THOUSANDS of people with disabilities are being held back from community life and the workforce because they cannot access public transport or afford to catch a taxi under the State Government’s outdated subsidy scheme.
Figures from the Ministry of Transport reveal that only 36 per cent of CityRail stations were wheelchair-accessible in June and only 30 per cent of bus services in the Sydney metropolitan and outer metropolitan areas were listed as accessible.
Disability advocates say this has forced thousands of people – particularly those living in rural areas and Sydney’s outer suburbs – to rely on wheelchair-accessible taxis to get around.
The Government has not increased its taxi transport subsidy since 1999, despite advice from its own inquiry into disability services and the examples set by the governments of South Australia, Western Australia and Victoria.
For the past 10 years the subsidy has remained at 50 per cent of a taxi fare, up to a maximum of $30 for each trip, even though taxi fares in NSW have increased by about 55 per cent in that time.
The South Australian and West Australian governments increased their subsidies to 75 per cent of a fare over the same period and two months ago the Victorian Government doubled its cap to $60 a trip.
“To get to and from work in a city like Sydney can cost someone with a disability hundreds of dollars a week,” said a project officer for the Physical Disability Council of NSW, Jordana Goodman.
“A lot of disabled people are on very minimal incomes and $30 just is not enough. It limits a lot of people’s access to the workforce and it limits their access to their community. That can lead to isolation, particularly for people on the outskirts of the city.”
The Transport Minister, David Campbell, said the subsidy scheme was one of the most generous in Australia because it did not cap the total subsidy people could receive each year or the number of journeys they could claim.
“In other states the maximum fare for which the subsidy applies is not as generous as ours,” he said. “I am [also] advised NSW has the largest standard and wheelchair-accessible taxi fleet in Australia.”
In 2002, the NSW Legislative Council Standing Committee on Social Issues recommended that the subsidy rise to 75 per cent over five years.
The recommendation was made by an inquiry the Government had requested. But the Government ignored the advice.
It has also failed to achieve parity in response times for wheelchair-accessible taxis and normal taxis, even with the addition of Lime taxis to the marketplace in 2006.
As of June last year, people in need of a wheelchair taxi waited 20 per cent longer for it to arrive than other taxi passengers.
“There’s a lot of rhetoric about encouraging economic and social participation, but you have to actually provide the means for people to do that,” said Therese Sands, the co-executive director of People with Disability Australia.
“If you’re segregating people from a form of public transport, you’re looking at isolation and segregation from community life. There’s a well-known link between poverty and disability and this kind of situation risks perpetuating that cycle.”
Australia ranked 13th out of 19 countries in a study of disabled people in the workplace conducted by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development in 2003. About 53 per cent of Australians with a disability participated in the labour force, compared with 80.6 per cent of able-bodied people.