A Melbourne council has been ordered to pay a wheelchair-bound man $5,000 compensation after a tribunal ruled that it had discriminated against him based on his disability during a meeting in 2017.
Philip Barnes, who has multiple sclerosis, said he was left in pain and embarrassed after being forced to speak at the meeting without any assistance.
Had to remove part of wheelchair to reach microphone
Mr Barnes attended the meeting at the Boroondara Council in July 2017 where he was disputing a proposed heritage listing.
The former town planner had to remove part of his wheelchair in order to reach a microphone that was fixed to a table in front of him.
Mr Barnes said his feet became caught under his wheelchair as he moved to speak at the table, which caused him “acute pain and embarrassment”.
Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal member Anita Smith was critical of the way the microphones were set up by the council.
“I find that the requirement, condition or practice imposed to address the meeting from a fixed table and to speak into a microphone on the fixed table was unreasonable,” Ms Smith said in her orders.
The tribunal heard that before Mr Barnes spoke at the council meeting, his daughter tried to move the microphone towards him but failed, and no council staff made any attempt to help.
“Had a microphone been offered to him away from the table, he would not have suffered any disadvantage,” Ms Smith found.
Council says Mr Barnes should have notified them in advance
Representatives for Boroondara council argued in the tribunal that it was up to Mr Barnes to notify them if any modifications were needed.
Ms Smith rejected this argument, finding that there was no practical way to do this, and that invitations to the meetings did not provide anywhere for a person to notify the council if they had any special needs.
What the law says
Industrial advocate James Vercoe said it is unlawful to discriminate against someone based on an impairment or disability.
“The law says a person with an impairment or disability cannot be treated less favourably than a person without a disability, and clearly that’s what happened in this case,” he said.
“The law applies to the workplace, but it also applies to the provision of goods and services, so that means shops, movie cinemas, public transport, swimming pools, and even local councils must provide facilities that allow access to people with impairments.
“Not being able to reach a fixed microphone in a meeting might not seem like a big deal, but in this case, it caused Mr Barnes an injury and embarrassment, and the tribunal found it should not have happened.”
Mr Vercoe said the Disability Discrimination Act does allow for exemptions in circumstances where making adjustments to accommodate a disabled person would impose unjustifiable hardship on a business.
“For example, it may not be against the law for a cinema to have only one entrance via a set of stairs, if it can show that modifying the building will be too costly and too difficult,” he said.
“But a council being able to provide an adjustable microphone that is not attached to a desk during its meetings certainly doesn’t meet the test for unjustifiable hardship.”
If you have been discriminated against on the basis of an impairment or disability, you may be entitled to compensation.
For help and advice, please call our friendly team at Discrimination Claims on
1300 853 837
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