Paying Us Lip Service

Picture shows wheel chair ramp located to the left of steps making it impossible to get through the door.
Picture shows wheel chair ramp located to the left of steps making it impossible to get through the door.

Last week I was the victim of train delays as were thousands of Victorians. Inclement weather had seen a signal box get struck by lightning causing chaos on the line going through Ringwood. It could not be helped. I sat patiently at the station and played my iPad golf game while I waited. Suddenly the screen above me flashed an announcement. Tragically it told me that I needed to listen for announcements, every deaf person’s nightmare. The irony that they were able to send me a message by text to tell me to listen but not a message by text to tell me of the delays was not lost on me. It cannot be that hard!

Of course it’s not just deaf people that have to put up with a lack of access. It is virtually all people with a disability. In Australia they have a mentality of doing the absolute minimum for people with a disability. It just seems to me that our decision makers pay absolute lip-service to people who have a disability. They look at the legislation see what is the absolute minimum that they can provide and that’s what they provide.

I worked in local Government and I can tell you that this is exactly how they operated. My job in the local Council was to try and create access for people with a disability. Inclusion was the game. One of the first things that I tried to do was get the Council to consider installing a Changing Places Toilet, a toilet that has a hoist and an adult change table within it.

The general public is not really aware that for many people, even accessible toilets are not accessible. There are a number of people with a disability that require facilities that will allow them to be changed and for them a hoist and and/or an adult change table are absolutely needed. For many a day out requires careful planning. Blankets and towels need to be packed and often if toilet facilities are used the person with a disability is changed on the floor of the toilet. An entirely unhygienic and undignified experience. To get an idea watch this video.

I first suggested this idea to the Capital Works team. I suggested that by having such facilities we would be demonstrating best practice and that by installing such facilities the Council would be protecting itself from potential DDA complaints. I got a reply from Capital Works that basically said the installation of such toilets was not necessary and that to protect the Council from DDA complaints all that was required was to install a basic access toilet. They guy then outlined the specifications to me that were the absolute minimum the Council had to do. I am not kidding. Later, thankfully, a more empathetic person contacted me and we began discussions as to how such a toilet could be installed. Her empathy did not lead to anything though.

Yet even though I had a bit of support from a person within Capital Works I got very little from my own boss. I quickly worked out that mentioning the DDA at Council level achieved nothing. All that it did was encourage the Council to do the absolute minimum. I tried a different strategy. I pointed out that the Council was in a high tourist area. I pointed out that by having such toilets in strategic areas we were encouraging people with a disability to visit the area. I provided statistics about the economic benefit of encouraging people with disabilities to visit with family and friends. The argument was simple. Invest and thou shall reap.

The response of my boss was hardly enthusiastic. Her first response was. “Gary your job is to focus on people with a disability in our region not to worry about those that might be visiting.” I must have given her a god awful dirty look when she said that because she physically recoiled from me. Suffice to say, I was gobsmacked.

But I am perseverant. I continued to campaign and lobby for the introduction of such a facility. Realising my determination my boss tried to reason that we needed to go slow. She said change was incremental. A Changing Places Toilet, said she, was something to aim for long term. I pointed out that people with a disability in Australia had been waiting a long time for very little gain and that it was a bit insulting to them to say their needs were of an incremental basis when such large scale change was needed. I pointed out that attitudes that promoted incremental change were the very reason Australia ranked near the bottom in terms of opportunities for people with a disability among OECD countries.

Realising that reasoning was not going to nullify my determination she began a strategy of suppression. I tried to post a Changing Places information video on the Council website as part of an online community consultation. As part of the consultation I asked a simple question as to whether this is something that people with a disability would like to see in the region. My boss asked me to remove it. She said this was raising expectations.

Not to be beaten I tried another tactic. I reworded the question. I said something like – “Changing places toilets are being installed all over Britain and in some places in Australia. Do you know of any similar initiatives that would be of benefit to people with a disability in the region?My boss did not have rebuttal to this. So what she did was simply refuse to approve the launch of the online consultation. It took over 12 months for me to finally get this simple video and question released.

But that was not all. I later conducted a Facebook survey on accessible toilets. I had argued that we needed to consider ramifications of the use of accessible toilets as communal toilets. I argued that there were many people that needed accessible toilets and did not have the capacity to wait to use an accessible toilet. The Council had a sort of informal policy that promoted accessible toilets as a communal facility. For example accessible toilets doubled up as baby change rooms.

My boss implied that my suggestion that using accessible toilets as communal toilets could cause hardship for some people with a disability was being over dramatic. So I conducted a survey through Facebook disability networks. The survey received 183 responses.

Some people thought it was ok to use accessible toilets as communal toilets so long as the use was quick. Others pointed out that their disability required strict hygiene and people leaving dirty nappies in the toilets put their health at risk. Others pointed out that the toilets were required by people with guide dogs and for people with intellectual disabilities who had difficulties with bowel control. The demand for the use of accessible toilets was, in fact, higher than even I had known.

I was very proud of the survey. It provided a very comprehensive overview of the use and views of who should be able to use accessible toilets. I presented it to the Councils Disability Advisory committee who raised further issues. I wanted to make the survey public. My boss supressed it and told the Advisory Council that they were not to discuss or release the survey outside of the Council walls.

To understand just how many of our decision makers treat disability access you have to work within Government, particularly local Government. Disability access for many Council’s is not about inclusion, dignity or human rights it’s simply an economic burden that must be kept to a minimum.

In short disability access in Australia is often given lip-service. Patronising smiles accompanied with superficial nods of agreement. You gotta be tough to stay in the disability advocacy game.

It’s like Einstein once said – “ The road to perdition has ever been accompanied by lip service to an ideal.” This is, sadly, too often the case in regard to disability access!

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