arrived. It has really gone up this year and we really need a second car though. It is required, even viewed as a necessity by members of my household and it would certainly make my life a bit easier. This year I am not paying for my insurance or contributing to my savings because I want to make this purchase. Wow, I have just been flooded. I can’t afford to fix my house out of my savings and I can’t make an insurance claim. Who is going to fix my house? I have assets (including that shiny new second car) that I could sell to fix my house, but I don’t want to. It isn’t fair. I have been through so much already and I shouldn’t have to lose everything should I? Perhaps I should now go to the Premier’s appeal and get them to fix my house. Yes, I am entitled - other people will need to pay before I compromise anything in my own backyard, like selling my shine new second car.

      I don’t oppose the rebuild - nobody does. Hell, I don’t even have to pay the levy. What I do oppose is that there should be money there for this. It should never be touched - that is what I pay my taxes for (both state and federal). Just like I am required to look after my own affiars either through the purchase of insurance or the acceptance of the risk of self insuring, so do our governments. When there is room to move with the gathering of funds (and there is) I don’t think it right to immediately look to other people to cover your own incompetence and/or bad decisions.

      The opposition is opposing the principle of the levy - not what it is intended to fix. Besides, public housing is a state run thing. Why is the criticism not on Anna Bligh for this? She is out of her moleskinds and akubra now everyone - we can criticise her you know.

      WHERE IS THE ANNA OUTRAGE? Why isn’t the rest of Australia angry at the fact that our state is not in a position to fix state infrastructure we have to rely on federal help, which means that the govt has to institute a levy to allow it to do so and pay to fix federal infrastructure on top of all else.

    • TChong says:

      07:10am | 11/02/11

      Sound like sensible ideas.
      Who would object, ? and why ?

    • Katita says:

      10:48am | 11/02/11

      Sensible as the ideas esposed by Innes are, people with disabilities are all too often written off and left behind, mostly because of government inertia and a lack of public interest in the issue. Today, people with disabilities form the largest marginalised group in the world. Australia has gone a long way in terms of disability rights but there is still a long way to go. That’s why articles such as these - bringing the issues to public attention - are so important; thank you for writing this!

    • Shane From Melbourne says:

      10:50am | 11/02/11

      Hope everyone likes paying extra levy to cover the additional costs….

    • Robert Smissen, rural SA, God's own country says:

      12:46pm | 11/02/11

      Reality is that the disabled are lower on the care factor than cats & dogs, this will not change

    • Digby Hughes says:

      12:52pm | 11/02/11

      Hi Graeme - great article - just hope the heading was put in by a subbie and not you.

    • Dylan Malloch says:

      02:55pm | 11/02/11

      Thanks for an interesting read, Graeme. 

      I think we’ve seen some great ‘mateship’ in the aftermarth of the floods, and some excellent community spirit.  Yet it’s still amazing that people like Ruth can be so overlooked.

      Keep on their case!

    • Edward James says:

      04:44pm | 12/02/11

      Government borrowing to function is evidence of mismanagement. Queensland government did not have insurance in place. Prudent management of our taxes and even what the wealthy may consider frugal expenditure. Would see governments like households which do the same, have money in the bank so to speak. Why we need a AAA rating is beyond me. Why would we need to remain locked into permanent borrowing? What that means is we always pay more than it is worth whatever it may be.  As for providing for disabled i thought it was already mandated? What did i miss?
      Edward James

    • Chris says:

      08:57am | 13/02/11

      Right Graeme as someone with a disability I am going to agree and disagree with you.
      Personal housing needs to be accessible. I am not arguing with you. I also believe there needs to be access to footpaths, transport and community buildings which are widely used.
      I am however fed up with suggestions that everything needs to be made accessible at additional expense to everyone even if nobody ever uses it…just because someone might want to one day. That is the wrong approach when there are so many other needs among people with disabilities.
      It is just this sort of bloody minded attitude which makes other people resent people with disabilities getting help. It is this sort of bloody minded attitude which means that money is wasted when it is needed for other things. 
      They spend thousands putting in a ramp in the change rooms at a footy club but they do not spend money on access clubs to get you there. They shove in access ramps all over a school for the one kid who left last year when there is a desperate need for help for a kid with a vision impairment.
      Give me a break. “Equal Opportunities” has its priorities all wrong and too bloody political by half.

    • Edward James says:

      01:25pm | 13/02/11

      @ Chris. Taxpayers are being bullied by people in positions of power. Several years ago Gosford City Council installed tactile aids in local footpaths incorrectly. They are intended to help visually impaired pedestrians to line themselves up at a right angle to the gutter so they may move straight across the road at intersections. The way they were being put in directed people at a 80 degree angle toward traffic on the main road. I tried to explain to the man installing them he was actually building a hazard for visually impaired pedestrians as they would be guided into traffic on the main road.. I was told the special paver’s must be installed to the plan. It took me two years of emailing to have the special paver’s ripped up and installed correctly. Local councilors are supposed to direct council management. Yes in my dreams. Edward James


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