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Time to regulate housing accessibility

Disability Disability Rights

With the scale, complexity and massive costs of recent reforms in disability services and aged care, we need constant monitoring and patience as the changes are put into place.

According to what I hear and see this is all happening pretty well, in general.

There is however a big shortcoming, a gap that could undermine the potential success of both the NDIS and the Aged Care programs.

Both of these ambitious schemes have attracted a lot of community support, for many good reasons. An important reason for me as the Commissioner for aged discrimination and disability discrimination, is the objective that most people will be able to stay in their own homes all their lives.

The provision of aged care services to the home, available now to all who qualify t, is a big winner with the community.

It allows much higher levels of personal choice, dignity, and  maintenance of family and social connections than residential alternatives.

But there is the big gap. As individuals age and develop mobility and similar problems, for them to continue living at home, those homes must be safe and functional.

Most homes, either houses or apartments, do not meet this requirement. How many times have I seen or heard of brand new apartments, targeted at the seniors market, which are difficult and sometimes dangerous to access or live in.

I am referring to obstacles such as steep steps into or within the home; slippery bathroom and kitchen floors, doorways too narrow for a wheelchair or even a walker, cupboards out of reach, taps impossible for arthritic hands.

A person in their 80s with arthritis, or hip or knee weaknesses, but otherwise healthy and active could find that they simply cannot continue to function in their home because of such obstacles. How distressing and wasteful to have to leave one’s home and neighbourhood  and move into aged care, a move that can be  costly and disruptive, and  damaging to their social networks.

The remedies are straightforward. Accessible entries, ramps instead of stairs, grab rails, safe flooring, wider doorways and practical placing of cupboards and other functionally designed features.

These basics of home accessibility have been endorsed by state and federal governments, and by the building industry.

But builders are required only to follow a voluntary code. It is not happening.

The voluntary approach is failing our older citizens.

The additional cost of constructing new dwellings using the well-established principles of universal design is not great, but builders will not incur it without regulation or other incentive.

Retrofitting a home to add accessibility features is of course usually possible, but much more costly that building for accessibly in the first place.

It is time to replace the voluntary code with regulation. This could be done now, as State and federal governments, COAG, review the 2010-2020 national disability strategy.

Australia taxpayers are spending many billions to support ageing people and individuals with disability to live fuller and better lives at all stages.

Australia’s fastest growing age cohort is the over 65s, and this will continue for the foreseeable future.

As well as well funded services to support our longer lives, we need to be supported by our living environments.

I hope that the COAG, state and federal government, review of the 2010-2020 national disability strategy will decide that regulating accessibility will become part of enforceable national building standards.

This step will help ensure that we can live securely and happily in our own homes all our lives.

Published in Sydney Morning Herald