A few weeks ago, a taxi driver pleaded guilty to raping and sexually assaulting five female wheelchair users in his taxi. He pleaded guilty to 33 charges, but they only included the assaults that appeared on the taxi security cameras - four of the victims, who could not communicate his crimes, had to be tracked down by police. Nobody knows how many others this man may have assaulted. He carried out his crimes deliberately, covering the camera with a rag. Deliberately, with intent.
It's not just the disability community who is outraged. This is an issue about our daughters, who need to travel safely home at night after a party - our children, who may not be able to access school bus transport. It is a mainstream issue, but for many of us, it is deeply personal.
A group of disabled people organised a 'silent protest' for the sentencing, and many, many people with disability and parents of children with disability indicated that they would attend. We wanted to be together in solidarity and support for the victims and send a powerful message to say that this is, and will not ever be, okay. 'Break the Silence about Violence and Abuse against People with Disability', the event title read. We pictured a sea of wheelchairs, a group of people, clad in black, silently protesting the daily hidden abuses against the disabled. Silently, purposefully, with deliberate intent.
At some point, I had a thought. A sea of wheelchairs is sometimes difficult to accommodate. And so I rang the District Court.
You can imagine the response.
'And...how many wheelchairs did you say might be attending?' The young woman at the end of the line was calm and competent, but sounded slightly flustered.
'People in wheelchairs,' I reminded her. 'Well, there are five victims who use wheelchairs, so that's five. But at least thirty or forty more, I would imagine.' There was a pause, a long pause.
'I'll contact building management,' she said at last. She understood a lot, this young woman - that the victims had the right of every other victim to face the rapist, that the supporters had every right to be in the public gallery. But in her voice I could hear the other understanding - that each courtroom had room for only one wheelchair. Perhaps two. Equity versus logistics.
Now, many Australian courtrooms have problems with access. In 2011, South Australia’s top judge had to work from home because he could not get up to the bench after breaking his leg on holiday. They are mostly located in historic buildings, combining the justice system's love of tradition with an ambiance that screams of power and authority. They're designed to be that way. In those buildings, there's a palpable feeling of 'imposing' that strikes fear into the heart of the offender. That's entirely okay.
But the Perth District Court is practically brand new. I googled it. At five years old, it's a purpose built, high security courtroom with 24 courtrooms over seven levels. The District Court website boasts that it can accommodate 'multiple accused and a large public gallery', with impressive leather and timber interior finishes. In total, it finishes gleefully, it can seat up to 1900 people.
With one space for one wheelchair user per court room.
I kept thinking about the women who were raped. Five women, all wheelchair users. Who will be the lucky person in the special seat for special people? The fastest? The one who has been raped the most? Will they be playing scissors paper rock in the foyer?
The District Court staff were nothing but helpful. Beyond helpful. They have coped with my surly reaction to the suggestion of video conferencing – ironically, via the same technology that the rapist will be using from his cell – and discounted that as inappropriate. They are liaising with the building management and we are meeting to discuss the ripping out of chairs – yes, the ripping out of chairs – and to look at solutions which hopefully include the installation of chairs that can be easily removed to accommodate wheelchair users. They are doing everything they can, and I can tell that they have every intent on making this work for both the victims and their supporters.
The architects who designed the building were not available to speak to, but the person who authored this report was. She, like the people at the District Court, was helpful and compassionate and understanding. Yes, she will happily table a letter to DoTAG from me about access for the public. Yes, she will ask for further considerations to be included in their Disability Action and Inclusion Plan for the court system. Yes, it was a good idea to include advisory groups of people with disability in the planning of large buildings, and I could hear her jotting down the name of both People with Disability WA and the name of an access consultant who might be helpful in the future. I listened with one ear and talked tiredly in the same manner that we advocates always do, about DAIPs and systemic issues and inclusion, but my eyes kept drifting back to the glossy District Court brochure.
Advanced safety and security systems. And I thought of the man at the Taxi Industry Council who told me there would never be capacity to monitor video footage of vulnerable taxi users.
Electronic tablet whiteboards, called starboards, to help witnesses in the presentation of their evidence, forty eight plasma screens in the courtrooms. Costly, I imagine. And I wondered how the young woman who can no longer catch taxis, who is frozen by her PTSD and terrified at the sight of a passing taxi, will be able to raise the $1000 a week hire a wheelchair van and go to work.
Nowhere in the glossy brochure was a mention of access. 1900 people, 24 courtrooms, twenty four allocations for wheelchair users overall.
The words drone on at the other end of the phone and I can hear embarrassment, resolve to do better, a strong desire to fix it for people who should never have been victimised. I hear it and I nod absentmindedly, recognising that intent. But if the intent had been there in the first place, prior to the building being designed, would we be having this conversation now?
All it takes is the desire to do something, the will, the intent. The will to make transport safe, equitable and dignified - the will to make courtrooms and public buildings accessible. Peter Edward Kasatchkow had the intent to become a predator, picking up vulnerable women and covering the security camera with a rag. Why is it, then, that we do not have the intent to make things right for people with disability?
The District Court of WA took three years to construct. The building has;
A total building area of 31,250m2
15 levels including the basement and plant rooms
Accommodation for about 250 permanent staff and many visiting professionals
24 courtrooms ranging in size from 70m2 to 250m2 with a total seating capacity of 1,900
6600m2 of ceiling tiles (enough to cover five Olympic-size swimming pools)
9 interview rooms
18 mediation rooms
More than 1000 glass panels including a five story glass curtain wall on the eastern face of the building made of 164 individual panels
55378 light fittings and 2110 power points
227km data cable, 37l, fibre optic cable and 505km of power cable supporting 21st century building throughout the building
Three story glass curtain walls on the northern and southern side of the building made of 84 separate panels
And more than 200 other external windows, the largest of which are 48 metres wide.