‘Doing it Better’: Investigating how individual services can provide access and equity with regard to disability via the development of a Disability Discrimination Act Action Plan

This is a copy of the final report from Women With Disabilities Australia (WWDA) to the Commonwealth Office of the Status of Women on WWDA’s project to develop a Disability Action Plan for a SAAP funded women’s refuge. Copyright WWDA 1998.

In 1997, the Office of the Status of Women funded Women With Disabilities Australia (WWDA) to carry out a project to develop a Disability Action Plan for a SAAP funded women’s refuge. It was also intended that by documenting the development of the plan, the project could provide a model for other refuges to use in developing their own Action Plans.

The Project was proposed on the basis of a need identified by WWDA, via information from its members who could not access refuges and were forced to remain in violent and dangerous situations. This need was confirmed by two reports which had been researched in recent years, as well as overseas data. The Project was seen as both an effective way of identifying why the problem existed and developing solutions, while at the same time engaging the refuge sector in the process.

The specific aims of the project were:

  • To identify and document the effectiveness of current SAAP agency practice and policy in terms of their service delivery to women with disabilities, barriers to their effectiveness, and strategies for inclusion of women with disabilities;
  • To identify areas which require action at a State or National level;
  • To provide a model for the development of DDA Action plans for all SAAP services;
  • To identify the legislative remedies necessary to improve access to services for women with disabilities.

The project was overseen by the WWDA Violence Against Women With Disabilities Reference Group. This Reference Group put the work out to tender, and many strong applications were received, including a number from women with disabilities. SAGE consulting was chosen to undertake the work, with Fiona Strahan, who had considerable experience in both the development of Action Plans, and in working on violence, gender and disability issues, appointed as the principal consultant. A strong factor in the selection of SAGE Consulting was their demonstrated understanding of the importance of the consultation process, and the fundamental importance of the involvement of women with disabilities throughout the process.

Once SAGE consulting was engaged, an plan of action was developed, involving regular reports to the Reference Group, and regular meetings between them and the consultant.

A crucial feature of the project was the involvement of a very broad group of organisations and individuals from both the refuge sector and women with disabilities. Central to the success of this stage of the process was the Working Group, which was established to act as a guide and resource in developing the DDA Action Plan. This Group had equal representation of women with disabilities and workers from the domestic violence sector. They met regularly to oversee the day to day operations of the project and to provide information to the consultant.

Much of the information regarding the experience of women with disabilities was collected via a series of focus groups, with each group comprised of women with a specific disability. The methodology is outlined in more detail in the Woorarra Women’s Refuge Disability Action Plan.

Outcomes and Applications

The expected project outcomes are outlined below, and compared with details of the actual outcomes. In brief, in most areas the results of project went well beyond the expected outcomes. The issue of legal remedies requires further clarification.

1. Data will be systematically collected, documenting current practices and policies of a SAAP agency, and outlining how those policies and practices affect service delivery to women with disabilities.

The project involved the collection of data not available elsewhere in Australia. Data collection was carried out via focus groups, participant observation and interview. The two project publications set out the data collected, which details how current policies and practices affect service delivery to women with disabilities. The major barriers to service delivery were found to lie in the following six areas:

  • communication
  • information
  • attitudes
  • physical barriers
  • accessing and referral to services
  • skills of workers

An overview of the areas provides a comprehensive picture of the barriers to service delivery. An understanding of these issues forms the basis of a sound strategy for addressing the barriers. This strategy is outlined in the Action Plan.

2. A detailed Disability Discrimination Act Action Plan will be developed, including strategies for action and evaluation. This will be lodged with the Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission.

A Disability Discrimination Act Action Plan was developed in co-operation with the Woorarra Refuge in Melbourne (copy attached). The Woorarra Management Committee has endorsed the report, and committed the refuge to following the Action Plan. Woorarra is one of the most inaccessible refuges in Australia in terms of its immediate physical location. There was therefore significant symbolic value in developing strategies to enable this particular refuge to provide services to women with physical disabilities.

Strategies for action identified in the report fall into the following areas:

  • practice
  • communication
  • support
  • information
  • physical access
  • training

3. A report documenting the purpose and the process of developing the Action Plan would be developed as a model for other SAAP services to use to develop their own Action Plans.

An outcome of the project has been the publication of a report (attached) detailing a process to follow in developing an Action Plan. This report has already been taken up by at least one refuge in Canberra, and feedback, including from other refuges, has generally been very enthusiastic. WWDA has applied to the SAAP Co-ordination and Development Committee for support in developing and delivering a workshop to accompany the reports and further disseminate the results of the project.

4. Areas requiring either further research, policy development or other action will be identified in the process of developing the Action Plan.

