Wheelchair users are being forced to manoeuvre through traffic to reach taxis at the Northern Territory’s largest hospital because of inadequate wheelchair access, advocates say.
The Royal Darwin Hospital currently has no wheelchair ramps to its eastern taxi rank, because they were removed during recent renovations.
Wheelchair users say they are now being forced to lift wheelchairs from the curb to the roadway to enter taxis, or use a ramp outside the emergency department and make their way through traffic to reach transport services.
Robyne Burridge said she chose the latter last year, and almost fell out of her wheelchair into oncoming traffic.
“It’s an absolute joke … It’s an accident waiting to happen,” she said.
“I couldn’t see that there was a curb there. I almost went plummeting out of my electric wheelchair.”
Although Ms Burridge first reported the hazard last October and has since written to various ministers and hospital contacts, the issue remains unresolved.
She believes the “inaction” is indicative of the Territory Government’s need for a separate Minister for Disability.
“If we had a separate Minster for Disability I’m sure this problem would have been resolved well before now,” she said.
Earlier this month, a spokesperson for the Royal Darwin Hospital said the installation of two additional ramps was expected to be completed in the coming weeks.
The spokesperson said wheelchair users should instead use the allocated “mobility impaired drop-off and pick-up point” located at the emergency entrance.
Ms Burridge said she intends to personally escort Health Minister Natasha Fyles and hospital officials to the curbed drop off to demonstrate how dangerous it is.
The NT Department of Health estimated there are more than 6,500 people living with a disability in the Northern Territory, including 224 wheelchair users in Darwin and 400 Territory wide.
‘It’s like bashing your head against a brick wall’
It is not the only accessibility issue those in wheelchairs in Darwin face.
It has been over a month since Tropical Cyclone Marcus swept through the Top End, but it has left chronic accessibility issues on the streets of Darwin in its wake.
While much of the cyclone clean-up is over, fallen trees and upturned footpaths still block access for pedestrians, cyclists, prams and wheelchairs in many northern suburbs, forcing them to take “unsafe alternatives”.
Frustrated wheelchair user Michael Burge said the needs of those with disabilities had been left at the bottom of the Darwin City Council’s priority list, with many requests to repair footpaths left unanswered.
On many occasions, Mr Burge said he had been forced to move onto the road because footpaths had been blocked by debris.
“It’s like bashing your head against a brick wall,” he said.
“It’s as if [people in wheelchairs] have been pushed into a corner … or shoved in the cupboard.”
Alderman Simon Niblock conceded Darwin had a “long way to go” to improve its accessibility for those using wheelchairs, and said the full cyclone clean-up was still months off completion.
Mr Niblock is a committee member of Darwin’s Access and Inclusion Advisory Committee, which is consulting with the City of Darwin on how the provision of infrastructure should be prioritised after a cyclone or significant storm.
But Mr Burge said both the committee and the council needed to “stop talking and start acting”.
Australia needs to ‘change its mentality’, Greens senator says
Western Australian Greens senator Jordan Steele-John — the second federal parliamentarian to require a wheelchair — faced several barriers to entry upon arrival at Parliament House.
He said Australia needed to change its mentality towards those with disabilities.
“Disability isn’t the result of a medical impairment, it’s actually created by the fact that society does not adapt to include and celebrate people of all levels of ability,” he said.
“And it’s in that failure that the discrimination and segregation that’s associated with disability is created.”
Even before Tropical Cyclone Marcus, Mr Burge said he was withdrawing from the community, opting to stay home rather than face the obstacles he was presented with on the road.
Senator Steele-John said that type of discrimination needed to be stopped in its tracks.
“When somebody experiences the inaccessibility of the built environment, the message is clear: you’re not part of this community,” he said.
“Darwin City Council needs to take this opportunity, put its money where its mouth is and act.”
The final stage of the Federal Government’s National Disability Insurance Scheme is set to roll out on July 1 in urban Darwin, Central Australia and Alice Springs regions.
The Northern Territory Department of Health estimates the scheme will reach 3,311 people across the Territory.