Information on disability definitions and terms, the Australian access standards in development, the office of the Disability Adviser to the Premier and potential roles of health surveyors in increasing access to the community

30 November 1989 address by Richard, Disability Adviser to the Premier to the 16th Annual State Conference of Health Surveyors (SA Division) Barossa Junction, Tanunda

Thank you for inviting me to address you on the occasion of the 16th Annual State Conference of the Australian Institute of Health Surveyors (S.A. Division). I have been asked to tell you something of the structure and role of my office and some of the issues of disability with which local government may be involved.

Attitudes and Language

It has been said that the world of disability is a microcosm of the world at large. Disability is universal in that it respects neither age, sex, race, social or economic status. Some disabilities such as amputation, or the loss of mobility requiring the use of a wheelchair, are very obvious. We may not however be quite so visually aware of other disabilities such as hearing impairment, epilepsy or even some of the psychiatric disabilities such as manic depression. Although the effects of these disabilities may appear less obvious, the individual nevertheless has to face the same adjustment processes.

In considering disability, it is important to recognise and distinguish the difference between disability and handicap. Simply put, a disability is the resulting long term/permanent loss, defect or limitation of bodily function following an impairment. Other than accepting and using independence equipment and developing compensatory techniques, there is little a disabled individual can do beyond positively accepting their disability as a fact of their life.

However, handicap is an additional disadvantage imposed by society, through social and cultural factors. The handicapping process is external to the person with a disability. It is a process in which we all need to participate by examining and accepting responsibility for our own fears and negative attitudes which are the eventual cause of handicap.

Perhaps handicap can be better understood through the example of horse racing where a racing industry committee imposes an additional weight handicap based on the superior performances of a horse, in order to equalise the opportunity of less talented horses to participate and become potential winners.

Unfortunately in the disability world it often seems that society imposes additional handicaps on those people who are less able to compete, to the degree that it becomes hard for them to even participate, let alone become potential winners.

When this happens people with disabilities face not only the unavoidable results of their impairment or disability, but more importantly to the quality of their lives, an additional range of handicaps imposed by the society they live in.

Disability imposes a considerable extra cost on the people it affects including the families and carers of the individual. Surveys show that people with disabilities are amongst the very poorest members of our community. How can they compete without adequate income to provide for these unavoidable additional expenses? In spite of many studies which show that people with disabilities can be valuable employees they are most likely unemployed.

The whole ethos surrounding disability is one of negativity, a negativity which is constantly reinforced by language and attitude. Consider the feelings engendered by the following commonly used words and expressions:

  • Patient – Someone passively accepting treatment
  • Handicap – Cap in hand
  • Invalid – In-valid (particularly damaging when used fortnightly as in In-valid pension); or the phrase: “Confined to a wheelchair” or “Suffering from “.

Australian Standard AS1428 – Design for Access and Mobility

A major problem for all people with physical disabilities is access. Some members of our community can’t get into buildings, use community facilities such as telephones, transport systems etc. These barriers create separating apartheid-type situations of unequal opportunity.

One of the organisations assisting in the work of creating more accessible communities is the Standards Association of Australia. This body’ was founded in 1922 and is an independent, non-profit body incorporated by Royal Charter. Its function is to prepare, publish and promote in the national interest Australian Standards. The organisation enjoys the active cooperation of Commonwealth and State Governments, Australian industry and commerce interests.

As a project for the 1981 International Year of Disabled Persons, a study was commissioned by the Australian Uniform Building Regulations Co¬ordinating Council (AUBRCC) to test those provisions of AS 1428-1977 that could be regulated. As a starting point for the study which was undertaken by John Bails of the South Australian Department of Housing and Construction, it was decided that convenient access for 80 per cent of known adult wheelchair types (and hence wheelchair users) was an acceptable target. The concept of the ‘A80’ (adults/80 per cent) wheelchair was then developed. The ‘A80’ test wheelchair is an adult size wheelchair which is representative of at least 80 per cent of the manual and electric wheelchairs currently used in Australia, and its dimensions have been applied in determining minimum space requirements in this Standard.

The ‘A80’ test wheelchair dimensions are adopted as the minimum requirement for physical access as most other forms of mobility impairment can be accommodated within these dimensional parameters.

Because of the many different situations which may need to be addressed when designing buildings and facilities, it was seen as necessary for the Standard to provide a range of data so that the requirements for access can be met while allowing flexibility in design or when limitations are posed by other building conditions. The endeavour was to make the Standard a practical reference document for designers, particularly with regard to problem areas such as doorways and sanitary facilities. To assist in the designing of combined sanitary facilities, a set of transparent overlays for each sanitary facility, together with the required circulation space, is provided with copies of the 1988 Standard.

Initially, AS1428 has been divided into two parts. Part 1 consists of only those requirements for access which are to be regulated under the Building Code. Part 2 will include other requirements for access which may or may not be regulated by other Authorities, as well as special requirements for purpose-built buildings. Part 2 is in course of preparation and is expected to be published within two years of 1988. Ultimately it is intended that both parts will be used in conjunction with each other.

Disability Adviser to the Premier – role and function

In order to help address some of these negative attitudes the 1982 South Australian ALP election campaign included a Disability Policy of 22 commitments. One of these commitments was to appoint a Disability Adviser to the Premier to provide a governmental and community focus for disability issues. This election commitment was fulfilled in May 1984 with my appointment from 76 other applicants from throughout Australia.

The creation of this position with direct access to the Premier was unique in Australia and I believe it has considerably raised the status of disability in our community. Also unique was the appointment to a senior position a person with obvious severe disabilities.

The tasks and functions of the Disability Adviser to the Premier include:-acting in a consultative and advisory capacity to the Premier and Government on matters affecting people with disabilities;

  • monitoring government policies and practices to ensure adequate thought and provision is given to the needs of people with disabilities
  • acting as a catalyst to encourage debate and positive action in the disability area
  • raising community awareness about people with disabilities and their role in today’s society
  • acting as an advocate on specific matters for groups or individuals with disabilities.

Some of the successes which I see of our small office (currently there are three of us) are:

  • introduction and establishment of the Access Cab Scheme
  • general accessibility of Adelaide and South Australia to people with disabilities (arguably Adelaide is probably one of the world’s most accessible cities)
  • raising a more positive community profile of disability
  • development of policies which emphasise community living and positive outcomes for the individual with a disability or their carers.

Health surveyors – possible disability roles

In conclusion, I want to give some ideas on how your own professional work may assist people with disabilities. I would think your main contribution would be in the area of prevention. Immunisation, for example, in my view is one of the most important practical developments of modern medical science.

The task today seems to be to ensure that people take advantage of the protection immunisation offers. It is both a positive and a negative aspect of human rationalisation to believe that ‘nothing is going to happen to me’. For an example, in spite of living through the poliomyelitis epidemics of the late 1940s and early 1950s, it never occurred to me to seek immunisation in 1957.

Perhaps health surveyors can play more important roles in ensuring that immunisation procedures are promoted and delivered in more interesting, innovative and accessible ways.

I am not sure of the role health surveyors play in the authorising of building and street access. At the very least though surveyors can draw to the attention of their colleagues when inadequate or dangerous provisions occur, thereby becoming part of the lobbying process for change. People with disabilities should not have to enter restaurants through kitchens etc. or be denied useable toilet facilities or face hazardous road and street conditions.

Health surveyors I hope, will become yet another strong group agitating for positive change in attitudes and the provision of facilities and opportunity for people disabilities.