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August 2001

A right to access!

by Robyn Gobert
Disability advocate and access consultant

Robyn and friends at the Cairns Marina and Lookout.- 44896 Bytes

Its time

There is a misguided assumption in our community that "as infrastructure is built and old buildings give way to new,  we will have provided an accessible infrastructure within our society."

Many people also assume that by the time they are aged or frail everything will be in place.

How 35% of the population wishes that was true.

The Queensland Government recognises that,  although only 19.8% of the population have a significant disability,  35% of the population actually need to use disability access provisions.   There is a diverse range of stakeholders within an "accessible community".

However in my experience,  "disability access" is generally understood by the layman to mean "providing for that minority of people in wheelchairs  (after all,  we don't see many of them out and about,  do we?)".

Able bodied people sometimes think that the solution is to simply provide a ramp out the front of a building.   That's all there is to it,  now everyone is catered for.

Many people also believe that "those responsible" for providing equitable and useable access - presumably meaning all levels of Government - have these provisions in hand,  that the need for these provisions has been recognised and that the Disability Discrimination Act polices these needs.   They may also believe that HOW to adequately provide for accessibility needs is fully covered by the Australian Standards, and that all Councils,  Developers,  Builders,  Building Surveyors,  Architects and the like are right up to date with these requirements,  and are benevolently working to provide an accessible society.

In actuality,  we are footing the bill for infrastructure that is continuing to be built inaccessible and therefore unusable by people with mobility impairments and other disabilities,  and in some instances it is downright dangerous.  We are also responsible for policing the fact - to see that these requirements are being carried out.

At the age of 85,  one has an 84% chance of having a significant disability.   Many of our older population have paid a lifetime of rates and taxes only to find their community has not seen their need for improved access as a priority.  Councils and Government Departments often consider disability access to be "on the back burner until there's a fe extra dollars available".

If all levels of Government are providing a working solution:

Some progressive Councils have recognised the need to give up their usual way of doing things and have embraced a new way of working with their community.  And why not?   It means votes and dollars for them and makes good sense.  Some Councils in rural and remote areas need to reassess the way they go about things.   This means:

The old ways are making people angry because they don't work and they are time consuming.  Each time a Council or Government gets it wrong it costs them an estimated 200% of the original cost to get it right.   This means time delays and some of us don't have that much time to wait for an accessible infrastructure.   We are entitled to equity and it's time people were getting it right,  first time,  every time.

Recently I observed a working example of provision of minimum standards when I took a look over a block of almost completed holiday apartments near Cairns.

There was a ramp out the front "built to standards",  I was assured.

"There are two disabled apartments that have had to be built (I was told) "... but the developers are worried about getting rid of those two,  so they certainly wouldn't have wanted to build all of them accessible for disabled people".   (The term is "people with disabilities",  as there is no such thing as a "disabled person".)

The disability units had a glorious bathroom in which there was ample room to MAKE a cat,  let alone swing one ... and that was all.   Nothing else had been considered.   Although the added cost would have been minimal,  the kitchen hadn't been built accessible,  nor had the bedroom.   That wasn't required within the minimum standards and,  I was told,  all the Developers were worried about was protecting themselves from being sued.

Then there's Mango Lagoon

Doesn't the name just make you want to taste it or dive into it?

After working as a volunteer to create inclusive communities for two years,  I was employed as a Consultant by Mango Lagoon.   This Resort at Palm Cove near Cairns is being built by an innovative,  embracing company undertaking a development that is long overdue in Tropical North Queensland.

At last,  a group of Developers have seen the light and are addressing a broad spectrum of need from the conception.

Twenty two of the ground-based units are inclusive and the units built above them will only need ramped access added to make them accessible if the need arises.

Mango Lagoon is encompassing the needs of many people,  including our growing aged population and those with disabilities.   It receives my highest praise for it's inclusivity as it will be barrier-free and useable from the covered car parking facilities to the 150m long lagoon pool with it's waterfalls and surrounding gardens.   The pool is believed to be the longest in Queensland.

It is rare,  in my experience,  for Developers to understand that the need for all-person access is only the first step,  one has to provide useability - from provisions inside the apartments to the pool and gardens.   This resort is being built with a style reminiscent of our Colonial past.   I have been particularly impressed with their dedication to "getting it right" from the planning stage onward.   The cutlery,  fittings,  the furniture - it's all being carefully considered.

These outcomes will provide everyone with a unique opportunity to enjoy their holiday experience in Tropical North Queensland.

The good news is,  over the past three years,  with funding and attention to access issues by the State Government,  active lobby groups and the Paralympic Games,  Councils are also beginning to get it right.

We who need these provisions applaud Mango Lagoon and hope this will simply be the first in a long line of inclusive developments within our Tropical North!

Robyn Gobert

Editor's note

Barrier Free Lifestyles offer advocacy,  staff training and information services,  encompassing physical access and inclusive design.   Robyn Gobert has a "lifetime of experiential knowledge gained from living life with a number of disabilities".   She is also the wife,  daughter,  mother and grandmother of people with significant disabilities.   Over the past 20 years Robyn has been working as a volunteer advocate on behalf of people with disabilities,  and was presented with the 1979 Community Award for her contribution to society.   In 1979 she founded the charity D.E.B.R.A. Australia Inc to raise money to fund medical research at the University of NSW into epidermolysis bullosa (cotton wool baby syndrome).   She undertook a lecture circuit of North Queensland and appeared on numerous state-wide,  as well as national television programs.   The New Idea magazine did a story on her in 1989.   There are now DEBRA organisations across the world,  with headquarters in New York.

In 1989,  after her husband almost died of a mystery paralyses,  was eventually correctly diagnosed and his life saved,  she founded the Queensland GBS and CIDP Support Network Inc.

In 1999,  due to an arthritic type condition that was affecting her mobility,  Robyn was advised to use a wheelchair.   Now faced with the prospect of living within an inaccessible community she formed People Working for Equity of Access.   Other firsts have included:

More recently,  Robyn was honoured by the Queensland State Government as winner of the 1999 Individual Award for Excellence for her 21 years of disability related advocacy.   A year later she was again recognised by Foxtel,  coming second as one of five in the Australian unsung Heroes Awards.  Robyn describes herself as a "lateral thinker" and as someone who "doesn't mind identifying the problem,  but would much prefer to be part of the solution".

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