Accessibility in the built environment is an important issue for over 4 million Australians with a disability. Businesses need to identify and remove access barriers to provide an inclusive environment and reduce risk.

Everyone has the right to access buildings as they go about their day to day lives. But for some people this proves more challenging due to barriers preventing good access. Businesses that fail to remove these barriers must address this risk.

People with disability have the same rights of access as everyone and these rights are protected under the Commonwealth Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) and United Nations Convention on the Rights of People with Disability. Areas covered under the Act include access to premises, employment, education, provision of goods and services, facilities, and accommodation. Section 23 of the Act (Access to Premises) says it is unlawful when:

  • Refusing to allow a person with a disability entry into public premises
  • Imposing less favourable conditions on a person with a disability when entering premises
  • Making a person leave a premises because they have a disability

An exception can be made to the above where it can be shown that removing a barrier to access would impose unjustifiable hardship.

Ignoring these obligations could present significant risks for business owners, building managers and workplace managers.

According to the Government of Ontario in Canada, there are five identified barriers to accessibility for persons with disabilities. These barriers are attitudinal, organisational or systemic, architectural or physical, information or communications, and technology. When we consider these barriers in terms of exposure to a business, each one presents a potential risk.

These types of barriers could be present within any typical public building and there are simple strategies that could be adopted to help identify, assess, treat or manage each risk. By doing so, common situations that continue to appear in the press could be prevented.

A recent example of how this could impact a small business was evident only last month when a man in the UK was asked to leave a hotel when staff mistook his slurred speech and lack of facial expression for being drunk. Little did they realise that he has facial palsy and Moebius Syndrome. Having this incident published in a local paper, posted on Facebook and discussed internationally is bad publicity for the business – publicity that could easily have been avoided if staff had received some basic disability awareness training.

Organisations that take steps to adopt universal design principles and remove barriers can help promote an inclusive environment, display corporate responsibility and potentially tap into new customer streams. Ultimately, by doing so, people with physical, sensory, cognitive, intellectual or communicative limitations will have a much better experience when visiting their premises.

The first step for any business looking to reduce risk under the DDA is to engage an access consultant to complete an access audit of their property or business. When looking for an access consultant, the Association of Consultants in Access Australia (ACAA) recommends that consideration is given to the background and experience of the consultant, including ACAA accreditation. It is also wise to verify their areas of expertise, qualifications and accreditation, as well as clearly defining the scope of the audit prior to commissioning their work.

The following represents some typical areas of an access audit, though it’s important to note that these may vary dependent on a client’s needs, motivators for the audit and expertise of the access consultant:

  • Clearly defined arrival points, with accessible paths linking to drop off points, public transport, car parking and other buildings
  • Accessible car parking provided near entrances
  • Entrances with ramped or level floors, without clutter, display stands or low hanging merchandise that could cause visual confusion or be an obstruction
  • Doorways with wide openings, lever door handles, an easy opening mechanism and a contrasting visual band around each door to help identify each doorway
  • Corridors or aisles with sufficient space for people using wheelchairs, electric scooters and other mobility aids to manoeuvre around doors, corners, merchandise and furniture
  • Accessible signage directing people to key areas, with Braille and tactile text and the International Symbol of Access (such as entrances, lifts, accessible toilets)
  • Reception counters at differing heights to cater for people with average physiques and those people using a wheelchair, as well as people with shorter stature
  • Stairs with handrails, high contrasting edging strips and tactile warnings on the landings
  • Passenger lifts with controls located away from corners, with Braille and tactile text, handrails, adequate car size, and audible announcements
  • Seating with armrests and tables with vertical clearance underneath
  • Vending, ATM, ticket machines, service counters, public phones, drinking fountains and the like with clearances underneath for people using a wheelchair to have better access, with outlets, keypads, visual displays in accessible reach ranges
  • Consideration of emergency egress for people with disability, with the accessible means of egress from all areas clearly identified with suitable accessible exit signage and paths displayed on evacuation plans. This might require additional equipment such as evacuation chairs
  • Procedures in place to ensure effective communication strategies, which include disability awareness training. Other simple aids to assist with communication include having pen and paper on hand, printed menus with photos, large print options or Braille text
  • The provision of effective hearing augmentation systems provided at reception areas, ticket booths, meeting and interview rooms, theatres, sports stadiums and the like, with signage advising people of the systems availability

Consideration of the above will help to identify risks, assess the level of risk and provide practical recommendations for remediation or management of each issue. This can help ensure all people working in or visiting any building can gain access without unnecessary barriers that could cause a negative experience, loss of business or loss of reputation.