Australia takes tentative steps to take up the challenge of persons with disabilities

This report by Ian M. Eilenberg, Victorian University of Technology, RMIT, Australia describes legislative steps taken in Australia to improve building regulations in order to promote accessibility and a "non-handicapping" environment. Internet publication URL:

Report of the CIB Expert Seminar on
Building Non-Handicapping Environments, Budapest 1991


Australia takes tentative steps to take up the challenge of persons with disabilities.

Ian M. Eilenberg, Victorian University of Technology, RMIT, Australia


In Australia, it has been calculated that 15 per cent of the population is in some way disabled. This includes both physical and mental disabilities. Yet the majority of the non-disabled population either try to ignore these people, or consider them the problem of someone else. One of our best known, and highly awarded, residential architects designed his 'best' homes on the side of hills, usually with multiple levels and main access only from the bottom. Internal access was via steps. A common place for offices is over shops (law firms are especially noted for it), accessible only up long, narrow flights of stairs. This practice is slowly changing, as will be discussed later, but continues in the industrial/commercial area. Residential design has a very long way to go to improve access for disabled persons.

Most of the legislation is aimed at the public use of commercial or industrial buildings. The Building Code of Australia specifically excludes single residential units. There is growing pressure in the community, lead by those with disabilities (or organizations representing them), for equal consideration as any other person in any given circumstances. This has become evident in the equal-employment legislation now in force throughout Australia. The current changes in the building regulations, discussed below, reflect this approach. Curbs have been graded at most street intersections or pedestrian crossings and ramp access to the majority of public buildings and transport facilities are accepted as the norm rather than exceptions. One of the few areas still causing concern is access to some forms of public transport - buses and the renown Melbourne Streetcars.

Building Codes

The new 'Building Code of Australia' (BCA) which came into force on the 8th April 1991, incorporates the requirements of construction for all buildings throughout most of Australia (Western Australia has not yet accepted the new code), with overriding legislation permitted in each individual State. Part D of the new Code is related to the provisions of Access for 'People with Disabilities'. It applies to all commercial and industrial buildings, but does not include private residential buildings. Sub-part F2.4 relates to the Sanitary Facilities to be provided for people with disabilities in similar buildings.

Victorian Building Regulations
Prior to the BCA each state in Australian had its own set of building regulations. Typical were those in force in my home state of Victoria. Here the predecessor to the BCA was the document entitled the 'Victorian Building Regulations' (VBR), which was enacted in May 1984. The VBR incorporated two clauses - 46.9 which nominates the "Requirements For Disabled Persons" and section 53.3 which details the "Access Requirements for Disabled Persons". Section - Schedule 9 - detailed the physical requirements for meeting these requirements. One such requirement related to pathways and internal ramps, where the minimum width was 95 cm and the maximum gradient of a ramp was to be 1:12, unless specific requirements were incorporated such as level rest stops at a maximum of 9 meters.

These clauses applied to that class of building which included all boarding houses, special accommodation buildings, residential parts of schools, hospitals, etc. and to office buildings and retail related outlets with a floor area in excess of 500 sq.m. It applied to warehouses and factory buildings in excess of 3000 sq.m. floor area, and to all public institutional, health (hospitals) or assembly buildings (e.g. church halls) in excess of 1000 sq.m. floor area. Single and multiple housing was not included.

Uniform Building Regulations
The much older Victorian 'Uniform Building Regulations' (UBR) came into force in 1958, but did not include the chapter on 'Access and Facilities for the Disabled' (Chapter 38) until 1981. The information in 'Schedule 9' of the VBRs is almost identical to that in this older document.

Building Code of Australia
In the Preface to the BCA it states that:

"The BCA sets down the objectives, and, so far as it can, performance requirements and deemed-to-satisfy provisions which apply to the construction of buildings for all classes of occupancy in any part of Australia."

