Written by Senior Policy Officer for the Physical Disability Council of NSW (PDCN), Hayley Stone

I recently wrote a response to the Regulatory Impact Statement around minimum access standards for all new homes, commissioned by the Australian Building and Construction Board. The Regulatory Impact Statement looked at the costs and benefits across various building standards, including Universal Design. I explore this issue in the following article…

So, what is Universal Design?

For those of you unfamiliar with the term, Universal Design is the concept that you can build a home that suits the accessibility needs of anyone at any stage of their lives.

This form of design is not specifically about disability. However, it can solve many of the usual access challenges people with disability experience across mainstream housing design.

Instead, Universal Design is simply about building houses that work for the greatest number of people for the longest possible time. That may be families with young children, people with temporary injuries, older persons or people with disabilities and their families.

Does Australia have Universal Design?

You may be surprised to know that we do have Universal Design within Australia – see here. There are nationally agreed guidelines on designing homes to Universal Design standards.

We also have industry professionals qualified to assess properties across universal design standards.

The problem is, there hasn’t been sufficient uptake across the housing industry to put Universal Design on the mainstream radar. This means that most people have never come across Universal Design or seen its advantages. The circular nature of this is, that because people don’t know about Universal Design, there is no market for it, so it has limited appeal to developers, and so on.  

How does our current housing system meet our access needs?

The Australian housing system fails many families. We have a severe shortage of accessible housing stock across both the private and social housing markets.

As a result, many people are forced to modify their homes or live in properties with limited accessibility. The situation is particularly dire for older Australians and those with physical disability.

As of 31 March 2020, there were 136,909 older Australians accessing Home Care Packages to support them to stay at home. A further 59,071 people were approved and waiting to receive the home care package they have been assessed as needing.[1]

At the same time, younger people with physical disability and their families tell us that it is almost impossible to find accessible housing within the mainstream market. Less than 30% of NDIS participants surveyed in the most recent NDIS Participant Outcomes Report consider that the NDIS has helped them to find a home that is good for them.[2]

Why should we mandate universal design?

Part of the reason why we haven’t caught onto universal design relates to how our society views accessibility. Accessibility isn’t valued until it becomes necessary. We often don’t see that accessibility is equally relevant to, say, a mum with a pram, as it is for someone in a wheelchair.

Many of us also don’t think about the fact that we may have guests at our home who use mobility devices. Or that wider doorframes can be a huge advantage when moving large furniture. Accessibility is seen in very narrow terms as something that is only relevant to people who are older or those with physical disabilities.

At the same time, our society focuses almost exclusively on home care services and residential aged care as the way we support those with increased accessibility requirements.

As our accessibility needs change over our lives, we reconcile ourselves to modifying our homes until we reach a point in which we struggle to maintain independence. Then, the standard solution is to enter into the residential aged care system.   

Whilst there is a clear need for universal design, until we shift these deeply intrenched views there will not be a market for universal design. Proponents have spent decades promoting Universal Design as a solution to the growing gap between the type of housing we have, versus the type of housing we need to live comfortably and age in place.

Mandating minimum accessibility standards for all new builds has increasingly become the most logical way to rectify this market failure.

What would this look like for people with disability?

Achieving mandatory universal housing design standards would be a huge step forward in providing people with physical disability a choice in how and where they want to live. People would be able to count on a base level of access, both in their own homes and the homes of those they visit.

But perhaps most importantly, universal design standards would change our notion of accessibility. We would move from housing design as being reactive to a particular access need – focusing on what a person can’t do – to proactive. It would become simply a sensible consideration that everyone should make as part of the biggest financial investment of our lives.

How can you help?

It’s vital as a community to speak up about the inadequacies of the current housing market for people with physical disabilities. We must call for change. Deliberations are still being made on this issue, so we encourage you to contact your Federal MP and share your accessibility experiences.

The more we can highlight the desperate need for homes built to universal design, the greater chance we have of making this a reality. You can learn more about Universal Design and the work that has been done to date on this here.

More from PDCN

You can find a link to PDCN’s submission and read the original version of this universal design in housing article on the PDCN website.

The Physical Disability Council of NSW is the peak advocacy body for people with physical disability in NSW. Full Membership of PDCN is open to all people with physical disability and those who support them are eligible for Associate Membership. You can learn more about becoming a PDCN Member (or Associate Member) here.


[1] Australian Government, Department of Health, Home Care Packages Program Data Report 3rd Quarter 2019-20 – 1 January – 31 March 2020, July 2020 <https://gen-agedcaredata.gov.au/www_aihwgen/media/Home_care_report/Home-Care-Data-Report-3rd-qtr-2019-20-PDF.pdf> accessed 27 August 2020, p. 10

[2] Australian Government, National Disability Insurance Agency, NDIS Participant Outcomes 30 June 2019, June 2019 < https://data.ndis.gov.au/reports-and-analyses/participant-outcomes-report> accessed 27 August 2020.