Building accessibility lags despite rebuild opportunity

22:00, Jul 19 2014
Ruth Jones and Mojo Mathers
OPEN DOORS: Green MP Mojo Mathers and Ruth Jones, Earthquake Disability Leadership Group spokesperson, launching their Accessible Christchurch Petition at the Dux Dine entrance last year.

One in four. That number might sound high but one in four New Zealanders have disabilities and with an ageing population, that number will only increase.

The numbers come out of the 2013 census and were released by Statistics NZ last month. They show that 24 per cent of New Zealanders identify as disabled.

That adds up to a national total of 1.1 million. Even some who work in the disability sector were surprised at the rate.

At 25 per cent, Canterbury is slightly above the national average and we also have higher than average rates of psychological or psychiatric impairment, at 7 per cent.

An inevitable question follows. How should we prepare for that increasingly disabled future?

Over the past two years, this question has been discussed more intensely in Christchurch than elsewhere. As B J Clark of CCS Disability Action's Access Advisory Service puts it, "We have a great opportunity right now to build the most accessible city in the world."


But the frustration for some is that an opportunity has not become a reality. In 2012, the Humans Right Commission launched a report with deaf Christchurch Green MP Mojo Mathers that called for "better design and buildings for everyone".

Two years later, Mathers says by email that "it is highly disappointing" that the Government has still not picked up on the commission's recommendations. Other calls for action have followed. Six thousand people signed a petition urging the Government to make the Christchurch rebuild accessible for all. The Christchurch- based Earthquake Disability Leadership Group took the petition to Wellington.

Mathers says that the petition is still with the Local Government and Environment Select Committee which is due to report back in September.

"Access affects not just the nearly one in four New Zealanders with disabilities, it also affects those around them," Mathers says. "If one member of the family has difficulty accessing a building, it affects the whole family and limits where they can go as a group. To ensure buildings are accessible, it is essential that there is a solid legislative foundation to make this happen."

But the legislative wheels grind slowly. Sometimes they even seem to go backwards. One national side-effect of the Christchurch quakes has been a need to strengthen buildings against earthquakes. But legislation proposed by the Government would exempt owners from having to upgrade to even current disability access standards when strengthening.

"For us, that is a step back 30, 40, 50 years," Clark says.

But the positive is that accessibility has been built into some parts of the Christchurch rebuild. The Christchurch Central Development Unit (CCDU) has commissioned the Barrier Free Trust to work with it on the anchor projects. The trust was formed more than 20 years ago to encourage accessible buildings.

"This is the first time we have worked on such a large scale," says chief executive Lorraine Guthrie. "We think it's great that the CCDU has made that sort of commitment."

For Guthrie, it's simple: "We work from the human rights perspective that it's a right of disabled people to be able to get in, move around and so forth as much as anybody else."

It can get complicated. As Guthrie explains, there is still a gap between the building code and best practice, known as standard NZS4121, and at times you can choose.

"I'll give you an example. The building code says you have to have an accessible route into a building. Standard NZ4121 basically says it should be through the front door but an accessible route could be right at the back of the building, through a long dark corridor that's usually filled with all the left-over chairs through a doorway that's often locked. That complies with the building code and that sort of thing is still happening to this day."

While the Christchurch City Council and the CCDU have the right visions, Clark is also seeing people getting it wrong in the rebuild. Accessibility is about the entire route someone takes from home. The roads, the footpaths, public transport, ramps, the building itself. But even the basics are still overlooked.

"We've been building toilets for I don't know how long and still we can't get it right on a number of occasions."


What if there was another way? Perhaps an economic motivation for doing the right thing. A carrot rather than a stick.

This is where the Be Institute is coming from. The disability advocacy group formed in Auckland in 2011 as a collaboration between the Auckland Council, the Auckland District Health Board and the Auckland University of Technology.

Chief executive Minnie Baragwanath explains that the timing was crucial. In the year of the Rugby World Cup, the Be Institute wanted to start a conversation about accessible tourism, shifting disability rights "from a charitable focus to economic development".

