OUR town has a problem.
This week, I drove into Warrnambool to post a parcel. After traversing Koroit Street in search of a park, I resigned to parking behind the post office in the Ozone car park. Warrnambool residents’ distaste for off-street parking is a local running joke, but my aversion is for another reason entirely: I have a disability which severely limits my physical mobility. The short stroll from Ozone car park to Koroit Street may as well be the ascent to Mount Everest, as far as my body is concerned. My carer was out of town, meaning I had to face the CBD sans-wheelchair and hope that my legs wouldn’t collapse underneath me as I dragged myself from my car to the post office.
My situation is far from unusual. The Standard has previously reported several incidences of disabled permit holders being unable to access CBD facilities due to lack of parking spaces, including an elderly woman who had to walk from her car in Timor Street to Bendigo Bank. It took her an hour.
Though there are 1400 disabled park permit holders in Warrnambool, the city centre has only 64 disabled parking bays. That is a ratio of 22 disabled permits to every park.
It is a disgrace that the disabled find themselves excluded from the CBD, while able-bodied people circle the main street like vultures in an attempt to snag a park closest to the shop front.
Off-street parking provides no real alternative due to the distance from shop fronts and the lack of disabled bays: some car parks provide more pram parks than disabled spaces. And even if disabled people do somehow find a suitable park in the CBD, it is highly unlikely that they will have easy access to shops – 44 businesses in the CBD alone are wheelchair-inaccessible.
Warrnambool has an entitlement problem; whereby able-bodied people feel they deserve a park out the front of shops or in special bays at the expense of the disabled. This culture of entitlement rears its ugly head when able-bodied people are accused of appropriating disabled parking permits for their own purposes. There is no doubt this does happen.
However, I feel this issue is overinflated in disability discourse, and encourages a culture whereby those with invisible disabilities are accused of “putting on” their disability. Stories abound in the media of disabled permit holders having abuse hurled at them, or hateful notes left on their car windscreens, for the mere crime of not looking “disabled” enough.
The policing of disabled bodies by able-bodied people is one of the most perverse challenges disabled people face: it exits in the context of a society in which there are “good” and “bad” ways to be disabled, and having an invisible illness is a crime. I’ll never forget the man who questioned my disabled permit, as if I had cheated my way into an elite club to which he had been denied. (For what it’s worth, mate: you can have my disabled permit if you also take my disability.)
I do not hold hope that disability access and attitudes in Warrnambool will improve. The CBD redevelopment, to begin in a few months’ time, promises an emphasis on “making places where people want to gather and do the things they like to do” and to “provide access for all”. Dubious English aside, these statements are not upheld in the final plan. The City Centre Renewal proposes only four disabled car parks for the renewal, with a net loss of 16 parks.
Further, the widened footpaths are to be made of pavers which may prove problematic to those in wheelchairs and with other walking aids. Car parks will be divided from the street with bluestone pavers, which are already causing great difficulties where they have been installed on Viaduct Road and Kepler Street. For someone with chronic pain, or vertigo such as myself, going over those crossings in a car is agonising.
Our candidates for the 2016 council elections seem unconcerned by these issues. In forums with The Standard regarding the CBD upgrade, only one candidate mentioned disability access; on parking, one candidate brought up disabled parking bays, with the caveat that they be carefully monitored.
The limitations placed on those with a disability in our region do not stop at parking spaces. Imagine being told you couldn’t access public toilets because you were black, or a woman – yet this is exactly what happens in Tower Hill if you use a wheelchair. Current toilet facilities are not wheelchair accessible, and effectively prevent disabled people from visiting one of our finest tourist attractions.
There is also a lack of public transport access for those with a disability, highlighted recently when disability advocate Jax Jacki Brown was forced to sit in the luggage area for her three-and-a-half hour train ride from Melbourne. She had previously been assured the service was accessible.
Warrnambool has a problem when people with a disability are denied access to the CBD; and when development prioritises aesthetics over accessibility. How can we continue to promote our fair city as a tourist attraction and regional hub when it excludes a whole subgroup of the population by design? We need a greater commitment to disability access from our councillors, both current and candidates; and a plan for the CBD renewal which does not prevent a significant proportion of the population shopping in town. Until then, Warrnambool will only be a city for the able-bodied, not for all.
- Check out Siobhan’s blog at chronicallysiobhan.com