Are disability inclusion plans really working?

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Inclusion is a work in progress

According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare one in six Australians have a disability with many of these individuals facing challenges every day with basic tasks such as self-care, mobility, communication, cognitive or emotional tasks, healthcare, reading or writing tasks, transport, household chores, property maintenance and meal preparation.

By Harry Mulholland

To help people with disabilities, many councils across Australia are working on ways to better make their public facilities more accessible and inclusive by introducing Disability Access and Inclusion Plans.

These plans offer a framework to adjust and improve infrastructure to accommodate people with any type of disability.

Central Coast Council introduced its second Disability Inclusion Plan last year, and it’s vision is to make the Central Coast easily accessible to everyone, easy to get around, easy to use and understand and inclusive of everyone.

They are doing this by introducing four focus areas based on the NSW Disability Inclusion Plan including increasing positive attitudes and behaviours towards people with a disability, making the Central Coast more accessible, inclusive, and liveable as well as increasing employment of people with disability at Central Coast Council and in the community and improving access to mainstream Council services.

Outlined in the Disability Inclusion Action Plan 2021-2025, Central Coast Council will be promoting positive attitudes in the community towards people with a disability while attempting to challenge assumptions.

They will also be educating Council staff and local businesses about people with disabilities and the importance of access and inclusion, as well as increasing community understanding invisible disabilities and reminding the community the importance of leaving accessible toilets and parking spaces for people with disabilities.

This vision will be guided by Central Coast Council’s ‘universal design’ principles to make places and activities more inclusive, providing easier access to beaches, waterways, and bushland, improving pathways, parking and accessible toilets, and making events, programs and activities more accessible.

The plan also outlines Central Coast Council’s goal of hiring more staff with disabilities by offering opportunities from entry level positions to leadership roles to people with disabilities, supporting individuals with disabilities to establish new businesses and making Council’s work environment more accommodating.

Central Coast Council will be making sure that all Council information is available in multiple formats including easy English, Auslan interpreted, captioned information and hard copies.

They will be supplying information about how places and activities are accessible and will provide people with disabilities the opportunity to have a genuine say in Council matters.

Central Coast Council Administrator, Rik Hart, said the Disability Inclusion Action Plan’s focus areas reflect what is most important to the Central Coast Community, and align with the NSW Disability Inclusion Plan.

“Council worked in close consultation with the community and the Access and Inclusion Reference Group to guide the development of this Plan.

“The Plan’s four focus areas are increasing positive community behaviours towards people with a disability, creating more accessible, inclusive and liveable region, increasing meaningful employment opportunities and improving access to Council services.

“Thank you to the community members and our Access and Inclusion Reference Group whose knowledge, expertise and lived experience of disability has helped inform this plan.

“Together, we’ve developed an action strategy that will increase liveability, quality of life and foster a sense of wellbeing for community members living with disability across the Coast,” Hart said.

The second Disability Inclusion Action Plan also focuses more on making the region’s beaches more accessible, with Central Coast Council introducing additional beach wheelchairs and beach matting during the summer patrol period, now at 13 beaches.

It all sounds very positive and life-affirming but do plans like that introduced by the Central Coast Council go far enough and do they really make a difference to those living with a disability?

Founder of the Disabled Surfers Association, Gary Blaschke OAM, said Central Coast Council’s 2021-2025 Disability Inclusion Action Plan is an exercise in box ticking for Council, and it misses the mark for true inclusivity.

“I was on the first consultive group for the 2017-2021 Disability Inclusion Action Plan for six months and resigned because it had community representatives who were only interested in the making the park next door to their house more accessible for their kid with a disability.

“It becomes a little annoying that we’re not looking at the bigger picture, and it’s taken for Council to understand what access and inclusion actually means.

“It’s a feel-good thing, and it’s a thing that you can tick a box and say we have a disability inclusion plan.

“Whether that plan works or not for locals or visitors is another thing.

“Just the other day I went on their (Central Coast Council’s) website and I tried to have a look at their 2017 to 2021 report and it said access was denied.. it’s very difficult to find things on the site.

“There were 14 links on the site that will take you to some bigger organisations, none of which are on the Central Coast, and there was no mention of the Disabled Surfers Association who have been working on the Central Coast for 25 years, there’s no mention of Camp Breakaway, who have been around for 40 years on the Central Coast, catering for all disabilities all over Australia and yet they can’t even mention the groups that are hands on.

“You look at their little video and it’s about how they’re putting beach matting down and they’ve supplied beach wheelchairs.

“I did an audit on their beach wheelchairs, and I had to go around and do the repairs for them at every single beach.