Within the BCA, both Parts "D3" and "F2.4", to which I referred earlier, nominate the 'quantum' but give no indication as to the 'how'. This has been left to other nominated documents. Clause 27(2) of the Victorian Building Control Act states:

"(2) Any code standard rule, specification or provision adopted pursuant to sub-section (1) shall be deemed to be a building regulation."

As the BCA was adopted by the Victorian Government, this clause is thus in effect. The main reference documents are Standard Australia's No: AS 1428.1 - 1988 - Design for Access and Mobility; 'General Requirements for Access - Buildings', (also published as a Supplement with basically the design detailed drawings only) and AS 1735.12 - 1986 SAA Lift Code - Part 12 - 'Facilities for Persons with Disabilities'. The General Requirements (AS1428) was revised in October, 1989 with the issue of a number of amendments.

These are complimented by the 'Notes on the Science of Building' (NSB), nos. 200 to 207, published by the then Experimental Building Station (now part of the Commonwealth Science and Industry Research Organization - CSIRO). These were issued between August 1981 and July 1982 as a direct affect of the 1981 United Nations, International Year of Disabled Persons.

Within the BCA, Table 3.2 sets out the Requirements for Access for people with Disabilities. Even here the New South Wales requirements differ - being much broader than the BCA. Victoria has adopted this section without change - a rare occurrence in itself. The original VBR in section 54 was much closer to the NSW current requirements.

Public access

In Australia, since the early 1980s, largely following the International Year of Disabled Persons and given new emphasis with the implementation of the BCA, it is a general requirement for all buildings open to the public to provide access for disabled persons. This is often observed only in name rather than deed - that is, access from back lanes for wheel chairs and the need to use goods elevators rather than the normal access. The aim is to make all buildings accessible to all people no matter what their physical condition.

Many architects now have to give more consideration to incorporating disabled access and making their buildings disabled-person friendly. These include ramp access, special parking areas near the main entrance or adjacent to elevators, elevator controls at a convenient level for a person using a wheelchair rather than stilts. This is partially as a result of the Australian Standard SAA 1735 covering facilities for disabled people in lifts.

External access to buildings is the principal area given consideration, but consideration to internal designs are also being improved. Wider doorways, adjustable levels for working desks and the provision of disabled toilets readily accessible, are all now being accepted as the norm. Yet even here it is not uncommon to find an accessible toilet down a narrow corridor where the user of a wheelchair either cannot get in, or once in, cannot manoeuvre to get out of the chair and/or has to back out of the toilet.

One good example of what can be achieved is the Victorian Arts Centre, where the main State Theatre accommodates some 2500 people on three levels. On the lowest level, which is some seven stories below the street level, provision has been made to permit the severely disabled to attend performances. A special elevator with wide double doorways and a flat area at the back (where the entry to the theatre is located) will accommodate even mobile bed patients and provide them with sight lines. As a general rule, under the health laws in Victoria, people are not permitted to stand or sit at the back of theaters. Thus, this is a case of positive discrimination.

Variations to regulations

Variations to the regulations are generally the responsibility of a government appointed Building Referees Board. The Board and procedures are covered by Part IV of the Victorian Building Control Act. In particular;

"Cl. 55. (1) The owner of any building or land, or his agent, the permanent head of any government department, any public authority or council, may apply for a determination by a Board that a particular building regulation shall not apply with respect to or in relation to the building or land in respect of which the application is made or that a building regulation should be modified or varied with respect to that building or land."

Each application will cost $AUD 150. On one job in Melbourne, a major hotel and office complex, over 200 applications for modifications have been submitted and granted - but not one to alter the disabled access provisions.

Failure to adopt standards

There is a general improvement in the provision of facilities for disabled persons in new buildings in Australia. This has been a result largely of legislative requirements rather than from the building owners or developers. Economic incentives have only had a minimal effect to date, with the monetary return on the building holding sway over the user convenience.

