Improving the lives of Australians with disability
7 December 2020 at 5:30 pm
As we adjust to a new way of living post-COVID, there is a real opportunity to address the longstanding barriers Australians with disability face, writes Vince Massaro, who shares the findings from a recent survey about how people with disability experience Australia.
COVID-19 is here for good and is drastically reshaping our interactions with others and the built environment around us.
Cafes, clothing stores, banks and doctors’ waiting rooms that are set up for physical distancing look a little different, even strange, to most of us.
But these physically-distanced spaces represent a seismic shift in the way people who use wheelchairs – and others who are sensitive to overcrowding and clutter – experience their community.
As we adjust to this new way of living, there is real opportunity to address the longstanding barriers Australians with disability face. It’s time we implemented these measures for good.
Consider the pre-COVID-19 environment as an example.
You want to go out for dinner with a few close friends for your birthday, so you phone a restaurant, book a table for six and that’s that.
A person with a wheelchair needs to find out about ramp access, accessible toilets, wide doorways and the space between tables and chairs on the restaurant floor itself.
A mere outing for dinner can turn into multiple phone calls or a day trip to inspect the restaurant before bothering to book a table.
It takes a similar undertaking for someone with a disability to plan a trip to the zoo, the movies or even shopping for clothes. But it shouldn’t.
These are ordinary activities most of us don’t need to think about or plan. But the way our towns are built and our cafes, shops and supermarkets are fitted out present barrier after barrier for people living with disability.
We know this, because we surveyed 600 Australians living with disability and their carers to find out how they experience Australia.
Half of the people surveyed don’t feel included in their community. And it’s the simple, obvious solutions like our built infrastructure and our attitudes that are excluding them.
Our research showed narrow aisles at the supermarket, inaccessible toilets, little to no disability car parking and minimal wheelchair access continue to prevent people with physical disability from accessing the places they want to. The research also found people feel like they have to hide the fact they have a disability or not show their feelings, in case others don’t know how to react.
These anecdotes don’t tell us anything we haven’t heard before. And that’s the most sobering finding of all.
Australia hasn’t sat still in its efforts to improve the lives of people with disability.
In 2010, the inaugural National Disability Strategy – aimed at shifting community attitudes about disability – was launched. In 2011, the Disability (Access to Premises – Buildings) Standards 2010 – designed to make our buildings and public places accessible for everyone – became law. In 2013, the National Disability Insurance Scheme – the country’s biggest social reform since the introduction of Medicare – began.
None of these initiatives should be disregarded. Our own organisation has witnessed firsthand the difference these reforms make to the lives of people with disability, their families and carers.
Despite these efforts, the consultation report informing Australia’s next 10-year disability strategy found people without disability are still unsure how to act toward people with disability; discrimination against people with disability still exists; and, people with disability continue to report experiences of neglect, exploitation, violence and/or abuse. Our research supports this sombre outlook.
It’s clear that governments cannot legislate Australia into being more accessible and inclusive. What’s missing is a community-wide, community-owned response. And it falls on all of us to redouble our efforts.
There are experts in this space that can help organisations who want to be more accessible and inclusive. Disability advocacy groups and partners in the community that are delivering the NDIS across Australia hear from people with disability, their families and carers every day. They can provide guidance, assessments, tools and training to any organisation that wants to be inclusive of everyone. Better yet, they actually include people with disability in the solutions.
Placing tables further apart and removing displays from doorways may have seemed radical at the start of COVID-19. But it’s these sorts of measures that Australians with disability have been crying out for, for decades.
In the current crisis there is an opportunity to reshape the daily community experience for people with disability. We must not let that opportunity slip. There are steps all of us can take. And if we do, Australia will become a country that truly treats people with disability as part of the community.