Written by Ryan Smith, The Access Agency
A few years ago, I was filming the mobility access at 10 Victorian parks. I was intrigued by one particular trail we had planned to visit: the Margaret Lester Forest Walk in the Dandenong Ranges. It was curiously just 300m long – hardly worth the drive unless you were having a very long picnic!
Opened in 1981 – the Year of Persons with a Disability – it’s thought to be the first purpose-built accessible walk in the country. Margaret Lester was, by all accounts, a force to be reckoned with: she graduated from Melbourne Uni with a degree in Architecture, raised two kids, competed in national sports competitions and played an important part in developing the Australian Standards on Access – the part of the building code that deals with “disability access.” These standards are fundamental to the creation of an inclusive society that provisions thoughtful access in the built environment. In a 2017 Access Insight Magazine article giving a brief history of access in Australia, Margaret was lauded as “a great asset to the cause of access and was both a ‘spotter’ and capable of giving appropriate advice.”
I can’t begin to imagine what “access” meant in 1960, the year Margaret acquired her spinal cord injury. I have a mental picture of thin dirt tracks and wooden turnstiles – a world away from ubiquitous curb ramps, let alone Changing Places toilet facilities or the motorised assistive technology we clip onto wheelchairs so we can power up hills and across trails in parks. The mere notion of “disability rights” was still years away. Fortunately for us, Margaret and a band of access advocates (aka agitators or protesters) were foundational in setting the stage for the access we have in Australian parks today. While there’s a long way to go and progress is being made in fits and starts, it feels like we’re getting somewhere.
In a remarkably progressive pilot, a few weeks ago the South Australian government announced a nation-first trial to supply assistive technology in the form of off-road motorised wheelchairs in some parks. All-terrain wheelchairs and electric trikes will be available at popular regional locations with the aim of making parks more inclusive and drawing more visitors.
For most of us, though, when we think about access at national parks, our hopes are a bit more modest: somewhere to park the car, a step-free boardwalk and being able to use the toilet are often the most we hope for. There’s an implicit understanding – call it resignation – that the great outdoors can be an impossible conquest.
Most parks authorities are planning to provide better access – there are swathes of local government action plans and state disability strategies that say so. The trick is turning those ambitions into real outcomes. To me this should involve setting quantifiable goals with targets and deliverables: ambitions and visions are great, but ramps and toilets are better.
The NSW government recently announced the Increasing Access to National Parks Policy, committing almost $150 million to improve accessibility; Victoria is continuing to build on a foundation of great work already completed; in Queensland, the Olympic and Paralympic Games are pushing work along; while in Tasmania, the NT and WA progress in making parks more accessible appears to be less of a priority.
One success all states have gotten behind provides an insight into how access and inclusion can be advocated for, planned and implemented. TrailRider chairs are off-road wheelchairs. They are a single-wheeled, adjustable chairs: “a cross between a wheelbarrow and a sedan chair.” You’ve probably seen one; they’re available to use at parks in WA, Victoria, SA, ACT, NSW and Tasmania. They allow users to explore paths otherwise inaccessible – a great innovation and a great success.
The TrailRider was invented in Canada and was adopted by Parks Victoria around 2011 after the late Dr David Stratton returned from Vancouver with some photos. Dr Stratton spoke to Parks with passion and enthusiasm and, with the help of John Kenwright (Parks Victoria Accessibility & Inclusion Coordinator) and David Roberts (Ranger in Charge of Grampians National Park), two TrailRiders were imported.
After a pilot scheme and some minor adjustments, the TrailRiders were provisioned at two iconic parks – one at Wilsons Promontory and one at the Grampians National Park. The scheme generated some great publicity, won a few awards and gained the attention of parks authorities around the country.
Like most change, it was people who pushed it along and stories that brought it to reality. Without the lived, real-world experience, the enthusiasm and constant advocacy by Dr Stratton and the team, nothing would have happened. The story struck a nerve, and Dr Stratton – who lived with MS – became the face of the grassroots campaign and the reason to do the work.
Fast-forward 10 years and the widespread adoption of the program is largely a success, but it’s far from consistent. In Victoria I can book ahead to borrow a TrailRider from a visitor centre for free, and use it at a nearby trail. In SA, I might be asked for a $20 donation, and I can drive away with it in my SUV. In WA and SA, I’ll have to bring my own helmet and in Tasmania I need an induction. Don’t get me wrong, the TrailRider is a fantastic innovation – I can tell you from personal experience – but programs employing it could be more consistent state-to-state.
What I’m illustrating is that individual champions (and teams), storytelling and a consistent rollout help make tomorrow’s access in parks better than todays.
And there’s another missing piece from the access equation. Only Victoria and South Australia employ Access Officers, which is incredibly disappointing. Advocates within the system provide representation, are the link to the community they serve, and their roles encourage accountability. We also need the will at executive and state-level to effect meaningful change.
Bold steps like that of the SA government and bravery and vision like that shown by Margaret Lester and Dr Stratton are needed. I hope the South Australian pilot is a huge success and other states follow suit. And I hope in the future, as the “market” – the community of disabled travellers – gets more recognition and understanding, that states will band together to share their wisdom and resources so we can all benefit. That way, more people with access needs can enjoy parks, now and into the future. I think Margaret Lester and David Stratton would have liked that.
Ryan is an access consultant, an award-winning creative director of 25 years standing, and the founder of The Access Agency – an access, design and communications company focused on accessible travel.
His blog, Freewheel Weekends documents accessible travels from far and wide as well as around his hometown of Melbourne.