The bricks and mortar of an inclusive society

Twenty four years ago, the United Nations proclaimed December 3 to be the International Day of Disabled Persons.

I remember it well because I had been working in a community-based, not-for-profit adult disability centre, managing a program to help people live independently for the first time. The international recognition and focus on the issues facing people with a disability was a key step forward. 

I have remained in close contact with the sector and I have seen much change - most of it for the better.  I barracked alongside other disability advocates for a model that rightly puts people with a disability at the centre of decisions affecting them. I shared the jubilation the day this model became a reality and the National Disability Insurance Scheme passed the Parliament under the former Labor Government. I watched with great satisfaction as this transformative program was launched in Newcastle and rolled out across the country.  

There is still much more work to be done. This year, the International Day of People with Disability is marked by the adoption of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which calls on the global community to leave no one behind.

Experts estimate one billion people live with disability worldwide. In Australia, one in five people are living with disability. And every single one of these people faces barriers to inclusion.

Irritation or an annoyance?: It is excluding many thousands of Australians from being active members of their communities.

Irritation or an annoyance?: It is excluding many thousands of Australians from being active members of their communities.

People living with a disability are still grossly over-represented in unemployment statistics and 45 per cent live on the poverty line or below. Almost one in 12 experience unfair treatment or discrimination on the basis of their disability. And people living with a disability are still nine times less likely to participate in activities outside the home. There are many reasons for this, but the physical challenges presented by our cities, buildings and public spaces play a big part. It is excluding many thousands of Australians from being active members of their communities.

This was brought home to me quite starkly soon after I became the Federal Member for Newcastle, when a young man in a wheelchair tried to visit me. It quickly became clear my office was completely ill-equipped for the situation as he was unable to get in the front door, let alone navigate the narrow doors and spaces between desks once inside. He found the whole experience humiliating and unacceptable. And rightly so. It stood in stark contrast with my perception of my office as a public space which all members of the community are fully entitled to access.

I resolved to rectify the situation. I put it to the Commonwealth that my office should align with Australia’s commitment to accessible public spaces. Since then, I have worked with the Department to design an office layout that could also serve as a model to retrofit other federal members’ offices. The designs went to tender last week. The work will start soon after, and I look forward to being able to welcome all members of our community to my office early next year. 

By the end of the century, experts estimate four million Australians will be living with severe or profound disability. If we are to build a truly inclusive society we can’t forget the bricks and mortar surrounding us. People with a disability have every right to participate fully in social, economic, cultural, social, civil and political life. 

The onus is on each of us to ensure this happens.

Sharon Claydon is the Federal Member for Newcastle.