It’s been over 27 years since the Australian government passed the Disability Discrimination Act 1992 (Cth). Designed to prevent discrimination against people with disabilities in a number of areas including employment, education as well as the provision of goods and services, it also aims to promote an inclusive community. Australian Bureau of Statistics data from 2015 reveals 4.3 million Australians report living with a disability. Of those aged 15 and over and living in a household, one in 12 reported experiencing discrimination or unfair treatment.

According to the Australian Human Rights Commission’s (AHRC) 2016 report Access for all: Improving accessibility for consumers with disability, disabilities can be permanent or temporary. This includes “physical, intellectual, sensory, neurological, learning or psychosocial disability; a disease or illness; physical disfigurement; or medical condition or work-related injury”.

Under the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA), both direct and indirect discrimination are unlawful. The AHRC lists refusing entry to a person with a vision impairment who is accompanied by a guide dog as an example of direct discrimination along with not providing a ramp or lift for access.

The issue extends beyond the law. While many businesses adhere to protocol, they still aren’t doing enough to truly welcome customers with a disability. A ramp might allow access to the premises, but is there enough room for diners to move around freely once seated?

“I understand people want to just get as many [seats] in as they can, but they don’t generally think about accessibility,” says Craig Shanahan, a chef with vision impairment, who recently completed an Advance Diploma in Hospitality Management at TAFE NSW.

But things are changing, with developers such as Lendlease working with accessibility front of mind. When building the King Street precinct in Brisbane, the Lendlease team took into account everything from footpath width and the design of entryways to countertop heights and amenities.

“We’ve worked closely with each of the food and beverage operators in terms of the design of their shopfronts and the way their restaurants and outlets will be laid out,” says Matthew Miller,  development director Qld at Lendlease.

Over his seven-year career, Shanahan has built up a list of issues that affect the dining experience. He hopes to rectify a number of them when he opens his own venue later in the year. On the agenda is educating staff. “People aren’t aware of how to go about helping vision impaired people,” says Shanahan.

Menus aren’t often presented in an accessible manner either and tables are frequently littered with excess cutlery, napkins, glasses and decorations. “Everyone is cutting down on staff, so they put cutlery and serviettes on the table in a container,” he says. Shanahan, who has some vision in one eye, has found himself feeling around to find the cutlery he needs to enjoy a meal.

Shanahan recommends looking at options including Braille (although usage is declining), as well as making sure menus are readily available and easy to find on websites. “On our phones, we have voiceover, so if you have your menu online, you can read it off there,” he says. “I’m going to have iPads, probably two or three.”

Ultimately, it’s about the customer journey from beginning to end. “Customers are number one, make them feel welcome,” says Shanahan. “A lot of [vision-impaired] people I’ve met have one café they go to because they don’t like going to others just for the fact they almost feel like they aren’t going to get treated in the same way.”

It often comes down to a snowball effect starting with poor website design (making information hard to find), bad seating arrangements, a hard-to-read menu and untrained staff. All of these elements combined can lead to a lackluster experience.

Being in the business of hospitality should be considered grounds to go above and beyond the stipulations laid out in the DDA, which means ensuring staff are equipped with the knowledge and tools needed to ensure the venue is inclusive. “It’s our default position now,” says Miller. “We’re trying to create great places … A great place should not discriminate against anyone. The only way you can do that is to make them absolutely fully accessible.”

As an industry built on socialising, operating under a social model of disability should be a key concern — that means thinking about the way spaces, rather than disabilities, inhibit people. There’s a lot to learn. “I understand how people may not know; I didn’t understand much about these things before I became blind,” says Shanahan.

But, the onus is on the industry to create inclusive spaces.

What can your business do better?

There are a number of national and state-based peak bodies that advocate and provide information specific to different needs. Here are a few resources to get you started on the journey toward accessibility.

The Australian Network on Disability offers tools for assessing and benchmarking your businesses’ accessibility as well as consultancy services to help improve strategy.

The Australian Federation of Disability Organisation provides a wide range of resources about disability, discrimination, access, communication and more.

The Australian Human Rights Commission has a number of guides intended to help businesses understand and better implement the Disability Discrimination Act, as well as the rights of people living with disability.

Good Access is Good Business reports are available from a number of government bodies, including local councils. A comprehensive checklist for cafés and restaurants is available through the City of Melbourne. The guide covers everything from access to and within a premises, provision of information, staff training and communication skills and a plethora of other considerations.

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