David Cawthorn, Class of 1986 alumnus and proud disability advocate, is avidly working towards a future where access, for people with disabilities, is a requirement for all newly purposed buildings. He has built an impressive career in advocating for better, inclusive building standards, including his current fight for the new Parliament Square public plaza in Hobart to be altered so it is accessible for all.
Caulfield Grammar days
Teenage years can be tricky to navigate. Especially when your parents are living overseas, the absence of that support is huge. During this period of his life, David found support in his Caulfield Grammar teachers, including David Howard (the Head of Shaw House), Sue Harrison, Denis Meyer and John Brimer.
On public holidays and the like, the boarding house traditionally closes. Throughout David’s schooling life, these times were used to take the boarders skiing up on Mt Buller, a special tradition David enjoyed across three years.
These days, David has an incredible wealth of advisory experience. He is involved in access consultancy, which involves providing builders, governments and developers with advice on how to make their constructions accessible for all. David’s advice stems from years of professional work and his own firsthand experience – David is paraplegic and uses a wheelchair for mobility:
“People with a disability do not expect special treatment – we just want to be able to access the same services and venues as everyone else does and being able to enter the front door of a facility not the back door, or even worse, have no access”.
His own, personal experience is what inspired him to become an advocate and uplift the voices of those with disabilities. David began to notice how often building plans didn’t account for equal accessibility, driving him to initiate change:
“It just happened after I became a paraplegic and it was then that I began to question how discriminatory life had become. I found out that local government councils or a builder were saying one thing and doing another which leads to many disappointments for many people with disabilities”.
David’s days see him conduct audits of premises, write reports and follow up on renovations. He regularly networks with people with disabilities to continually discuss new, innovative ways in which building plans can implement equal accessibility. His work has left an impact on the tourism sector, where he has provided guidance to hotels on how to set their rooms up appropriately to account for accessibility. David’s skills and knowledge were even called on by the Tasmanian Hospitality Association in the creation of their award for best accessible accommodation in Tasmania.
As part of his ongoing work, David is involved with a plethora of committees, including the Access Advisory Committee with the Hobart City Council and the Hobart Airport Accessibility Advisory Group. He is part of the Ministers Disability Consultative Group, where he encourages members to share their experiences with the NDIS to ensure their voices are adequately represented. David is also a Board Member with the Independent Living Centre, where he is the only person on the board with a disability and supports the providing of equipment and home modifications for those with a disability.
Across the span of his work, David has been recognised in the 2017 Tasmanian Community Achievements Award with the Disability Achievement Award. In 2021, he was also awarded by the Tasmanian Disability Festival Awards with the Experience in Advocacy Award. These are incredibly deserving accolades in acknowledgment of work that uplifts so many others:
“The role of the advocate is to work towards making a difference for many people with disabilities who are not able to advocate for themselves. On many occasions, people with disabilities are not treated with respect when trying to access services that most people take for granted such as health, education, employment, housing, equipment, for their daily needs”.
Amongst the wealth of his consultancy experience, David is also an avid athlete. Prior to his accident, David had competed in five Sydney to Hobart yacht races. Since being paraplegic, David has competed at the Hamilton Island Race Week on the Sails with Disability boat. David has also sailed on the Jubilee Sailing Trust’s ship, Tenacious – a boat that is fully accessible for people with mobility requirements.
David skiing in New Hampshire on the East Coast of America.
David was previously a part of the Australian Paralympic Development Squad, training in Canada in 2003. David spent the winter of 2004 in Winter Park in Colorado, training amongst a disabled ski racing program run by the National Sports Centre for the Disabled.
The winters of 2003, 2004 and 2005 saw David achieve podium finishes for ski racing in a push for the selection to the Australian Paralympic Alpine ski team. Unfortunately, after experiencing an accident, he retired from ski racing at the end of the 2005 ski racing season.
Citta Hobart v Cawthorn
Now a Tasmanian resident and recently featured on the ABC 7.30 report, David is arguing for better equal access, for all people with disabilities, to Parliament Square, the $200 million-plus public plaza being developed behind Parliament House in Hobart. Namely, what David wishes to see is the installation of a lift for people with mobility requirements – an alteration that would cost around $300,000:
“Some developers will spend more money avoiding putting access in, than what it costs them to put it in”.
David initially lodged a complaint with Tasmania’s Anti-Discrimination Commission in 2016; however, the case was referred to the Anti-Discrimination Tribunal, as the tribunal determined it could not hear the matter, as it involves a federal and state legislation issue.
David appealed that decision to the full bench of the Tasmanian Supreme Court which David won this appeal 3-0 as the full bench ruled that the Tasmanian Tribunal could hear the case.
The developers then appealed that decision to the High Court of Australia, claiming the Tasmanian tribunal lacks the jurisdiction to hear the matter. To the best of our knowledge, David is the first Grammarian to take a case to the High Court as an individual.
David Cawthorn working with law students
There are 10 parties involved, including Cawthorn, Citta Hobart, every state in Australia, the Commonwealth Government and the Human Rights Commission.
As such, the case is a landmark one for whether it is discriminatory to not provide equal access to a public place, and determining the jurisdictions of state anti-discrimination tribunals:
“One cannot overestimate the importance of the case of Citta Hobart v Cawthorn progressing to the High Court of Australia. Should Citta be successful, it would have severe ramifications on the jurisdictions of such tribunals in all states… So, if this gets up, every state disability anti-discrimination act will become null and void”.
Unfortunately, the High Court recently sided with Citta in a 7-0 decision, ruling that the state anti-discrimination tribunal did not have the jurisdiction to hear the issue.
An incredibly disappointing outcome for David, following years of tremendously hard work.
However, David’s fight is far from over. The appeal may have been won, yet the matter of equal access to a public space has not been decided upon. This leaves David’s opportunity to re-hear the issue wide open, and that’s exactly what he is going to continue working towards.
The future of accessibility
Looking towards the future, David hopes that these fights for equal access are no more; that equal accessibility is simply the norm:
“Maybe some of these developers need to spend a day in our shoes and see some of the things that we miss out on because we cannot access premises, venues, employment, etc and have the same experience that most other people take for granted”.
Grammarian and Class of 2008 alumna Peta Hooke is also a disability advocate and host of the I Can’t Stand podcast.
Title image credit: The Examiner, Adam Holmes