BY LANIE TINDALE
The Inner West Council is opposed to installing a disability ramp at Birchgrove Wharf because of its ‘visual impact’ in a ‘high-value residential housing’ area.
The Birchgrove Wharf has been refurbished by Transport of NSW, and re-opened on the 24th of April. However, access is limited by a rocky path and steep staircase leading to the wharf, which are owned by the Inner West Council.
Negotiations about the path have taken place between Transport for NSW and the Inner West Council since September 2015.
The path and stairs through Yurulbin park leading to Birchgrove Wharf violate the Disability Standards for Accessible Public Transport 2002, which requires ‘unhindered access’ and ‘continuous accessibility’ to public transport.
The Council opposes a disability ramp, claiming the Wharf is close to ‘high value residential housing’. They instead support the installation of an inclinator because it ‘has lesser visual impact than a lift structure of long ramped sections’.
In Transport for NSW’s original submission to the AHRC, they allege that the Inner West Council rejected a pathway upgrade ‘due to the perceived visual impact on Yurulbin Park and the local vicinity’. Yurulbin Park is located on the council heritage register.
The Inner West Council said they want ‘to preserve … the natural setting and finishes’ of Yurrulbin Park, and do not want to ‘compromis[e] … its essence’. The Council said they would consider ‘a path [if it is] designed sympathetic to the park’s heritage and aesthetic character [and] … also provides improved access to the ferry boarding level’.
Upgrading all wharfs across NSW is part of the Transport for NSW Access Program. All transport access paths must be fully accessible by December 2022. Transport for NSW has requested a years extension to negotiate with the Inner West Council.
The Inner West Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) may exempt Transport for NSW from being accused of discriminating against the disabled at the inaccessible Birchgrove Wharf.
The AHRC may exempt instances of disability discrimination for up to five years, when the applicant ‘commits to improve access’.
The Inner West Council is opposed to the application, claiming ‘an exemption is not needed to allow time to negotiate with Council’, and accusing Transport for NSW of ‘obfuscat[ing] program responsibility’.
The Council submitted that ‘[p]eople with disabilities who have difficulties with the existing access provisions will remain disadvantaged or excluded from using the ferry service until it is improved … the community identified the lack of accessible public transport in the inner west (including ferries) as a major barrier to people with a disability and others’.
Local resident Helle Poulsen also opposes the application. ‘[W]e are talking about a path through a park that is somewhat neglected and abused by recreational fishermen that already has a road of sorts in part of the park … … Why, in this day and age, do people have to fight for equal access to public facilities, why are the disabled continually overlooked. Don’t grant them a 5 year exemption, make them do it now’.
Ms. Poulsen’s neighbour, who requested anonymity, said her late mother ‘had macular deterioration and used a stick, [so] a clear path would have helped her walk the slope to my place through the park … the steep stairs were too much for her’.
The resident said some of her friends are unable to visit her. ‘[One has]a very bad knee and us[es] … a stick [and needs] a clear route to the road … [A]nother disabled friend … also needs a clear foot path. Two friends who are wheelchair users are unable to visit’. She said that if ‘a simple concrete path curving around the high rock face’ was built ‘seniors living in the area … will use the ferry as [it is] more convenient to go shopping with a shopping trolley … [and] the nearest bus location is a few blocks away’.
Transport for NSW held several information sessions with Birchgrove locals before upgrading the Wharf. 18 residents, mostly living on Louisa Road, identified during a May 2015 meeting ‘preservation of [Yurulbin park] heritage, the existing view, local ambiance and [the] need to maintain [the] … ferry service’ as their priorities.
The Council said that Transport for NSW won’t consider ‘new technologies or an effective application for existing ones’ to improve access to the Wharf. The Council requested that if the AHRC accept Transport for NSW’s application, it be conditional that a ‘comprehensive study of inclined lifts or similar mechanisms be conducted’.
Transport for NSW and the Physical Disability Council of NSW opposes an inclinator. PDCN said that “the use of an inclinator or chair lift at the site would not allow for fully independent access by people with disabilities … [and] would not be appropriate in this location due to the risk of vandalism of these devices’.
The Council says that the Birchgrove-Balmain Peninsula is ‘not regarded as a high risk area’ for vandalism.
Patronage at Birchgrove Wharf is relatively low, averaging ’65 customers per day’ in 2016-17. Local Anthony Poirrier said ‘not many people use [Birchgrove Wharf] … they use Balmain because there are a fewer services here’.
The Physical Disability Council of NSW, The Equal Opportunity Commission WA and the Accessible Public Transport Committee support Transport for NSW’s application for exemption.
General Manager of Advocacy and Engagement for Vision Australia, Karen Knight, opposes the application for exemption.
‘It is simply not credible that it will require five years’ for discussions and outcomes …The suspension of the right of a person with a disability to lodge a complaint … is a serious matter …’.
Dale Cleaver, CEO of Guide Dogs NSW/ACT said that neither the Council or Transport for NSW have ‘genuine intent to reconsider and address the ongoing inaccessibility of Birchgrove wharf’.
The Council believes that there are other ‘key priorities for the inner west [sic] area [and] … its residents’, such as train station upgrades.