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If you're disabled, just wait outside for 10 years

28 July 2010 at 2:40 pm
Staff Reporter
OPINION | The Federal Government’s reluctance to build accessible housing is a farce, writes chairman of the FSHD Global Research Foundation, Bill Moss.

Staff Reporter | 28 July 2010 at 2:40 pm


If you're disabled, just wait outside for 10 years
28 July 2010 at 2:40 pm

The Federal Government’s reluctance to build accessible housing is a farce, writes chairman of the FSHD Global Research Foundation, Bill Moss.

VICTORIAN federal Labor MP, former trade union organiser and Parliamentary Secretary for Disabilities Bill Shorten is a man capable of bringing down first-term prime ministers, as demonstrated by the key backroom role he played a couple of weeks ago in the replacement of Kevin Rudd by Julia Gillard.

Yet even a politician with Shorten's Machiavellian skills is flummoxed when it comes to dealing with the powerful housing industry lobby and its inexplicable reluctance to build accessible housing that will meet the needs of Australia's rapidly ageing population — not to mention a million or so people with physical disabilities.

Earlier this week, Shorten appeared, at least from his media statements, to be beside himself with excitement that he had managed to get the housing industry to agree to "an aspirational target that all new homes will be built to disability-friendly design standards by 2020".

Did he say 2020? That is 10 years away — and even then, this is just an "aspirational target".

As a person with a physical disability myself — a form of muscular dystrophy called FSHD, which sooner or later will land me in a wheelchair — I am as appalled by this wimpish, legally unenforceable cop-out as I am by the self-congratulatory tone of Shorten's announcement, not to mention the smug responses of the Australian Property Council, the Master Builders Association and the Housing Industry Association.

In my career as a businessman and senior partner at Macquarie Bank, until my increasing level of physical disability forced my early retirement, I always took a relatively straightforward, commonsense approach: when you see a problem, you work out what needs to be done to fix it, and then you do it. And here's one problem I can see: every year, thousands of new houses are being built in Australia that, because they continue to be very hard if not impossible for physically disabled people to access, rob such people of independence and dignity, reduce their chances of employment and grievously hamper their involvement with the community.

I know of many people with disabilities who are virtual prisoners in their own, expensively retro-fitted adapted homes because they cannot get in other people's front doors, let alone get into the bathroom to go to the toilet, or get through narrow doorways. Let alone go into the many shops, restaurants and other public buildings that still stubbornly refuse to install a simple ramp so as to be wheelchair-accessible.

As Shorten himself said on Tuesday night in a speech to the Sydney Institute, it was not handed down by God to Moses on tablets of stone that doorways had to be 600mm wide, for example, or that light switches on walls had to be placed just out of reach of a person in a wheelchair.

Given the building industry's refusal to begin adapting its design and building standards immediately, Shorten should have threatened that the federal government would legislate for mandatory new national building guidelines and standards, as it is entirely in its power to do.

Why did he not legislate, or threaten to legislate? Why did he settle for a timetable that, as he says himself, is longer than the Trojan Wars took to wage?

Even more puzzling is the attitude taken by federal Disability Discrimination Commissioner Graeme Innes and the Australian Human Rights Commission.

According to Innes, a voluntary deal with the building industry, marked by a 10-year wait for full compliance — aspirationally, mind you — is the best people with disabilities could realistically hope for. If Innes is to be believed, all the peak disability organisations are celebrating in the streets that in 10 years their members can look forward to being able to access any new home.

Well, the peak disability and disability rights organisations might be celebrating, but I can tell Innes — and Shorten — that at the grassroots, people with physical disabilities, and their families and carers, are absolutely furious. This announcement will further fuel the anger of disability lobby groups such as Australians Mad as Hell, started by two mothers of physically disabled sons to harness the voting power of millions of people with disabilities and their families increasingly impatient for government action to reform this country's disgraceful disability support system.

In the junior post of Parliamentary Secretary for Disabilities and Children's Services — in itself a most telling combination of duties — Shorten makes all the right noises and says all the right things. But other than raising desperate people's hopes sky high for meaningful reform, he has so far been able to deliver little, and may never deliver anything meaningful.

A very good first move, however, would be for the Gillard government, if re-elected, to immediately elevate disability policy to cabinet level by promoting Shorten out of his junior post to a proper ministry, with disability decoupled from its ridiculous and grossly insulting link to "children's services".

The high-powered, private enterprise-based Disability Investment Group, which Shorten established in 2008 and of which I was a member, recommended in its report tabled in December last year that the government introduce a national disability insurance scheme. It is intensely frustrating to me, as it is to many other Australians with disabilities and their families, that the Rudd government's response was to kick this idea into touch by asking the Productivity Commission in turn to examine the feasibility of a NDIS, with the leisurely, post-election reporting deadline of July next year.

Now we have a voluntary, aspirational agreement for all new houses to be built to accessible standards by 2020, when this should be happening now. There is no excuse for delay, apart from dismal whines by the industry that such standards will cost another $1000 or so to implement.

According to Property Council chief executive Peter Verwer, the voluntary agreement announced this week is "a great example of collaboration between the building industry and the disability sector". No it's not, Mr Verwer. This is merely another great example of a powerful industry lobby dragging its feet, and of a spineless government and craven disability rights advocates letting them get away with it.

Bill Moss is the chairman of Boston Management Group and Chairman of the FSHD Global Research Foundation. To make a donation to the foundation, please click here. 

This article first appeared in The Australian on July 23 and is replicated here with the author’s permission.

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