“I confiscated the wheelchair at Wamberal because it was such a dangerous beach for carers to take the disabled down in a beach wheelchair.

“It’s an absolute recipe for disaster if they don’t listen to the people who have been doing it for 37 years,” Blaschke said.

The Disabled Surfers Association is a national organisation that helps people with disabilities ranging from asthma to paraplegia enjoy the ocean in a safe and controlled manner.

Blaschke founded the association in 1986 after losing his kneecap in a motorcycle accident where he underwent extensive rehabilitation, and today the organisation has 19 branches around Australia and one in New Zealand.

Blaschke said he has gone around to the 15 parks listed as accessible by Central Coast Council to conduct his own audit on them and found that 90 percent are not accessible for people with disabilities.

“We started at Patonga, and we spent two days going and looking at all those parks and taking photographs and writing down what was missing.

“There was only one park that we gave the tick of approval, and it was only because it had a disability toilet.

“I wrote to Council about the lack of disability toilets in local parks, and they wrote back to me saying parents should just toss the kids back in the car if they need to go to the toilet because if it’s a local park then you musn’t live that far from it.

“It can take you half an hour to get the kids back in the car, half an hour to get out and then another half hour getting back to the park.

“I honestly think their so-called experts don’t understand disabilities.

“They say they’ve done site visits… who on the Council is qualified enough to do a site visit?

“We did one with the former mayor and three councillors at Berkeley Vale and we went around to the so-called disabled toilet and the Council officer in charge of it all said it didn’t look very inviting.

“I pushed her into the toilet and locked the door and she was screaming, so I let her out and she said there were spiders everywhere and broken tiles, and I said if you were in a wheelchair and you had spina bifida, you’d have to hop out of the chair and crawl across the floor to get up onto the toilet.

“I also said you’re freaking out as an able-bodied person, but you’re not taking it from the disabled person’s perspective,” Blaschke said.

Blaschke said many other parks in the region labelled as accessible by Central Coast Council were not disability friendly with disabled parking spaces in the wrong spots and angled incorrectly, tree roots in the middle of pathways, and clips to open doors being too high for a person in a wheelchair to reach.

“I’m not an expert at everything with disabilities, but I’ve been around every type of disability for at least 37 years.

“At the Disabled Surfers Association, we cater for every disability you can imagine including ventilated quadriplegics where we resuscitate them through their tracheotomies while we’re surfing with them, so there is no other organisation that has that much experience, so we raise issues of trip hazards not just for the disabled, but for the elderly on pathways.

“I’m trying to get the disabled toilets on the Central Coast, which is very few, locked up, and to give a MLAK key to anybody so they can get in at any time. Council said ‘no, we only lock them of a night time’, which I said if the general public was using those toilets they would be a mess by the time a disabled person gets there, and the only way you can stop them getting in is by using the MLAK key system,” Blaschke said.

In the last few years Blaschke has been a consultant for councils across Australia including Lake Macquarie Council and Warringah Council, offering them advice on how to develop disability friendly infrastructure, and he said Central Coast Council compares terribly to other councils that have similar plans.

“I run a disability surfing event at Collaroy Beach every year that has 200 participants and they have one toilet, so I brought this up and they listened to me.

“They built terrific pathways and I think they have four disabled toilets down near the beach.

“On their (Central Coast Council’s) website on inclusion they show a piece of matting going down, and it goes to nowhere… it just comes to an end.

“The matting is also only 1,800 millimetres wide so if you have another wheelchair coming down to use it, there’s no passing section.

“There’s no T-intersection at the end where they can get out of the road and let the next person come down, there’s also no shelter.

“We can fix these problems if they get their head out of the sand and start listening to people who know what they’re talking about.

“Like Lake Macquarie Council, they contacted me two years ago and asked me what they needed at a park in Caves Beach and I said you need a walkway going down at a one in 20 gradient to the beach, and to put some matting down.

“Then I said you need to bulldoze your amenities block completely, and they did, and they built a new one with the guidelines that we told them they needed to follow.

“I went up there to do an audit on the finished product and it was probably the second-best amenities block for disabled people in Australia.

“So believe me, there are some good ones, Port Kembla down at Wollongong has a fabulous one and it’s not because it’s any better, it just has a larger turning circle and an open area to allow for electric wheelchairs to turn around,” Blashke said.

While critical of Central Coast Council’s Disability Inclusion Action Plan, Blaschke said the Central Coast has an opportunity to fix the plan’s shortcomings and make the region a tourist destination for people with disabilities.

“You’ve got 32 per cent of the population that need to get some sort of special access, whether it’s a smooth pathway, the gradient being right or access to wheelchairs and walkers.

