Disability access “getting worse, not better”

By David Schout

Disability access in the CBD has gone backwards and has failed to keep pace with the city’s growth, according to a six-time Paralympian and long-time resident.

Brian McNicholl, a Paralympic weightlifting gold medallist for Australia, said cluttered footpaths and inaccessible public transport had combined to put Melbourne well behind other big cities.

The CBD resident of 16 years said disjointed policy frameworks had made his life progressively more difficult within the Hoddle Grid.

“I find access now tends to be getting worse, not better,” he said.

“As a person getting around in a wheelchair – and I’m pretty mobile – I still sometimes struggle. I’d hate to think what a lot of other people are dealing with who have less mobility than me. Somewhere we’ve lost the plot.”

Mr McNicholl competed at six Paralympic games, winning five medals including gold at the 1992 Barcelona Games.

His world record lift of 227.5kg would eventually see him awarded a Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM).

Still involved in the sport at the highest level, Mr McNicholl travels the world as a technical official and it is here the contrast with disability access is most stark.

“When you go overseas you see so many things they do that we can only hope for here,” he said.

“Most places I go the transport access is fantastic, regardless of what mode of transport you take. You can go on anything. Countries that aren’t even the US or UK; Japan is unbelievable, and so is Korea. I don’t even have any issue getting around Phuket. A lot of other places are so much better off, and their policies must be so different to ours.”

Earlier this year Mr McNicholl went to visit a friend at the Royal Melbourne Hospital and was forced to wait for 14 trams until a low-floor option arrived that he could board.

On the way back, it was another 13 trams.

After finally boarding a crowded tram on the return journey, there was no communication of where the next stop with disability access was.

Mr McNicholl was forced to ask another commuter to ask the driver, and was eventually told he could disembark in Southbank, well past his preferred destination on the northern side of the CBD.

The round trip of around five kilometres took him over three hours.

“All of this compounds the issue I’m originally dealing with. And I think ‘who is actually fixing this? Who is doing anything about it?’ You just get disappointed.”

He said experiences like these were a huge deterrent.

“They want you to use public transport but you can’t get on every tram, and you can’t get on every bus.”

Mr McNicholl said he had not, however, experienced many difficulties with trains.

Alongside level-access public transport issues, he said the level of construction within the city has made negotiating footpaths a “nightmare.”

He had at times been prevented from accessing his road, without any notification from the construction company.

One particular issue he has lobbied against is the legality of motorbikes parking on footpaths directly next to disabled parking bays.

This has, at times, made exiting vehicles on the kerbside almost impossible. 

After Mr McNicholl lobbied for change, the City of Melbourne confirmed the installation of “no-standing” signs at these bays would be one of its first actions under the new Transport Strategy 2030 (see page 13).

His criticism of disability access in the city comes in light of a recently released University of Melbourne study that found that the council needed to improve level-access public transport, signage communication and footpath clutter to make the city more inclusive for people with a disability.

Lead investigator Dr Jerome Rachele said the study reinforced that planning had to involve people with disability.

“In order to understand how to make a city truly inclusive for people with disability you need to understand the diversity of disability and diversity of needs,” Dr Rachele said.

“The first thing people often think of when talking about an accessible city is ramps. Ramps are important, but it’s much more than that.”

Mr McNicholl agreed.

“I’d like to put some people in leadership positions in a wheelchair and see how they go getting around the city. I’d be more than happy to go with them. They can’t then tell me that access is good. Because if it is, they won’t have a problem.”

A spokesperson for the Department of Transport said the government had invested more than half a billion dollars in asset funding and worked with public transport operators to improve accessibility across the network.

“Whether it’s modern and accessible trams, trains and buses, upgrading tram stops or improving train stations – we’re making sure Victoria’s public transport is modern and inclusive," the spokesperson said. 

"We’ll continue working with operators, community groups and locals to make sure our network meets the needs of all Victorians.”

The City of Melbourne’s chair of People City portfolio Beverley Pinder said council would be considering a new disability action plan early next year. 

“The City of Melbourne Disability Advisory Committee was set up 20 years ago and was one of the first established in Victoria,” Cr Pinder said. 

“It provides ongoing civic opportunity and a voice for people with disability. This forum is convened by myself and brings together officers and people with disability to work together to find functional and innovative solutions to reduce and eliminate accessibility barriers in the city.”

“The Making the City of Melbourne more inclusive for people with disability report is informed by a deep engagement with a range people who experience disability."

“Key findings included the importance of consultation, and ensuring accessibility was considered in legislation, as well as addressing both physical and social barriers that people experience," Cr Pinder said. 

“The report will help to inform council’s new Disability Action Plan, which will be considered by council early next year and identify key areas for improvement. The Disability Advisory Committee and community have and will continue to be a part of this process.”

Mr McNicholl hoped that access would eventually become better through a collaborative approach through all levels of government. 

“We haven’t come very far since 1981, which was the International Year of Disabled Persons. It’s a real shame," he said. 

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