Annual Scientific Meeting for the Australian and New Zealand Spinal Cord Society

Speech to the Annual Scientific Meeting for the Australian and New Zealand Spinal Cord Society
November 16, 2016

Good afternoon everyone, it is my pleasure to welcome you along to your annual conference, and to be invited to say a few words.

Being a member of parliament is a privilege, and it’s my life, as it is the only paid work I have ever had since being elected at the age of 21.

Every day, I am contacted by people in crisis – often due in part to the disproportionate chunk of their lives people with disabilities spend battling bureaucracy just to gain fair access to the world.

My primary goal is to make myself redundant and this goal will be reached when having a disability in South Australia no longer constitutes a full-time job.

In every sense, I exist in my current position as a member of parliament to ensure that we get the paradigm shift within government which results in a [breath] deep understanding of what it does and does not mean to live with a disability, it’s about breaking down those attitudinal barriers.

Earlier this year, when the government’s massive planning bill came to parliament, I found myself wondering why, in this overhaul of our planning system, we were not automatically including universal design.  I wanted to see South Australia lift its game.

Too often the design of buildings tends to conform only to the minimum requirements of accessibility in the Building Code.  We end up ticking the boxes to meet the code, rather than aspiring to design excellence.  In fact, a lot of thought, planning and money goes into complying for the sole purpose of not getting sued!

It is frustrating that some people find Universal Design so hard to grasp as a concept, because there are already many examples all around us.

Think about a bus that can kneel down to the curb so that a person with a pram or a bike can enter without the need for a ramp.

A public water fountain with two taps – one at an average height and one lower.

A height adjustable desk that can be used by people of different heights.

Universal design is:  The design of products, environments, programmes and services to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialised design. 

Clearly, it does not only benefit the few, but it is truly universal.

For years now, arguments about the cost of implementing universal design have effectively kept it off the agenda.

Yet, research indicates that universal design is either cost neutral, or only adds a small amount – between point .5 and 2% to an entire project cost.

So, in the context of building a home, a community facility, or a hospital this is a tiny investment in achieving really important big changes that benefit our society.

So these arguments of cost just don’t pan out, but they seem to reflect what I think are the [emphasis] twin societal attitudes towards universal design,

Firstly: the perceived financial burden of creating accessibility, and;

Secondly: the idea that such design only benefits a few.

Neither argument holds weight!  It’s up to us to challenge those perceptions whenever we come across them.

This year, Dignity for Disability proposed amendments to the planning bill, calling for universal design to be included.  I admit our amendments really were an ambit claim, but pleasingly they were passed into law!

We proposed that Universal Design must be given equal weight with other considerations included in the bill, such as heritage and significant trees.

Dignity for Disability’s amendments mean that South Australian developers must consider universal design principles in their proposals.  This is an Australian first. It’s also sensible and long overdue!

So, we made an ambit claim – if you don’t ask – you don’t get – and got a big win.  And you can be sure Dignity will maintain pressure on the government to see universal design take off in this state, at last.

Some time ago, the South Australian government proudly announced that it would build 1,000 homes in 1,000 days.  Well, my enquiries found that this meant 900 inaccessible homes in 1,000 days – because only 100 of the government’s 1,000 homes are planned to be accessible.  What a lost opportunity!

We are calling for just four simple design features in new housing to make all of these new dwellings accessible.

  1. We need every new house to have a step free entry, with a continuous path of travel from the street.
  2. There needs to be a toilet on the ground floor.
  3. The bathroom walls need to be reinforced in order to simplify the retro-fitting of safety grab rails in the future, and
  4. All the doorways need to be a little wider than the old standard doors.

That’s it, four very simple measures.

And we know that accidents in the home can cause life-long injury, and that the cost of falls in the home impacts on the health budget.

Falls prevention in the home through better design is a really positive way we can all live better, safer lives.

And, [bit of a conspiratorial aside] really, any accessible home is a dream home, because everything is easier with wider doorways:

from unpacking the shopping, wheeling a bike inside, getting a pram or moving a wheelchair through, it all becomes simpler when living in a well-designed home, instead of a continual struggle.

And when it comes to moving furniture, or even moving house – it’s all going to be easier with these simple universal design measures.

I want to see a fairer, more inclusive South Australia, that is properly designed for all of us.

I warmly welcome those of you who are visiting Adelaide in particular to take the time to smell the roses (it is a bumper year for roses in Adelaide) and to enjoy our wonderful city.

And I hope you all have plenty of wonderful opportunities to learn and network, and that through your research the lives of people with SCI will be supported and enhanced.

I wish you a most fruitful conference over the coming days, with interesting and stimulating discussions and the wonderful synergy that comes from such events.