“We all aspire to have our own homes, we all aspire to be independent, and we all aspire to live in a safe environment.” (David Blower, Endeavour Foundation)
Today is the International Day of People with Disabilities, one of the most important days of the year for the disability community. It has been quite pleasing to see the ABC’s support for the disability community, giving a voice to many people with disabilities to share their stories in the lead up to this day. This year the theme is: “Fighting for Rights in the post-COVID era.” COVID has been a challenge for all of us, but especially for people with disabilities. For a community that often experiences exclusion and isolation, lock downs and restrictions have dramatically impacted access to medical and support services, increased social isolation and highlighted the way people with disabilities are just simply forgotten about when it comes to planning and implementing procedures and public announcements. As our states and nations wobble towards opening up and learning to “live with COVID” it is imperative that people with disabilities are not left behind.
I can understand that many people are longing to get back to normal but I suspect that our life before COVID is not something we will ever get back to. For better or worse, COVID has changed our world and we will have to get used to a new normal that includes vaccinations and boosters, testing and vaccine passports, and the continuation of restrictions and lock downs. The vast majority of people seem to be quite accepting of this new reality because it’s what we have to do to keep our communities safe. But there are some who seem to think living with covid means a free-for-all. For many people with disabilities this is a terrifying thought because it could mean long-term isolation. It could even mean death. We all want to move forward, but we should all aspire to moving forward together.
Today we are all being encouraged to stop and think about the way people with disabilities have been especially impacted by the COVID pandemic. When the first round of lock downs and restrictions rolled out across Australia last year, we very quickly learned how much we appreciated and valued Dan’s support providers. For three long months Dan was at home 24/7. There was no daily support. There was no going out into the community. There was no respite. It was really challenging trying to keep Dan gainfully occupied while trying to study and do everything else. I’m not sure whether Dan really understood what was going on. We tried to explain to him that we were staying home so we didn’t get sick. There was a lot of staying home. I am sure Dan was bored out of his brain. He loves to be with his friends and getting out and doing things.
For some people though, the pandemic opened up new opportunities. Working from home enabled some people to enter the workforce for the first time or after a long period of exclusion. Zoom and Telehealth enabled some people to connect with others, access support services and attend conferences and events in ways that were never possible before. For the first time, many people without disabilities experienced what it was like to be socially isolated and stuck at home for hours on end. Perhaps for the first time they experienced the life that is normal for many people with disabilities.
Ironically, our three months of no disability support led us to pursue accommodation opportunities for Dan. Just three months was enough for us to realise that we could no longer provide round the clock support for Dan on our own. So in July 2020 we began the lengthy process to secure accommodation funding from the NDIS and transition Dan from living at home to living full-time in supported accommodation. It was an extremely challenging and stressful process. The NDIS does not make it easy, at all. But finally, after a number of months of part-time transition, Dan began living full-time in his new disability unit, with his friend Geoff, in September. Dan loves it and so do we, because at heart, what we most want for Dan is for him to live a full and satisfying independent life.
Appropriate and accessible accommodation is a big issue for people with disabilities. The kind of disability housing that Dan has, is only available to a very small percentage of people with disabilities. The vast majority are living in housing which does not meet their needs because there is simply nowhere else to go. The housing market is already at a crisis point in Australia. Escalating prices have locked many Australians out of the Australian Dream – a home of their own. Increasing rents have pushed many onto the streets or into couch surfing. There is not enough affordable and suitable housing for people without disabilities, let alone those living with a disability.
Last year you may have heard about the Building Better Homes campaign. It was a call to make changes to the National Construction Code (NCC) to encourage the construction of more housing that is appropriate and accessible for people with disabilities. Adapting homes to make them disability friendly is very expensive. It is actually cheaper to incorporate things like wider doors and wheelchair accessible bench tops and entrances at the construction stage. It is estimated that this would only increase the cost of construction by as little as 1%.
Thankfully, the call was heeded, and as from next year the NCC now includes the structural features that will at least offer a basic level of accessibility. This will of course only apply to new buildings, however I was surprised to discover that while the NCC is a “National” code, individual states still have the option to override or delete elements from the code as they see fit. Earlier this week it was reported in The Guardian that three of our states, NSW, WA and SA, have decided to “opt out” of the new standards for accessibility claiming it would negatively impact housing affordability and the construction industry. Alistair Webster, from the Building Better Homes campaign, described it as “shameful.” Accessible homes do not just benefit people with disabilities, but anyone with an injury or illness, as well as all of our senior Australians. All the other Australian states have agreed to the new standards, so I sincerely hope that NSW, WA and SA will reconsider their position and choose to support people with disabilities and legislate to ensure they will have greater access to housing that meets their needs.
The International Day of People with Disabilities highlights the barriers and challenges that people with disabilities face everyday. As we start working towards “living with COVID” and even one day a post-COVID era, we have an opportunity to make significant structural change to the way that our society supports and includes all people, but especially people with disabilities. When we address and remove the barriers that prevent access to employment, housing and community engagement for people with disabilities, we are also creating a world that is fairer, more equitable and better for all of us.