Why you need to use an Access Consultant on your next Project

Ms. Joe Manton, Director Access Institute, ACAA & Williamson Fellow

Access Consultants have been operating in the marketplace for more than thirty years. The profession began with a few interested people, some with disabilities, who were working in the design and development of the built environment and recognised the need to ensure buildings were accessible to everyone.

Unfortunately, due to the lack of mandated Access Standards, (introduced in 2011), many building developments occurred without any consideration given to the needs of people with disabilities. This cohort was historically perceived as a small and marginalised group of people living in institutions, with little political influence or financial leverage and therefore not a high priority for consideration of their needs in the development of built environment projects.

Many of the access challenges that people encounter today in the built environment are a result of the lack of access provided to older and existing buildings and facilities before building access legislation was introduced in 2011.

However, over time community attitudes have changed, and the rights of people with disabilities to equitable, dignified access were acknowledged and cemented in international, national, and state legislation. Disability discrimination legislation such as the Disability Discrimination Act (1992) was introduced, and Access Standards were developed and mandated by legislation including the Disability (Access to Premises – Buildings) Standards 2010 at a federal level and the National Construction Code (NCC) access provisions adopted at a State level. In addition, governments began to understand the significant benefits and opportunities offered by incorporating the Principles of Universal Design into infrastructure projects to support the use of the bult environment by everyone.

Over the past five years, the introduction of the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS), has further recognised the large number and diversity of people with a wide range of access challenges living in the community. The introduction of the NDIS has brought the need for improved access to the built environment further to the forefront and provided a platform to better understand the needs of millions of people with disabilities in Australia.

The NDIS has highlighted the need for appropriate housing and support services as well as reinforcing the need for access to generic buildings and facilities in the broader community for everyone.

Of course, access challenges are not only experienced by people with disabilities. Families with small children, staff using trollies, people with temporary injuries and the increasing numbers of Baby Boomers and older adults are all market drivers when it comes to the need for good access.
Baby Boomers, the fastest growing demographic in the community – have a wide variety of access needs that are increasing at a rapid rate. These access needs include challenges with mobility, vision and hearing loss, and cognitive decline. They are also politically savvy, have a high proportion of disposable income due to years of investment in the property sector and access to and investment in superannuation, as well as a significantly higher level of education (supported by the free education system of the 1970s). Baby Boomers can articulate, advocate, and apply political pressure to ensure that their needs are met as they get older, which includes access needs relating to buildings and facilities – commercial, community and residential.

Baby Boomers want to age in place and not be forced to relocate because their dwelling can no longer meet their changing access needs. They want to stay engaged in the community and don’t want to be denied this opportunity due to barriers built into community, shopping, and residential precincts. Of course, the financial implications associated with people having to move into supported age care is also a significant market driver as people age.

It is fair to say that in the past 10 years we have moved from Access Standards that were ‘a suggestion for developers to consider’, to legislation that now mandates the application of a variety of access requirements, some quite complex, to ensure the built environment provides appropriate access for more people.

With the introduction of the Commonwealth Disability (Access to Premises – Buildings) Standards 2010 and the increased understanding of the benefits of Universal Design in the built environment, engaging an Access Consultant on built environment projects is imperative.
Smart developers must ensure they meet minimum requirements for access to ensure they are future proofing their developments and addressing access beyond the minimum, mandatory requirements, to address the access needs of all end users.

As well as governments progressively introducing a range of access legislation and standards, some governments and private sector organisations have also developed or applied additional access standards and requirements to their projects. Access Consultants can assist developers to understand and apply these additional requirements.

Some State governments have also introduced requirements for evidence to be provided demonstrating that the Principles of Universal Design have been incorporated into project designs, prior to funding being made available for these projects.

For example, in Victoria the State Government recently introduced its Universal Design Policy that builds on Sport and Recreation Victoria requirements, that require government funded Sport and recreation infrastructure projects to incorporate the Principles of Universal Design, not just minimum access requirements.

In South Australia, government policy requires consideration of Universal Design Principles to be addressed at the planning stage of a development. In many other States, requirements for the consideration of Universal Design Principles to be applied to a variety of housing developments, based on the Livable Housing Design Guidelines has been in play for more than ten years.

The introduction of the Specialist Disability Design Standard (SDA) that must be met by dwelling developments to potentially attract funding from NDIS participants, must also be applied to relevant developments.
The National Construction Code (NCC) in 2019 was updated to include requirements for Accessible Adult Change Facilities. The updated NCC in 2022 will incorporate new requirements for livable housing design as mandatory criteria in new dwellings.

Many of the original Access Consultants initially based their access advice on the minimum requirements of the very limited Access Standards, (not mandated in legislation), developed as a guide for minimum access to buildings. Now their advice must span a far greater range of requirements to meet the needs of many more people.

Since 2010, Access Consultants have been supported by the introduction of nationally recognised qualifications that underpin their role, either the Certificate IV or Diploma of Access Consulting. These qualifications have been mandatory since 2015 for any Access Consultant wishing to become an Associate or Accredited member of the peak access consulting body, the Association of Consultants Access Australia (ACAA).

If an Access Consultant is to provide specific assessment and advice services in relation to the Livable Housing Australia Design Guidelines, the SDA Design Standard, or the Changing Places Specification (Accessible Adult Change Facilities), they must also meet specific prerequisites that include authorised training and testing and be registered with the relevant authority to undertake this work.

Qualified and Accredited Access Consultants can navigate the myriad of access requirements and provide advice and support to developers to ensure that all these requirements are considered and addressed in their projects.

Developers are responsible for clearly articulating what services they require from an Access Consultant. This can include advice regarding minimum mandatory access requirements that will only meet the needs of a limited number of people, or advice regarding Universal Design considerations that will better address the access needs of all users. Developers also need to be aware, that meeting minimum access requirements as per Australian Standards will not necessarily protect them from complaints under the DDA. There are far more legal obligations regarding the provision of equitable, dignified access than the minimum technical benchmarks.

With an improved understanding of the large market share of people with disabilities, most of whom do not live in institutions but are part of the broader community, as well as the market drivers relating to Baby Boomers and older adults, developers cannot afford to ignore the broadest interpretation of access to the built environment when designing and building their projects.

Addressing the wide range of access considerations and requirements and incorporating the Principles of Universal Design, will assist in future proofing developments, reduce the need for retrofitting, improve outcomes for all users and afford significant protection from discrimination complaints.

Engaging a qualified Access Consultant is as important as engaging a qualified architect, designer, or builder, to achieve the best results possible.

‘This is some of the best training I have ever done in accessibility. It not only makes you very aware but also gives you all the tools and qualification to conduct a full access audit. It has allowed myself and others in our team to provide qualified audits and advice on accessibility issues on campus.’ — Julie Harrison, Manager Access and Inclusion Division of Student Life, The Australian National University