In 2019, Peter John Ryan made a complaint to the AHRC about the Sunshine Coast Hospital and Health Service (SCHHS). Mr Ryan is a wheelchair user and has approximately 2% usable vision. He regularly attended SCHHS for treatment of several medical conditions.
SCHHS is a large public tertiary teaching hospital that opened to patients in 2017. The Premises Standards applied at the time SCHHS was designed and constructed.
Mr Ryan claimed that certain design and construction elements of SCHHS unlawfully discriminated against him on the basis of his disabilities. Mediation through the AHRC was unsuccessful, so the matter was referred to the Federal Circuit Court of Australia. The court accepted that Mr Ryan and people with a similar level of impairment had been seriously disadvantaged in accessing and navigating the SCHHS building reasonably, practically and with dignity. This was due to ineffective and insufficient raised tactile signage and wayfinding systems.
The ruling identified another key issue: the lack of luminance contrast for glazed walls next to access ways, pedestrian spaces, lift lobbies and glass balustrades. The court found that it was unreasonable to rely on SCHHS volunteers to assist people with vision impairment who become disoriented.
An interesting aspect of this case is that, while some issues related to non-compliance with the NCC and Premises Standards, others were found to be unlawful under the Disability Discrimination Act. This was possible because the Act uses a complaints-based dispute resolution mechanism, rather than setting out a minimum standard like the NCC and Premises Standards.
This case shows that buildings may need to be designed beyond the minimum requirements set out in the NCC and Premises Standards to reasonably accommodate the accessibility needs of their users and be compliant under the Act. This is supported by the AHRC’s Guideline on the application of the Premises Standards, which states that ‘there is nothing in the Premises Standards to stop a developer from providing greater levels of access than required’.
Court-ordered rectification works at SCHHS are expected to cost tens of millions of dollars. This shows that rectification is often more difficult and expensive than addressing accessibility during building design.
This case also points to the complexity of large building projects and supports the need for updated guidance material, as recommended by Action 2a and Action 2b.