Disability inclusion training helps staff deliver better customer service

Accessing the community presents daily hurdles for many people with disability. There are obvious physical barriers. But unhelpful staff, gruff pedestrians and inaccessible information can also deter people from full participation.

Providing disability training for your staff is an important step towards removing those barriers. It helps ensure everyone feels welcomed and empowered to access what you offer.

Almost one in five Australians live with disability

Disabilities can affect people’s mobility, vision, hearing, communication or cognitive functions. They can be visible or hidden. And they often intersect, meaning a person may have multiple impairments. Access needs vary among individuals. But taking steps to improve accessibility ultimately benefits everyone.

Laws exist to protect the rights of people with disability. Yet, a lack of awareness and understanding within the community often prevents access to businesses, events and public amenities. Disability training can help by educating staff and organisations about the diverse experiences and support needs of people with disability.

A person using a wheelchair disembarks a bus. She is wearing sunglasses and a Hidden Disabilities Sunflower lanyard. She is smiling at the camera.

Equal access is good for business

As well as respecting basic human rights, there are strong commercial gains for businesses that prioritise accessibility. People with disability and their families make up a significant consumer market. When events, workplaces and services are welcoming and easy to navigate, it improves the experience for people with disability, older people, parents with young children and those with temporary impairments.

A 2018 report by the Australian Trade and Investment Commission put the size of Australia’s accessible tourism sector for overnight or day trip travel at about 1.3 million people. But as many individuals travel with others, the report highlighted the need for a multiplier of about 2.5. This lifts the sector’s size closer to 3.2 million people. The report put the national value of this sector at $8 billion.

These figures focus on travel and tourism. So imagine the economic value when day-to-day business and social activities are included. However many business operators continue to ignore the social and commercial value of improving accessibility. The commission’s report found 23% of people with disability found travel ‘so stressful it’s not worth it,’ while 22% said it’s ‘just too hard’.

All customers appreciate that accessibility and word-of-mouth recommendations are powerful. Disability training can benefit businesses by helping them better serve the whole community.

What is disability awareness training?

Disability training refers to education programs that increase awareness, understanding and empathy towards the lived experience of people with disability. They give participants a sense of what it’s like to navigate public transport, streetscapes, events and business premises with a mobility impairment or an invisible disability.

Beginning as part of the disability rights movement in the 1960s and 1970s, disability training programs have evolved. Anti-discrimination laws and disability rights advocates have seen training programs shift focus to the social model of disability. These programs not only show participants the difficulties people with disability face, but also how simple changes make a meaningful difference.

Quality programs build awareness and give ideas and direction that help policy-makers, service providers and business owners better cater to their customers’ abilities.

Modern training can include online modules, immersive simulations and comprehensive workshops.

The best programs are delivered by organisations such as Travellers Aid that are directly involved in supporting people with disability.

Travellers Aid’s Project Officer – Training Programs Jodie Bateman says the registered charity and social enterprise is now sharing its knowledge and experience through its range of training programs.

“Our disability awareness training programs are an effective way to get more people onboard in working towards a more accessible and inclusive future for everyone,” she says.

Jodie smiles at the camera as she stands near a platform at Southern Cross Station. She is wearing a Travellers Aid jacket.

Who should do disability training?

Everyone can benefit from awareness training to build empathy and inclusion.

For organisations and businesses, disability training is useful for executive management through to frontline staff. Understanding the experience of people with disability can help build more diverse workplaces. It also contributes to better customer service.

Training programs can be geared towards specific sectors – such as hospitality, retail and public transport – or they can be more general.

Why consider disability awareness training?

Accessibility is a basic human right. It is embedded in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. In Australia, federal and state laws compel organisations to provide reasonable adjustments so people with disability can equally access premises, events and information. The Australian Disability Discrimination Act 1992 prohibits discrimination and promotes inclusive practices. Under the Act, it is unlawful to discriminate against a person – including inhibiting their ability to access services and public places – because of their disability. Non-compliance can lead to complaints, reputational damage and fines.

