Report of the CIB Expert Seminar on
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
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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