“Accessibility for tourism is possible, we could if we had the right attitude be the hotspot for disability tourism.

“The Department of Local Government down in Nowra did a report several years ago and they actually named how many billions of dollars it was worth.

“Here we are an hour out of Sydney and 45 minutes out of Newcastle and we’re not taking advantage of it.

“We need to make as many places more accessible as possible ,” Blaschke said.

Making it wheel easy

To help people with disabilities find places and activities that are accessible, there is an app called Wheel Easy which was founded by Central Coast residents Max and Justine Burt and it is a Trip Advisor style guide where users can leave feedback on accessibility in all kinds of venues, and take photos for other users to see if it matches their accessibility requirements.

Max and Justine said in an information video on Wheel Easy’s website that Wheel Easy is a one stop shop that brings access information on everything including cafes, parks, cinemas, beaches, playgrounds and more.

“Wheel easy is specifically aimed to help people with mobility needs… that’s so many different people.

“People who use wheelchairs, scooters, walking sticks, walking frames, and even parents with prams.

“And it isn’t just for these people, it’s also for everyone else that hangs out with them, their families, friends and colleagues, they all need easy to find access information too.

“Physical access here is better, but there is still a lack of easy to find access information.

“At the moment, its scattered all over the web hidden on the back pages of different websites or it isn’t even online so it isn’t easily available for the people who really need it.

“For example, it took us over three years to discover that a beach five minutes from our home had one of these beach wheelchairs, simply because we didn’t have the information and that’s a really common thing.

“Every day, or occasionally eight million Australians get stuck, give up and stay in, that’s one in three so that’s why we created this web app.

“It has access info on 20 different categories, its map based with green icons indicating places are accessible, orange ones partly accessible and the red ones are not at all.

“We rely on crowdsourcing this information so it’s all entered onto the map by the public and its designed so you can add information directly onto your mobile while you’re out and about or at home on your laptop.

“Our aim is creating a one stop shop, to gather all that really helpful info into one place,” Max and Justine said.


Max who uses a wheelchair and is permanently partially paralysed on his left side after a car accident in London in 1999, was inspired to create Wheel Easy to help people with disabilities live spontaneously like everyone else.

Wheel Easy currently only shows accessible locations and activities for some areas in Sydney and the Central Coast, but their model of using the public to contribute accessibility information on venues and activities in their areas means it could quickly spread around Australia.

State MP for Gosford, former Paralympian, and newly appointed Regional Champion for Australia as a Commonwealth Parliamentarian with Disability, Liesl Tesch, is also pushing for more action from the New South Wales Government to make public facilities more accessible after she went viral on Tik Tok in July, to demonstrate how the ongoing upgrades at Point Clare train station have made it nearly impossible for wheelchair users to access.

In the video which currently has 4.1 million views, Tesch is seen going down the stairs backwards in her wheelchair while explaining her disappointment with the temporary removal of the wheelchair ramp, leaving the stairs as the only option for access.

“This is now 11 stairs. Not really an easy access upgrade for the people of Point Clare, so let’s write into my office.

“We need to keep our communications with the Minister really loud, because this is not about access and inclusion, this is about keeping people with disabilities out of our community.

“Not okay,” Tesch said in the video.


The Australian Human Rights Commission has a helpful guide available on their website highlighting ways the community can better accommodate people with disabilities across a broad range of applications.

These include making information accessible by making important information available in multiple formats such as orally over the phone or in person for deaf and hearing impared people, in hard copy written material with a large font option, emails, online chat services, and audio recordings.

The guide also encourages businesses to consider installing an audio loop to assist people with hearing aids, or providing an Auslan interpreter or Braille option.

Businesses are also being encouraged to not rely only on a drivers licence when asking for a form of ID and to accept multiple forms of identification, and to allow for accessible payments such as signing instead of entering a PIN.

For making buildings more accessible, the guide encourages individuals to maintain adequate light levels throughout a premises, provide adequate signage and designated parking spaces.

In Western Australia, the Disability Services Commission has outlined ways the community can help increase accessibility for people with disabilities.

The first is encouraging people who experience accessibility issues to speak up, encouraging others facing similar issues to follow suit.

The Disability Services Commission also encourages the community to send feedback about accessibility issues to their local and state government, and to regularly check in with the government to see if they are doing anything about the issue.

There are also nationally recognised Disability Discrimination Laws and Building Codes in place to ensure that people with disabilities are not discriminated against, have the opportunity to lodge a complaint if they encounter discrimination and ensure that public buildings are accessible for people with a disability.

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