Catering to the full spectrum of human diversity and capability benefits all customers. This can include:

  • people with physical impairment
  • people with hidden or cognitive disability
  • older people
  • non-English speakers
  • young families with prams
  • people with temporary injury.

V/Line accessibility manager Louise Hockey says disability awareness training helps staff gain a better understanding of the travel experience of customers with disability in public transport.

Louise says V/Line, which operates train and coach services across regional Victoria, values its staff learning about the various accessibility needs of its customers.

“The training is a valuable opportunity to better understand the experience of all customers using our network,” she says.

“It has enabled our staff to give mindful consideration about how our environment and customer service plays a role in assisting customers with accessibility requirements.”

Two people walk arm-in-arm along a busy city footpath. One of them wears a blindfold and is using a white cane. To their right are shop windows. To their left a tram is visible.

Key benefits of disability training for business

With community expectations around inclusion and accessibility increasing, disability awareness training is an effective way to:

  • improve your customer service
  • meet your legal responsibilities
  • drive infrastructure and policy improvements
  • show your values
  • demonstrate sector leadership.

As well as building awareness, best-practice disability training equips organisations with practical strategies. These may include:

  • communication techniques
  • event planning considerations
  • infrastructure development ideas
  • networks for ongoing feedback.

Research shows the most impactful training combines experience-based learning with the real-life perspectives of people with disability. Disability training built around lived experience helps challenge preconceptions and forge empathetic connections. It also leads to a stronger understanding of the social model of disability and how barriers can be broken down.

Brian Caccianiga contracted polio as a child and uses a wheelchair. While he doesn’t want people to pity him, he would like others to be more aware of what it is like to live with disability.

“If people are not aware, then there’s no understanding,” says Brian, who is also a Travellers Aid disability training co-facilitator.

“But as our awareness grows, so does our level of compassion and understanding.”

Co-facilitator Brian Caccianiga leads a group through Southern Cross Station. He wears a hat and hi-vis vest and is in a wheelchair. Behind him are four people One is in a wheelchair, the other wears a blindfold and is using a white cane. The pthers are walking beside them.

Training built with lived experience

Including the expertise and experience of people with disability in training programs is essential. Training programs built with lived experience challenge stereotypes and move beyond a superficial understanding of disability.

Isabella Fantasia is a co-facilitator of Travellers Aid’s in-person disability awareness training programs. She enjoys the opportunity to spark curiosity and answer questions from training participants.

“It’s a great opportunity for people to ask me questions, learn and reframe their thinking,” Isabella says.

“Through the sessions, we can challenge a lot of the stigma and bias people have, as they get to hear about the challenges we encounter when trying to access the community and just be included.“

Isabella says disability awareness training can’t give the full experience of what it is like to live with disability, but is still a valuable experience.

“It is better that they experience at least a minor amount compared to nothing at all because, at the end of the day, they hopefully can grow a little bit more compassionate,” she says.

“The training is about more than spreading awareness. It’s about challenging thinking and making sure participants really understand the barriers we face and why these things make it complicated for us to get out into the world.”

Modern disability and inclusion training best practice

As discussed, the most impactful disability awareness training is designed and facilitated with people who have lived experience of disability. Whether the training you choose for your organisation is online or in-person, input from people with disability will ensure more accurate and authentic learning.

Online disability awareness training

Maybe it’s not possible to attend in-person training. Or perhaps you want training modules available to your staff at times that suit their needs. This is where online training options are ideal.

Online training combines the convenience of self-paced learning with relevant and practical information that participants can put to use straight away.

Information is often presented in a range of formats, such as text, video, audio and graphics, to keep content engaging and memorable. Trainees can test how well they have absorbed the material through online quizzes.

A person in a wheelchair shares her lived experience in discussion with a group of disability training participants. The group is on a tram.

In-person disability awareness training

Learning through doing is a memorable and effective form of disability training. In-person experiential training programs give participants an invaluable sense of what it is like to navigate public transport, streetscapes, business premises and events with disability.

Travellers Aid’s Jodie Bateman says it is common for people to experience ‘lightbulb moments’ during the sessions.

