Bendigo businesses were slowly becoming more accessible for people with disabilities, but the lack of incentive and the sheer cost of the necessary changes was problematic, a local advocate says.
Chairperson of the City of Greater Bendigo Disability Inclusion Reference Committee, Sara McQueenie, said local infrastructure was changing for the better, however changing perceptions was of equal importance.
“Business don’t see us as part of the economic majority – but we are,” she said.
“There’s no incentives for businesses to make themselves more accessible, and that’s statewide – it’s not just a local scenario.
“A lot of businesses are working towards making changes, but if we don’t have a voice then people aren’t aware of it.”
The group has been working to establish a business accessibility award for Be.Bendigo’s annual awards night.
Be.Bendigo CEO Leah Sertori said the organisation was open to creating the award because of its importance to the community, but each award required a sponsor.
As part of Bendigo’s smart city bid, funding is being sought to develop an application for smart devices that enabled the community to rate local businesses based on their accessibility.
The City of Greater Bendigo recently trialled an inclusive towns pilot in Eaglehawk, which supported 10 businesses in improving their communication and making low-cost changes to their physical environment.
Some ways businesses improved their accessibility included; providing written information such as menus in alternative formats like pictures, braille or in large print, installing portable or fixed ramp and clearly marked steps and creating clear paths of travel inside businesses.
The city’s community partnerships manager Steven Abbott said council was best able to support local businesses by partnering with other levels of government to implement projects that have funding attached.
“The city hopes to engage 70 businesses in the project, which now operates across Greater Bendigo, Loddon and Mount Alexander shires,” he said.
“Everyone with a disability is a potential customer, employee or business promoter, so improving the accessibility of businesses benefits everyone.”
For Ms McQueenie, a business owner herself, highlighting the plight of the more disadvantaged in our community was the primary goal.
“What we’re trying to do is show people how diverse our community is. People’s attitudes don’t often change until something is highlighted,” she said.
Flying flag for people with disabilities
From humble beginnings, the city’s first disability inclusion group is proving a significant force for change for throughout the community.
Speaking at the one-year anniversary of the Disability Inclusion Reference Committee, mayor Margaret O’Rourke admitted Bendigo had to “catch up” to other regions across a range of disability issues, but committed to the city becoming a leader in the space.
Almost 25,000 people living in the municipality have a disability, which accounts for 22 per cent of the population, Cr O’Rourke said.
And this figure was expected to rise in the coming years, she said, which highlighted the importance of the inclusion group.
“People with a disability do not have the same opportunity as we know as other citizens and are disadvantaged in a number of ways,” Cr O’Rourke said
“The committee really are the voices of people living with a disability and making sure they are heard in the city’s planning and decision making.
“It (committee) has helped council gain a greater understanding of the needs of people with a disability.”
Five priority areas – accessible parking and housing, community education about disability, safety for people with a disability and supporting carers – have been pursued by the group in its first 12 months.
The committee, formed in June 2016, comprises 12 community members, six representatives from the city, including one councillor, and the mayor.
It welcomed seven new community members to the group on Thursday and thanked 12 retiring members.
“The committee plays a very important role in providing advice to the city and we are very thankful for their efforts,” Cr O’Rourke said.
The new group will hold its first meeting in September to discuss priority areas for the next 12 months.
Transport problems linger
Since becoming reliant on a wheelchair, Sara McQueenie has never caught the bus.
Nor the train.
Instead she chooses to drive, or indeed take taxis, for fear of the unknown.
“The idea of going through the anxiety to find out the information to actually go on one of those forms of transport, it’s just too hard,” she said. Accessibility to public transport for locals with disabilities was a “huge issue” requiring future attention, she said.
Bendigo railway station currently has no ramp or bridge for wheelchair users to change platforms, but that is expected to change by 2019. The state government last year announced $15.8 million towards the Bendigo and Eaglehawk railway station upgrades, with both stations slated for improved disability access.
Bendigo station will have a new overpass, connected with lifts and stairs, while Eaglehawk platform will be extended and an additional car park built to make it accessible for people of all abilities.
Bendigo Taxis in April announced it will no longer operate its wheelchair fleet after 10pm between Sunday and Thursday, a move it claimed was in response to industry deregulation making the service financially unviable. “People with a disability have always been a huge user of taxis and put a lot of money back into the pockets of taxi companies and now they have finished at 10pm,” Ms McQueenie said. “It limits my choices.”
The blow was softened somewhat by the advent of Uber, she said, with the ride-sharing company recently announcing plans to offer its service in Bendigo by the end of October.
The company said the move was in response to strong demand from locals, citing internal statistics which show residents accessed the app about 15,000 times in the city this year in search of a ride, while more than 400 people expressed an interest in becoming a driver.
Uber’s Victorian manager Lucas Groeneveld said the data showed Bendigo residents had been “calling out for ride-sharing for some time”. “That (Uber) is great, but they’ve only recently brought in a disability-specific policy,” Ms McQueenie said.
An Uber driver refused to take a female wheelchair user in Melbourne recently, telling the woman he “didn’t have to take people like me”, she told Fairfax Media.
Uber policy states that drivers are expected to accommodate riders using walkers, canes, folding wheelchairs or other assistive devices to the "maximum extent possible".
The company also has a "zero tolerance" policy towards discrimination. Public Transport Victoria confirmed all of its local vehicles had disability access.