In addition to the strategies which Woorarra refuge itself can undertake, the project identified wider issues for further action, research and policy development relating to women with disabilities’ access to SAAP services. These include:

  • development of training modules for SAAP workers in awareness of disability and the Disability Discrimination Act;
  • development of information for women with disabilities regarding violence and related services;
  • research regarding data collection instruments and disability indicators;
  • delineation of responsibilities for refuges meeting their requirements under the DDA; and
  • building of networks between workers from the refuge and disability sectors, including service provision agreements.

5. It will provide a rare opportunity for women with disabilities to discuss issues of violence, homelessness, and experiences of service delivery.

The project involved upward of 40 women with disabilities who had the opportunity to meet and discuss their experiences of violence, homelessness, and service delivery. As is reported in the Woorarra Action Plan, ‘Many women spoke about how important it was to be able to talk about domestic violence with other women with disabilities and how pleased they were to know that at least one service was changing. In one workshop one woman realised what was happening to her was domestic violence, in other workshops it was the first time women had spoken in front of other women with disabilities about their experience of domestic violence.’ (Woorarra Women’s Refuge Disability Action Plan 1997).

6. Increased awareness among SAAP workers of the needs of women with disabilities.

This project has been an effective vehicle for increasing the awareness of SAAP workers of the needs of women with disabilities, and their responsibilities to all potential clients. This has happened both through the project itself, and subsequent activities.

At the second meeting of the Working Group, members received a training session on the Disability Discrimination Act presented by the Disability Discrimination Law Advocacy Service (DDLAS). The training was aimed at providing all Working Group members with an understanding of:

  • the purpose and breadth of the DDA;
  • key definitions of the Act, such as indirect discrimination, direct discrimination, unjustifiable hardship and adjustments; and
  • rights and responsibilities under the DDA for services such as women’s domestic violence services.

The project has resulted in the members of the Working Group as well as key organisations within the refuge sector beginning to address the issue of accessibility and their need to comply with the DDA. Examples of this include: The Women’s Emergency Services Network (WESNET) who, following the launch of the project publications, have:

  • passed a conference resolution (one of five resolutions) at their national conference that WESNET members should abide by the Disability Discrimination Act;
  • written to the Commonwealth Minister for Family Services alerting him to the responsibilities of refuges under the DDA;
  • attended a meeting with WWDA and the Commonwealth Department of Health and Family Services on the issue;
  • liaised regularly with WWDA on the issue; and
  • had the WESNET Chair attend the National Workshop on Violence Against Women with Disabilities, held by WWDA.

The Domestic Violence Incest and Information Resource Centre (DVIRC) have met to discuss the issue with the Victorian Office of Women’s Affairs and the Victorian Department of Human Services. They are seeking further meetings with senior representatives of Department of Human Services, including the Manager of the Family Violence Section, the head of Protection and Care Section and the Housing Manager.

The Victorian Women’s Refuges and Associated Domestic Violence Services (VWRADVS) is auspicing and supporting the activities of the Working Group, which is continues to meet.

WWDA took the opportunity to launch the two project reports at the Women’s Emergency Services National Conference in Sydney, December 1997. Over 200 women attended the launch, and it generated a great deal of interest. A direct outcome of publicising the project in this way has been that when these issues were raised by women with disabilities in subsequent Conference workshops, the issues have been received more favourably.

Following the conference, WWDA has received over thirty enquires via mail and telephone from women’s services around Australia regarding the reports, and how the refuges can become more accessible to women with disabilities.

Two current research projects have sought WWDA’s specific input on women with disabilities.

7. Although the research focuses on women with disabilities, the outcomes will benefit other SAAP users by providing a best practice environment.

The reports outline strategies which are applicable across client groups. While some strategies, such as special equipment, may be specific to women with disabilities, others will create generally better services. Information produced in plain English, flexibility in residents’ manuals, easy physical access, more efficient referral practices, addressing attitudes toward difference all go to improving the services to all client groups.


In all, the project has been effective in detailing why women with disabilities report that refuges are inaccessible to them. In this, it goes further than the two previous reports on similar subjects, in that it provides very specific detail on how a refuge itself can become accessible.

The reports also provide a strategy for further action which WWDA has taken the initiative on. The area regarding legal responsibilities was the least effectively addressed in the project, and is being further investigated by WWDA and WESNET. Some of the areas being looked are: the potential for tying in compliance with the DDA to tender documents, or service agreements with refuges, Action Plans of the relevant Commonwealth and State departments.

In addition to the product of the reports, the process itself has galvanised a significant section of the refuge sector in Victoria into addressing disability access issues. The collaboration between WESNET and WWDA has proved an effective vehicle for increasing awareness of the issues around Australia.