In the past, these inclusions were not a given. As an example, elements such as a main entry were seen as a dominant feature of a building and were consequently raised to extend their prominence, often with a number of steps preceding them.
There are a number of legislative mechanisms that interact to impact both heritage conservation and the provision of access for people with disability. Architects, designers, building managers, heritage consultants and access consultants have all contributed significantly in negotiating the requirements of the legislation in place while assisting in the delivery of solutions which are sensitive to their respective objectives.
Even though it has been demonstrated successfully that significant scope does exist in achieving suitable outcomes, it is worth noting that the Federal Attorney-General’s Department has previously suggested that where conflicting, the Disability Discrimination Act (1992) should be given prevalence over the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (1999). The Disability (Access to Premises – Buildings) Standard (2010) does, however, cite heritage significance as one factor that may be relevant to an assessment of a claim of unjustifiable hardship under the act.
The Australia ICOMOS Charter for Places of Cultural Significance (Burra Charter) acts as the guiding document for conservation practice in Australia and outlines a process for practice.
The first stage of this process is understanding a site’s significance. In practical terms, this may mean reviewing the function and history of the building or place to identify significant elements. Clearly identifying and understanding what makes a place significant is paramount to defining the scope of what can be changed and how it may be changed, and will ultimately shape the final solution. A heritage consultant could be engaged to produce or update a Conservation Management Plan or review an existing Statement of Significance. The aim is to clarify significance but also consider and provide comment on how access for people with disabilities could be achieved.
Following on from here is a stage of policy development, which relates to understanding other factors affecting the future use of the place. Given the focus on providing access to people with disabilities, a suitable initial activity would include engaging an access consultant to undertake an access audit of the facilities. Once the access deficiencies are identified, options can then be developed in conjunction with a suitably experienced designer with a view to maximising access while minimising the impact on items of heritage significance.
In the final stage of the Burra Charter process, policies associated with heritage and access can now be established and included in an action plan as identified under the DDA. Solutions to be implemented may vary enormously and may be influenced by a whole host of considerations including the anticipated impact on the identified significant elements, the use and management of the facility, the materials and original fabric of the building, the ability to make ‘non-permanent’ modifications, amongst many others.
It is highly likely that some of the solutions identified sit outside the deemed-to-satisfy provisions of the BCA, and that alternative solutions which are in line with the performance requirements of the BCA will need to be developed. The need to gain heritage and planning approvals when undertaking modifications to a place of heritage significance will also often arise.
Previous successes and the Charter process serve to reinforce the notion that each case requires careful and individual assessment to ensure that the equity and dignity of people with disabilities is maintained and that cultural history is preserved.