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The importance of talking access, By Chris Sparks

I am in the fortunate position of successfully making the tree change, having escaped the rat race of Sydney to live on the NSW far South Coast near Bega. There’s not a lot that I miss about Sydney life, however what struck me when I first moved here was the relatively poor accessibility of commercial premises and public infrastructure throughout the Bega Valley Shire.

So I was delighted when Merimbula local and disabled winter sport legend, Ron Finneran, invited me to join the Bega ValleyShire Council’s (BVSC) Access Committee. Of course, there is now a raft of regulations in place that will help to ensure access for people with disability in new developments and redevelopments. However, in discussions with senior BVSC staff, we discovered a major issue with local facilities that are established with the help of community groups such as Lions, Rotary etc.

Many of these smaller projects fall outside of the usual local government processes that put in place the checks and balances to achieve accessible design and inclusion for all. The Council’s officers don’t necessarily know that a community project is in the pipeline and the well-intended, often voluntary people behind the project don’t necessarily include access as a priority in their plans.

All too often the result is something like Merimbula’s Bar Beach, a wonderful community initiative that created a delightful BBQ and picnic area, which unfortunately presents many hazards and barriers to those of us who rely on wheeled mobility. Some years later, the BVSC now have plans for new works to address the access issues, but at a cost many thousands of dollars more than it would have been to simply get it right in the first place.

I am often critical that the disability sector spends too much time talking to itself, when it is imperative that we actively engage with the broader community to achieve genuine, long-term change. With this in mind, Ron is leading the charge to get our Access Committee members out talking to community groups about the enormous benefits of working together to improve access throughout the Shire.

Our messages are simple and focus on the positive:

* Sooner or later, everyone needs access…mothers with prams, those recovering from sports injuries, all of us as we age, and of course those with disability.
* Most locals want to stay here and enjoy many years of active retirement, so we need to create an environment where we can age in place without barriers to participation and opportunity.
* Good access means businesses can welcome new groups of potential customers.
* Sporting and social organisations can expand their member base by ensuring good access.
* And importantly, good access is most affordable when it is well planned from the outset.

It's early days for our Committee, but the signs are promising as we begin to engage with local service clubs, the chambers of commerce, and the many sporting and recreational groups throughout the district. You only have to look at some of the new bus shelters built by the Tathra Lions Club and see the spaces now available for wheelchairs and mobility scooters.

It already seems that a little talk can go a long way.

By Chris Sparks

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Last updated: 24 Sep 2019