Heritage Buildings

Disability Access to the Heritage Listed Museum of Australian Democracy at Old Parliament House

Disability Access to the Heritage Listed Museum of Australian Democracy at Old Parliament House

In our practice, clients regularly tell us that building modifications to provide access for people with disability cannot be undertaken due to “Heritage Restrictions” on the subject property.

This, however, is an incorrect statement, and I hope the following post makes things more straightforward, particularly regarding the hierarchical levels of Australian legislation.

Firstly, we need to understand the relationship between federal and state acts and codes.

Disability Access Acts & Regulations

Disability Discrimination Act 1992

At the very top, we have the Disability Discrimination Act 1992. Whilst this does not include any such prescriptive requirements on how compliance can be achieved, it outlines where and how discrimination must not occur.

The following are the critical sections of the DDA that are typically applicable in the built environment.

Section 5 : Direct Discrimination: less favourable treatment
Discrimination occurs if, because of a person’s disability, the person is, or is proposed to be, treated less favourably than a person without the disability.

Sections 7 & 8 : Discrimination: use of devices & aids
Discrimination occurs if a person who has a disability is treated less favourably because he or she is accompanied by a palliative or therapeutic device or auxiliary aid,

  • a palliative or therapeutic device or auxiliary aid,
  • an interpreter, reader, assistant or carer,
  • a seeing- or hearing-guide dog (or other animal)

Section 23 : Discrimination in access to & use of premises
Unless unjustifiable hardship applies, a person must not be discriminated against because of the person’s disability, or the disability of any associate:

  • by denying access to or use of public premises;
  • in the terms or conditions for entry or use of such premises;
  • in the means of access to such premises;
  • by denying the use of public facilities in such premises;
  • in the terms or conditions for use of such facilities;
  • by being required to leave such premises or cease to use such facilities.

Discrimination is allowed if premises are existing, and alterations required to make them accessible would impose unjustifiable hardship on the person providing the accessibility.

Section 24 : Discrimination in access to & use of goods, services and facilities
Unless unjustifiable hardship applies, a person must not be discriminated against because of the person’s disability, or the disability of any associate

  • by refusing to provide goods or services or to make facilities available; or
  • in the terms or conditions on which goods or services are provided, or facilities are made available; or
  • in the manner in which goods or services are provided or the facilities made available.

Discrimination is allowed if providing the goods or services, or making the facilities available, would impose unjustifiable hardship on the person providing or making them available.

There is a provision within the Act that covers “Unjustifiable Hardship” as follows

Section 11 : Unjustifiable hardship
In determining what constitutes unjustifiable hardship, the following will be considered:

  • any resulting benefit or detriment for persons concerned;
    the effect of a disability of a person concerned;
  • the financial circumstances and the estimated expenditure required to be made by the person claiming unjustifiable hardship; and
  • in the case of the provisions of services, or the making available of facilities – an action plan given to the Commission.

You will note Heritage is not provided as an option to exempt access.

Therefore, any organisation that failed to provide access to a building where it is possible would be acting unlawfully and in breach of the Federal Act.

While the DDA does not have any prescriptive requirements within it, it references two other pieces of State and Federal legislation that detail specific requirements.

  • Disability Standards for Accessible Public Transport 2002 – known as the ‘Transport Standards’ – sets out technical requirements and target dates (up to 2032) for public transport buildings and conveyances.
  • Disability (Access to Premises – Buildings) Standards 2010 – known as the ‘Premises Standards’– sets out technical requirements for buildings

Disability (Access to Premises – Buildings) Standards 2010

The Premises Standards introduce responsibilities for many stakeholders who must ensure compliance.

  • Local Councils
  • Building surveyors
  • Developers
  • Property owners
  • Building designers
  • Project managers
  • Builders
  • Property lessees
  • Property managers

Structure of the Premises Standards

  • Parts 1 to 6 are the administrative sections – some portions are replicated in the building regulations under Regulations 116 & 160B
  • Schedule 1, Access Code for Buildings – replicated in various sections of the BCA
    • D3 Access for people with disability
    • E3.6 Passenger lifts
    • F2.4 Accessible sanitary facilities

Victorian Building Regulations

(similarly applies to most other states and territories)

Simultaneously on 1 May 2011, State legislation was introduced that replicated the Premises Standards to ensure consistency between Commonwealth and State legislation

Changes to State legislation included:

  • Changes to the Building Regulations 2006 – Regulations 116 & 160B
  • Introduction of BCA 2011
  • Several new and updated Australian Standards (e.g. AS 1428 suite of documents)

Building Code of Australia

BuildingCode of Australia D3.4 Exemptions

The Building Code of Australia does provide an exemption to access, where access is inappropriate.  Typical areas exempt from access include

  • Commercial kitchens
  • Plant rooms
  • Storage areas
  • Industrial manufacturing/ warehouses
  • Emergency services stations
  • Some defence buildings

However, again, Heritage has not been provided as a justifiable reason.

The only way an organisation could argue not providing access would be;

  • Unable to afford building changes
  • The building cannot be modified, i.e., a stair between the ground and first floors was very narrow.

Providing access to a heritage-listed building for people with disability, whether it’s demolishing a step, increasing the opening of doors etc, cannot be prevented as it would be unlawful under the Federal Act.


Disability Access to the Heritage Listed Forum Theater Melbourne

Can I get a Dispensation?

160B Applications to Exempt Access (Victoria)

Note: Similar appeal processes are available in all other states and territories.

There is a mechanism in place to exempt access by means of a 160b application to the Building Appeals Board. We would be very confident heritage grounds would not be accepted unless it significantly impacted the building. If this were to be the case, the BAB would state the proposed use of the building would be inappropriate if access cannot be provided.

A 160b application is specific to Disability matters and has some significant issues associated with it, including;

  • Very onerous
  • Very expensive
  • Takes many days to prepare.
  • Typically, it takes 20–24 weeks for an approval/refusal

Refer to VBA Practice Note 2014-14, Issued April 2014
Refer to section 7 of the 160b application form.


In Summary

It is our professional belief that as the Disability Discrimination Act and Disability (Access to Premises – Buildings) Standards 2010 are both federal pieces of legislation, they take precedence over any local or state government heritage legislation.

So is it okay to damage heritage buildings for access?

So as detailed above, we can see access takes precedence over heritage requirements, however, this does not mean we go around damaging beautiful heritage buildings from our past. Equal Access has acted as an access consultant on many heritage building projects around Australia, including high profile projects including the Museum of Australian Democracy (Old Parliament House Canberra), and the Forum Theatre (Melbourne).

Our goal as access consultants when consulting on heritage projects is to work together collaboratively with architects, and heritage consultants to achieve a solution that is respectful to both the building being upgraded and for the individuals accessing it.

More information on our Heritage Consulting Services

Our Blogs

A New Inclusive ‘Gender Neutral’ Toilet Sign

  • July 1, 2024
  • Cynthia Ces

A question we have received a number of times within our practice is the provision of and identification of ...

read more

Why ‘Wave to Open’ and ‘Wave to Lock’ Discriminate against People with Disability

  • May 2, 2024
  • Bruce Bromley

We are now regularly seeing the installation of ‘Wave to Open and Wave to Lock’ buttons used on automated...

read more

Raised Tactile And Braille Signage

  • November 10, 2023
  • Bruce Bromley

We are often asked to assess signage against the requirements of the Disability Access to Premise...

read more


Keep up with Disability Access Legislation using our free e-newsletter. Save yourself the headache of complaints and expensive last-minute upgrades. Sign up here!