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.

UD in Housing: Good for Everyone

Part of the front cover of the Livable Housing Design GuidelinesWhy are we still building homes as if we never going to grow old? This question and others are the subject of a Building Connection magazine article about the purpose of Livable Housing Australia and their design guidelines. These guidelines, devised by industry and other stakeholders, clearly state that universal design features are easily included in regular housing and don’t need to be considered “special” just because they suit people who are older or have a disability. That’s because the features are convenient and easy to use for everyone. But why hasn’t the idea caught on in mainstream housing?  More than half Australian households would benefit from these features. That’s because If you add together the number of older people, people with disability and those with a chronic health conditions, it comes to more than 60%. The title of the magazine article on page 42 is, We ain’t getting any younger.  

See also the Australian Building Codes Board’s Options Paper on accessible housing and the subsequent report in preparation for a Regulation Impact Statement. CUDA’s submission gets a few mentions in the report.

Editor’s note: The article was written by yours truly, Jane Bringolf