Is ableism coming to a facility near you?

The outsourcing of public spaces and services is concerning

All across Australia, public infrastructures are being privatised, largely without public consultation.

It comes as no surprise that the ongoing privatisation and deregulation of community services and assets is harming society, particularly the most vulnerable. One need look no further than water mismanagement in the Darling River, electricity prices rising 183% in ten years, and shonky bank practices being investigated by the Royal Commission into Misconduct in the Banking, Superannuation and Financial Services Industry. But it’s not only banks and utilities infrastructures that are being harmed by privatisation. Many other public facilities on the local level are being sold off to private companies.

The State Government has plans to privatise bus services in the inner west, but previous instances of transport privatisation have led to stop closures and cancelled routes. Even council managed parks, pools, and recreation facilities are becoming increasingly privatised. Public sector cuts are leading to councils selling publicly owned land and facilities in order to make a profit. This has recently included sites like the Australian Technology Park in Redfern. Hospital, healthcare, and disability sector resources have been increasingly privatised in recent decades. Many of the industries undergoing privatisation are already poorly regulated, which means that increasing commercial control of our community assets presents real risks to the public.

The danger here is that outsourcing the management of public facilities in a bid to maximize profits leads to inadequate provision of services. When companies cut corners on safety to get a better return for their investors, disabled people are at the pointy end of this profit- driven equation. Without sufficient regulatory controls, independent oversight or practical compliance measures to protect the rights of people with disabilities, disabled people are often the first to suffer from inadequate provision of public services.

Disabled people are the canary in the coal mine. According to the Australian Human Rights Commission, around 6.8 million Australians (40 per cent) aged 18 years and over report having a disability or long-term health condition. Considering that a huge proportion of the population will experience disability at some point in their lives, it becomes imperative that practical safeguards are in place to protect human rights.

Studies have shown that measures introduced to accommodate the needs of disabled people in public facilities often have flow on benefits for able-bodied customers: this is known as the “curb cut effect”. When curb cuts are installed to allow wheelchair users and those using mobility aids to access the pavement, this also benefits people riding bikes, parents with prams, people with wheeled luggage, and other groups. When spaces are created to be accessible to as many people as possible, it benefits everyone – not just disabled people.

Inadequate provision of services arising from privatisation often creates problems of unresolved discrimination and social inclusion issues, particularly for people living with disabilities. Pursuing instances of disability discrimination is difficult. Often the victim is forced to fund their own court case to obtain justice, and evidence suggests that discrimination cases involving disability are the least likely to succeed. This is unsurprising given that the Disability Discrimination Act is perhaps the weakest of Australia’s anti-discrimination laws. Unlike other anti-discrimination legislation, the DDA has a clause for “unjustifiable hardship”: meaning that if someone providing a public service can argue that making that service accessible to disabled people is “unjustifiably hard”, discrimination is considered permissible.

Attempts to mediate disability discrimination through the commission are being hampered by companies not understanding their responsibilities under human rights law nor seeking legal advice as to what the law requires regarding discrimination towards people with disabilities. Additionally, once council facilities become managed by private companies then jurisdiction regarding protection of clients’ rights becomes confusing as no regulatory body will take responsibility for compliance of mixed private/public facilities. Yet there seems to be no adverse legal consequences for companies who fail to take steps to understand the law. This augurs badly for disabled people’s rights to safely access public facilities managed by private companies.

As community assets increasingly become monetised for private profit, the management agreements in place between councils and private companies are often cloaked in secrecy, protected by commercial in-confidence provisions. At a recent Walkley Awards forum, investigative journalists warned of declining rights to access Freedom of Information from government bodies and failing standards of compliance in states such as Victoria (with the jury still out for NSW).

Public spaces should be for everyone, including disabled people. Until there are clear and effective processes for maintaining the accessibility of public facilities and safeguarding the rights of disabled clients, the management of public facilities should never be outsourced.

This article appeared in the autonomous Disabilities edition, Disabled Honi 2018.