Or as BJ Clark puts it, "People with disabilities have a wallet in their backpocket. They want to spend money."

After starting in Auckland, the Be Institute won funding to go nationally, as the Government was impressed by "the opportunity that accessibility could bring". By "opportunity" they meant "dollars".

Naturally that meant looking south. Baragwanath had noticed that conversations about Christchurch were happening both locally and internationally. Could it become the world's most accessible city?

Baragwanath brought the Be Institute roadshow to Christchurch in May and presented it to local business leaders at the Canterbury Chamber of Commerce. Since then, she has been made a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit in the Queen's Birthday Honours for services to people with disabilities.

"Wheelchair access is 101," Baragwanath says. "It shouldn't even be questioned in the 21st century. It is such a basic.

"For any business or organisation that thinks this is only about those three people they've ever seen in their life in wheelchairs, 90 per cent of people with an impairment, you won't even know it from looking at them."

Baragwanath is legally blind and for her and other partially-sighted people, questions might include what your signage looks like, the readability and clarity of a website, the size of the font on a menu. Solutions are not always obvious.

"The funny thing is that bright lighting doesn't work for me at all. So it's not even as simple as that."

It is not just what a business does but its appearance in the world via marketing material. There is customer service, the placement of reception, the height of counters.

"If you stay in a great hotel but the staff are rude, you won't go back," Baragwanath says. "If you stay in a mediocre hotel but the staff are gorgeous, you probably will."

Businesses are rated by the Be Institute, from "just starting" all the way up to platinum. This is not a council inspection or compliance check. Twenty local "coaches" nationwide help businesses do the right thing.

The Chamber of Commerce's chief executive, Peter Townsend, appears in a promotional video, singing the praises of accessible business and tourism. His perspective is to see the city through the eyes of everyone who might use it.

Christchurch International Airport has a gold accessibility rating, one step below platinum. In the video, chief operating officer Andy Lester says he wants other local businesses to take the same steps.

The Air Force Museum was audited in 2011, and got a silver rating. Improvements followed. The entry fee was considered a barrier, so it was dropped. The font size on signage was increased.

The Dux Dine restaurant is another accessible business, including through its support of Kilmarnock Enterprises, which provides workshops for people with disabilities. KiwiRail's newly accessible Trans-Alpine service also features, as does Sudima Hotel, whose hotel manager Ifti Hussain is partially deaf.

Hussain talks of the value of hiring people who know the experiences that guests might bring with them.

In Christchurch, a business moving to a new site is involving the Be Institute from the design stage, as is a new school. As for retrofitting during the repair of older buildings, the Be Institute calls on Construction Cost Consultants general manager Gary Caulfield to explain that now is the best time.

Like others in the sector, Caulfield and Baragwanath are amazed that owners might be able to wriggle out of adding accessibility to older buildings.

"This is pure madness," Baragwanath says. "How can you be talking about excluding potentially 25 per cent of the population for what might be a short- term cost? It may not even be a cost."

Think of it as an investment instead. Think of the hordes of baby boomer tourists pouring off cruise ships and streaming through the airport.

The Be Institute has statistics. It is predicted that the access tourism market will represent 25 per cent of the total global tourism spend by 2050. Surveys say that more disabled people would travel if they could be sure of accessible facilities.

Australian numbers have 4.2 million people with a disability spending more than A$4.8 billion on tourism and hospitality annually. Research from 2005 worked out that New Zealand has a domestic disabled travel market of 80,000. That was based on an earlier assumption that 20 per cent of a population of 4 million was disabled.

Along with the persuasive numbers, there are also the catchy marketing phrases. The Be Institute talks of the "access economy" and the "yellow dollar".

Why yellow? The gay spend is the pink dollar. The older shopper has been dubbed the silver dollar. The green dollar is obvious.

"First of all, it wasn't taken," Baragwanath says. "It wasn't pink or green or silver. Secondly, it's the colour of our brand. And it's a very positive colour. It's easy for people to get their heads around".

The Press