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Breaking barriers through FM

Kurt Fearnley. Image courtesy of Paralympics Australia

By Kurt Fearnley, 2019 Patron, International Day of People with Disability

I have been very fortunate in my life. I grew up in a small country town that supported me wherever possible and made daily activities accessible, so my wheelchair was not a barrier to living life to the fullest.

When I was older, the good fortune continued through my sporting career, opening up more doors for me than for most; but many people with a disability are not so lucky.

That’s why I agreed to be this year’s patron for International Day of People with Disability (IDPwD). Each year on 3 December, events are held across the country to increase public awareness and understanding of people with disability, and to celebrate their contributions. IDPwD is more than just a day of celebration, it’s also about breaking down the barriers that the 4.3 million Australians with disability face. Those barriers can be physical or attitudinal.

As part of the industry managing the buildings and infrastructure we all use, you can play a key role in breaking down those physical barriers, and help to create a more accessible and inclusive society for all.

Living with disability can often feel like you’re living life on the outside – shut out of communities and excluded from activities. Unintentionally, society has built walls that make it so much more difficult for people with disability to participate, whether that’s in the workplace, at school, or in the broader community. Things are improving, but there’s still a long way to go.

So, as a facilities manager, what can you do in a practical sense?

Disability is diverse, and so, too, are the needs of people with disability. Improving access to the built environment is not just about the bricks and mortar. It’s about having access to the same things everyone else does. It’s about making sure your disabled toilets aren’t locked or used as a storeroom. It’s making sure your furniture is arranged so that people in wheelchairs can pass through. It’s ensuring your facilities are well lit, and that you have braille and tactile signage. Are your staff members educated on the rights of people with assistance animals? Do you have hearing loops available and is that publicised? There are plenty of ways to improve accessibility, and I urge you to seek professional advice to make sure everyone is given the same access and opportunity to participate in life.

We need to shift the way we think about disability. My wheelchair isn’t the thing holding me back – it’s that flight of stairs, or the turnstile in the supermarket; it’s that society doesn’t understand my needs and hasn’t adapted. That’s where IDPwD comes in. This day is about making sure we commit to creating change within the workplace, schools, and communities to make sure that people with disability get the opportunity to be full participants in society.

So, I encourage you to host an event for IDPwD and register it on the website – but don’t stop there. Make your IDPwD event the launch pad for real change – make a concrete commitment to improving accessibility to your property, or book an audit of your premises, and follow through with the recommendations.

It’s my hope that we won’t need to have a specific day for people with disability in the near future, but until we get to that point, we need to make the most of IDPwD. While it might just be one day in the calendar, that one day can have an effect on every other day throughout the year if we engage in the lives of people with disability.

So, brick by brick, let’s break down those walls, and build a more accessible and inclusive society for all.

This article was originally published in Facility Perspectives, Vol 13 No 3.