“Often people come to these experiential sessions not knowing what to expect. But, as they spend time with our co-facilitators asking questions and sharing a little in the lived experience of disability, they come away with fresh empathy and insights into the day-to-day reality of a significant proportion of their customer base,” Jodie says.

Is disability simulation effective?

Disability simulation is where people who do not have disability borrow wheelchairs, canes and other mobility equipment or use props to approximate the experience of disability. The usefulness of simulated disability to promote awareness attracts mixed opinions.

Used in isolation, disability simulation can reinforce stereotypes and biases by emphasising feelings of helplessness among trainees.

People with disability say it also has an unbalanced focus on physical impairment and does not demonstrate the complexity of their everyday experiences.

Isabella Fantasia says it is not possible to simulate her experience as an ambulatory wheelchair user who is also neurodivergent.

“Busy roads are very overwhelming because they’re so loud. And then you might have the sun bright in your eyes,” she says.

“It is impossible to simulate and have someone else understand how much your brain is processing in those moments.”

She says those without disability don’t also deal with chronic pain, fatigue and the frequent impatience and carelessness of other people.

Research suggests that having people with disability help deliver simulation activities can provide a more meaningful experience to trainees.

This is because people with disability can:

  • challenge beliefs and attitudes with personal experiences
  • encourage critical thinking around ableist behaviour and language
  • point out the underlying systems that create access issues
  • demystify how they navigate and negotiate inaccessible environments.

Isabella agrees. She says disability simulation and training that includes people with disability delivers a more authentic experience.

“They end up learning a lot about the feelings we encounter, the anxiety of not being able to rely on your senses and the stress of trying to navigate public transport without support,” she says.

“I’m also very strict with them and don’t let them use their legs, even when they get tired, because for us we don’t stop being disabled when the simulation is over.”

Disability training co-facilitator Isabella Fantasia stands at a tram stop platform. She is smiling at the camera and wears a garland of flowers on her head.

What to look for in a disability awareness program provider

When choosing a disability training provider, look for one whose programs are designed and delivered with people who have lived experience of disability. Always find out if those people are paid for their time and expertise.

Look at the language used to describe the programs. Is it strength-based and affirming, or does it focus on deficits, problems and weaknesses?

What is the provider’s own experience? Do they work with and understand the needs and expectations of people with disability?

Find out how long the session runs. Does it provide practical learning as well as an opportunity for questions and discussion?

When choosing a training program, ask the provider:

  • What specialist qualifications and lived experience do the facilitators have?
  • How can the training be tailored for your organisation’s needs?
  • Will there be ongoing support to help implement learning?
  • How is the training evaluated?
  • What is the feedback from past participants?

Jump on board the improvement loop

As anyone involved in accessibility will tell you, there is no simple checklist to tick and flick your accessibility responsibilities.

Disability training plants seeds. It is then up to each participant to nurture and grow an inclusive habitat by building on what they learn.

By taking part in disability awareness training, you can expect to gain:

  • practical skills and strategies to foster inclusion
  • awareness of social and medical models of disability
  • understanding of human rights and anti-discrimination principles
  • perspective on disability as a natural part of human diversity
  • motivation to identify areas for continuous improvement.

If you participate in experiential training co-delivered by people with disability, you will also gain invaluable networks to draw on as you put your learning in place.

Understanding that accessibility requires continuous improvement keeps it front of mind. It makes real the vision of a society with equal access and participation for people of all abilities.

In this way, you can continue to build on your training and become part of the solution to building a more accessible and inclusive world.

Two people walk arm-in-arm along a busy city footpath. One is wearing a blindfold and using a white cane.

Ready to find out more?

Travellers Aid’s current range of disability training programs includes:

All our programs are co-designed with people who have lived experience of disability. Our in-person programs include people with disability as paid co-facilitators who accompany participants and share their lived experience and knowledge.

In these immersive workshops, participants use wheelchairs, blindfolds and other simulation equipment to gain a small sense of what it’s like to navigate public transport and streetscapes with a physical impairment or invisible disability.

Find out more about how Travellers Aid is your go-to social procurement supplier for access and inclusion training