Universal Design in Housing: Australia’s obligations

A graphic of four housing types: small house, town house, apartment block and multi-unit dwelling.Signing up to a United Nations (UN) convention isn’t just a feel-good affair. It actually brings obligations. That means reporting on a regular basis to the relevant UN committee. In Australia, the Commonwealth Attorney General’s Department is responsible for government reports on the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. But it isn’t all up to the government: people with disability must be involved. Their reports are known as “Civil Society Shadow Reports”. This is where the story gets interesting when it comes to universal design in housing.

Margaret Ward’s paper, Universal design in housing: Reporting on  Australia’s obligations to the UNCRPD, traces the reporting history specifically relating to housing. She writes that the Commonwealth Government has avoided action by doing nothing. Further, it has not adequately reported on this failure to act. But the story does not end here. 

This peer reviewed paper was written for the UD2020 Conference that was to be held May 2020, which is now to be held May 2021. It is published on the Griffith University publications website where you can find other papers for the conference. 

Abridged abstract: The UNCRPD obliges Australia to embrace the concept of universal design as a guide for its activities. The UNCRPD triggered significant changes in the last decade directed by the 2010-2020 National Disability Strategy. This paper reviews Australia’s national and international reports on these obligations over the last decade. Both the Australian government and the housing industry largely disregarded the National Dialogue agreement, and misrepresented the progress made in achieving accessibility within the housing stock. The question remains whether a net benefit to society will be found to be of greater priority than the self-interests of the private housing sector and the political vagaries of government. Again, it will take the voice of people with lived experience and those who represent them to make the argument.

The Provision of Visitable Housing in Australia

A graphic showing facades of different styles of free standing homes in lots of colours. They look like toy houses.Margaret Ward and Jill Franz inspected eleven new dwellings in the Brisbane area. They found that none of the dwellings were visitable:

“In summary, when providing the eight features for visitability, the interviewees identified two themes for non-compliance (“lack of thought” and “otherness”) and three themes for compliance (“fashion”, “requirement’ and “good practice”). Although all dwellings provided some features, no dwelling provided a coherent path of travel necessary to make a dwelling visitable. Some examples of this incoherence were: a step-free driveway which led to a step at the door; a wide front door which led to a narrow corridor; and a narrow internal doorway which did not allow entry of a wheel-chair to a spacious bathroom. The provision of these access features separately and severally did not provide visitability as an outcome in any of the dwellings.”

The title of the article is, The Provision of Visitable Housing in Australia: Down to the Detail

Margaret Ward also delivered the Robert Jones Memorial Lecture in 2014 on this topic.

Building Code: Rights and Research

picture of a modern building Norway Opera House.Building regulation is a highly contested space, especially in relation to disability access. So the Norwegian Building Authority decided that standards and codes should be based on evidence rather than the views, compromises and experience of interest groups. The Norwegian Research Laboratory for Universal Design was set up to focus on access solutions using established research methods. But this brings about a dilemma.

People with disability have fought for many years to have equal access to the built environment. “Some of the criteria have been based on compromises and “old truths”. These criteria are now put under scrutiny. This examination and possible reversal of minimum requirements may feel like a slap in the face of those who have fought for these rights. But what is the possible downside?” 

Their research results are based on the 90th percentile. But what happens to those who are outside the 90%?  Who pays for the compensatory adaptations or assistance? This is where it becomes political. Nevertheless, research by the Laboratory suggests that “those who cannot manage the minimum levels cannot manage any level”.

The paper provides some interesting research results on doorway approaches and ramp gradients. A relatively short paper with some good food for thought.

The title of the paper is, Deregulation of the Building Code and the
Norwegian Approach to Regulation of Accessibility in the Built Environment

Abstract: Deregulation is on the political agenda in the European countries. The Norwegian building code related to universal design and accessibility is challenged. To meet this, the Norwegian Building Authority have chosen to examine established truths and are basing their revised code on scientific research and field tests. But will this knowledge-based deregulation comply within the framework of the anti-discrimination act and, and if not: who suffers and to what extent?  

This project is part of the quest for Norway Universally Designed by 2025 and the updated Action Plan