As late as November 1990 I read a long article in the local newspaper from the disabled community commenting on the problems of access into buildings. Architects have been criticized for not giving enough consideration to the needs of people with disabilities. In the current edition of Architext (the directory of publications for architects) there are very few related publications; one, 'Designing for the Disabled' by Goldsmith was published in the United Kingdom in 1976. Neither have I been able to find any 'practice notes' issued by the Royal Australian Institute of Architects covering this area.

One reason why it has taken so long for the standards to be adopted into the average building is partially the way in which the over-riding legislation was written. The VBRs did not include specific references until December 1981. The VBRs in clause 53.5 stated:

"This Regulation shall apply...(to) building constructed after 1 December 1981."

Further in clause 56.2 (2) it stated:

"The Council may require entire buildings to conform...the proposed alterations represent more than half the total volume of the original building..."

The significance of these clauses meant that old buildings which were renovated, but not altered by more than 50 per cent, did not have to make provisions for disabled persons. There was a time limit of 3 years, so that you could not do the alterations in stages to avoid the need to upgrade, in less than 3 year periods. This did not necessarily apply where a change of use is planned. In this case Cl.6.6 of the VBR took precedence:

"The use of a building shall not be changed from that of one to that of another class unless...the building complies with the requirements of the Regulations applicable to the new class."

This clause is now incorporated into the current regulations. From the early 1980s onwards Australia began to renovate its older buildings, where previously it had demolished and rebuilt, and this change of approach to older buildings coincided with the growth of awareness of the needs of disabled persons. Careful design meant that this work could be undertaken without the need to apply the disabled clauses (and others relating to fire and room size, general access, parking, etc.), thus saving expenditure and maximizing short term returns. Ten years later, these same buildings are being upgraded to include disabled facilities.

Change in public perception

In the past, Australia has paid a lot of attention to disabled children. Charity functions such as beauty queen contests were common and widely supported. However the emphasis tended to be on the budding 'queens' rather than the disabled children themselves. Credit must be given to these functions as very large amounts of money were raised by some very hard working people. The only consideration given to the blind was either the Blind Babies Annual Appeal or the use of blind piano tuners. The deaf were known by their school on Melbourne's major highways, rather than for the people themselves.

In the 1980s this has changed. The beauty contests still occur but the emphasis is money for disabled people and what it can do for them, rather than the contestants themselves. There is a growing understanding of the nature of disabilities and how to communicate with disabled persons.

One major reason for this change has been that disabled persons began to speak for themselves. Self help groups and organizations set up to assist them began to emerge. Organizations such as the Australian Council of Rehabilitation for Disabled (ACROD) have raised the awareness of disabled persons and the need to make provision for them in buildings.

It is written in the book of Proverbs 22:6, Train up a child in the way he should go; and when he is old, he will not depart from it. This is the basis for the gradual acceptance of the need to adopt the various standards and codes. There has also been a trend to integrate disabled children into 'normal' schools and to provide teaching assistants to help with the obvious problems this might create. By making the young aware, the community will hopefully gradually change its old attitudes and adopt the new.

Thus, the public are seeing disabled persons as simply another branch of everyday society, with specific needs, not as freaks to be locked away. Perhaps the increasing use of specially adapted computers and electronics have been a major breakthrough in communications with people, who in the past have not always been able to communicate their needs.

Old persons

It is interesting that the current legislation and guidelines are addressing the requirements of disabled persons, not the 'handicapped'. At the moment there is no specific legislation, that I have seen, laying down requirements for old persons as a group. This would appear to be an area which will require further consideration as the percentage of the population considered 'elderly' (generally those over 65) grows.


The Australian legislation is well advanced in its consideration of the 'non-handicapping' environment. It is not static but under regular review and updating. There is a definite imbalance in that most of the implementation of 'non-handicapping' requirements are as a result of Government requirements rather than voluntary implementation. However most of this legislation has come about through pressure from those groups directly associated with the problems and does reflect a growing public awareness of the need to provide a barrier-free environment for everyone.

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