Building an Inclusive Future: Accessible Design and Disability in Trades

Picture of Joel Emmett

Joel Emmett

Inclusive Design Consultant

Wheelchair accessibility sign in front of a building

Why we need people with disability in skilled trades.

“My disability exists not because I use a wheelchair, but because the broader environment isn’t accessible.”

This quote always resonated with me. Think about it – how many times have you encountered something inaccessible, like struggling with stairs or feeling lost in a confusing layout? Good design, especially Universal Design, blends seamlessly into the background. It creates spaces that work for everyone, regardless of age, ability, or situation. Bad design, on the other hand, screams “inaccessible” the moment you try to use it.

Why does such a major oversight occur in the area of accessible design in the built environment? One answer is that we don’t have enough people with lived experience of disability involved in creating our built environment. This can lead to expensive retrofits later on. Imagine a snowball rolling downhill; the further it goes, the harder it is to change course. 

According to the Queensland Government, retrofitting homes with accessibility features can cost over $20,000. Yikes!

A drawing snowball rolling down a large hill.

The Upside of Inclusive Design

The good news is, there’s a smarter way. The Queensland government has introduced a new scheme to ensure future homes are built with accessibility in mind from the start. This initiative is an effective way to enhance accessibility for people with disability.

Universal Design principles, when considered from the beginning, can actually save money in the long run. Studies show that for every $1 invested in Universal Design, there’s a return on investment of up to $13! Think about it – features like small ramps or automatic doors benefit everyone, not just those with disabilities. Plus, they make our homes more adaptable as we age.

Australia’s aging population is a key factor to consider here. With 3.9 million people aged over 65 years, that’s 15.9% of the entire population. Universal Design ensures our homes can adapt to our changing needs as we get older, things like wider doorways to accommodate walkers or grab bars in bathrooms for extra support. In short, these features make our living spaces safer and more comfortable for everyone, at every stage of life.

Accessibility: An Untapped Goldmine!

This might surprise you, but in Victoria alone, one million people experience some degree of mobility, self-care, or communication restriction. That’s a significant portion of the population who could be better served by accessible environments. A City of Melbourne report by Monash University revealed some powerful statistics:

  • Universal Design = Smart Business: There’s a potential return on investment of $13 for every $1 invested in universally accessible environments.
  • Inclusion Pays Off: Businesses that keep people with disabilities employed see a return of $26 for every $1.
  • Disability Dollars Drive the Economy: Every dollar spent by people with disability on travel translates to $7 in revenue for tourism and retail businesses.
  • Accessibility Equals Increased Sales: Retail environments with universal design principles see a 20-25% increase in turnover compared to non-accessible ones.

These numbers are clear: accessibility isn’t just about social responsibility, it’s smart economics.

More Than Just Ramps: Representation Matters

We need more representation from people with disability in trade professions. People with disability can significantly impact the built environment by pursuing careers in trades. But here’s the thing – according to the Australian Institute of Health, only 19.6% of technicians or trade workers are people with high needs disability, compared to 23.2% of those without disability.

This hits close to home for me. Back in high school, I rarely saw anyone with disability in trade brochures or advertising. Combine that with well-meaning but ultimately limiting assumptions from my parents about the physical demands of these jobs, and well, exploring a trade career never even crossed my mind. It wasn’t until later that I realised how societal bias can shut doors before people even have a chance to open them.

Dylan Alcott's quote along with his image. The quote reads "“If you’re going to talk about disability, make sure someone with disability has a seat at the table.”

Breaking Down Barriers in Trades

So how can we increase disability representation in trades? Here are some ideas:

  • Encourage Students: Showcase success stories of people with disability in trades. Highlight the benefits like career stability, growth, and the opportunity to make a real difference in accessibility.
  • Support for Employers: Dispelling misconceptions about hiring people with disability is crucial. Many employers worry about additional costs, but studies show this isn’t the case. People with disability bring valuable perspectives, problem-solving skills, and a unique understanding.
  • Pre-Apprenticeship Programs: Develop pre-apprenticeship programs specifically designed to address and support the needs of aspiring tradespeople with disability. These programs could provide tailored skills training, mentorship opportunities, and workplace readiness workshops.

A part of me wonders what it would have been like if I had pursued a trade during my final years of high school and beyond. Who knows, maybe I could have made a difference by contributing to making certain “designs” more accessible for everyone in the built environment.

Some helpful things that you can do to increase people with disability in the trades is talk more about disability. If you know someone with a disability in high school don’t automatically tell them or assume what they can and can’t do. Give them as much support as possible in letting them figure out what they want to pursue after high school as it can be a very stressful time for them.

Including people with disability at the beginning can reap real benefits for everyone in the future. From saving money, to environments that benefit everyone. The only factor that limits people with disability is the environment around them not their disability. The environment isn’t limited to the physical environment it also includes the people around them. Take notice of the things in the built environment that aren’t accessible to someone with a disability. 

Think to yourself “How could I improve this design?”.

Portrait of Joel

Get to know Joel

Joel has graduated with a Bachelor of Communication Design. With Joel’s lived experience of being short statured along with his passion for design. He found a great opportunity at GSA as a Junior Graphic Designer where he could combine both his lived experience and design work to improve how people with disabilities can interact with digital and printed content. 

Outside of work, Joel enjoys being active wherever he can. He enjoys playing sports and running, and has ran the Great Ocean Road and Melbourne Marathon. Joel has also represented Australia at the 2017 World Dwarf games held in Canada, competing in Basketball and Badminton.

Medibank Case Study

Medibank Logo

We increased disability awareness across departments and created better outcomes for employees and customers with disability.

AITSL Case Study

australian institute for teaching and school leadership logo

GSA gave teachers the support and training to encourage full participation from students with disability.

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