The thing about Australia is that disability is rarely taken seriously. People don’t see the issue of disability as an important thing to consider. By and large people see disability as a burden and an add on. The needs and rights of people with a disability are not something that people think about as a matter of process. If they did every building would have a flashing light so that the deaf can be aware of fire if it happens. If Australia was taking disability seriously every building, our entire infrastructure and all our processes would be designed so that people with a disability were a focal concern. It is an embarrassment that on Saturday at the elections stories abounded of the lack of access for people with disabilities. Poll booths were inaccessible, disabled parking not considered and there was little assistance for people with intellectual disabilities to understand the voting process. This is Australia, the lucky country.
Last week a wheelchair using friend of mine attended the NSW Art Gallery. She took part in a guided tour. Of course the Art Gallery had not even considered viewing art from a wheelchair user’s perspective. Art displays were in glass cabinets where people in a wheelchair could not see over the top. Pictures are hung at eye level for standing people. Displays are set up so that people with a wheelchair cannot navigate around them. In the tour no thought was given to the needs of the wheelchair user. People raise their arms stand on tip toe and generally obscure the view of the wheelchair user. The tour was so inaccessible that my friend left the tour and embarked on a tour on her own.
She took a lift to the Goya exhibition. After viewing the art she went back to the lift so that she could go back downstairs. To her horror the lift had broken down. She had a plane to catch in a few hours so she was not too alarmed. She found someone from the Gallery staff and asked for assistance. She was told that a couple of men would be up to assist. My friend had visions of muscular and bare chested firemen carrying her down the stairs. She joked about this with the Gallery staff.
Eventually two guys came up to assist her and they brought with them a device. The device apparently locked in the wheelchair and enabled the person in a wheelchair to be transported downstairs. But it was an old device and it did not fit my friend’s modern and expensive wheelchair.To my friends horror it appeared that the two men had little experience in the use of the device. One said he had used it once and thought he could remember how to use it. The other said that he had no idea how to use the device. My friend was terrified. She is no shrinking violet and had gone wheelchair abseiling the week before. Wheelchair abseiling was easy the device just looked insanely dangerous.
In the end, because my friend’s modern wheelchair did not fit the device, one of the men had to go downstairs and get one of the Gallery wheelchairs. This was an old wheelchair that they use for people who have injuries or have mobility issues. The device had been designed for these types of wheelchairs. The ironic thing is that what this means is that most wheelchair users who use modern wheelchairs would not be able to use the device either. The device is virtually useless.
So after some toing and froing the two guys eventually attached my friend to the device. This would not have been easy or dignified. She would have had to somehow get out of her chair and get in the Gallery one. Her own chair, worth a nifty $15 000, needed to be dismantled carefully so it was not damaged. Eventually all these challenges were negotiated and the two guys began to transport my friend down the stairs.
My friend said it was one of the most terrifying experiences of her life. A few times her head was nearly smashed into the step. Then suddenly one of the guys had a brainwave. He apparently worked out that they had attached the chair the wrong way around, hence why my friend nearly had her brains dashed out. Eventually she got down the stairs with the aid of a stair lift. She had been the brunt of curious stares and whispers of people walking the stairs. Unsurprisingly she was flustered and on the verge of tears.
There is more to this story but it would take a virtual book to describe it all. But to add insult to injury when my friend got to the airport she was told by a guy assisting her that he had been “smashed by wheelchairs all day.” And then, in my friends words, “.. he fucked off” My friend was later to see him running around with his two way radio. She had a special document that referred to her wheelchair and the need for it to be looked after properly. In trying to show this letter to the guy the guy put his hand in her face in what my friend described as the, “ …the universal shut the fuck up for a moment sign.”
This was the last straw for my friend. She broke down into tears of rage and went “molotov” Sadly this was not the end of her day from hell. When she arrived back in Perth she had a taxi driver try to refuse her fare. He wanted to refuse the fare because he didn’t have the insurance to cover any damage that might happen to her expensive wheelchair. My friend had seriously had enough and said to him, “..’Buddy, this is a fight you want to pick with another fucking woman on another fucking day. Put my wheels in the back of your station wagon. And do it now.” Sensibly he did as he was told.
This is the sort of crap that Australians who have a disability are dealing with every day. It happens because Australia does not see people with a disability as equal citizens. Consider if there was a fire at the Gallery. If this was the case the lift would not be an option whether it was working or not. There is a woman in a wheelchair stuck upstairs and there is no one in the Gallery who is trained to get her out quickly and safely. What will happen? Well she will burn and likely die. I Am betting that staff are trained to evacuate all others quickly and safely – But people with a disability? If my friends experience is anything to go by virtually no thought has been given to their needs at all.
Australia is a signatory of the United Nations Convention of the Rights of Persons with a Disability. The principles of the convention are clear:
- Respect for inherent dignity, individual autonomy including the freedom to make one’s own choices, and independence of persons;
- Full and effective participation and inclusion in society;
- Respect for difference and acceptance of persons with disabilities as part of human diversity and humanity;
- Equality of opportunity;
- Equality between men and women;
- Respect for the evolving capacities of children with disabilities and respect for the right of children with disabilities to preserve their identities
These are the principles that Australia signed up to. In the day in the life of my friend NOT ONE OF THEM WERE MET. The lot of people with a disability in Australia is an absolute disgrace. My god a player from the St Kilda Football Club set a dwarf alight for fun! We have to do better than this!
This is your challenge Tony Abbott –Can you and your Party rise to it!