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The Economics of Accessibility and Universal Design


International Symbol of Access

Concerns regarding the costs associated with making buildings accessible are often raised by architects, builders and building owners, but questions abound regarding how these costs compare to the benefits derived.

Over the past two years, Australia has seen a significant change in the legislation requirements for the provision of access to people with disabilities, the Disability (Access to Premises – Buildings) Standard 2010 and its harmonisation with the Building Code of Australia being the most significant. Prior to the implementation of the new regulations, a series of Regulatory Impact Statements (RIS) attempted to quantify the costs associated with the changes they brought.

Predictably, incorporating the new standard’s requirements into new buildings was found to be more cost effective then retrofitting existing buildings. The RIS to the Access to Premises – Buildings standard reported cost estimates as low as one per cent of total construction cost in some new developments. Multi-storey buildings with heritage significance were identified as building types likely to incur the highest costs.

While the costs are somewhat tangible and can be more readily quantified, the benefits may not be.

Organisations offering public spaces for the provision of their goods and services may be losing out on possible sales by not meeting the needs for people with a disability and older people (estimated at 18.5 per cent and 14 per cent, respectively, of Australia’s population according the Australian Bureau of Statistics).

The employment rate for people with disabilities is also substantially lower to that of the overall population, with some estimates as low as 38 per cent for wheelchair users. This has several flow-on effects including that a higher proportion of people rely on government pensions and that this portion of the population earns considerably less on average than the rest of the population. An increase in workplace participation would result in people with disabilities having a larger income, enabling them to participate further as consumers in the economy. It would also lead to significant savings in government spending.


Many of the provisions for access to people with disability also have implications for the safe use of buildings. For instance, wider passageways make the movement of goods and furniture easier and safer for service people, stairs with well-designed handrails on both sides may reduce the incidence of accidents, slip resistant floor finishes and increased lighting levels may reduce falls. The potential savings in hospitalisation and medical expenses as well as lost productivity could be significant, but would also be impossible to accurately predict and measure.

Furthermore, there are benefits derived by other groups such as families with small children who use prams and people with temporary disabilities such as sporting injuries. Greater accessibility could also lead to increases in specific industries such as tourism.

Many additional benefits can be identified within the residential sector. The combination of inappropriate housing design and an aging population bring about issues such as increased hospital admissions, and home care and support and early aged care admissions become increasingly prevalent.

The costs of future modifications to existing housing stock are also very significant with little support from government available to people needing such modifications. Savings could also be found in preventing falls within homes as well as caregiver injuries for those managing the needs of people with disabilities in less than favourable environments.

Clearly, there is a real need for further empirical evidence to be produced to better evaluate these questions. The potential benefits are many and varied and the beneficiaries extend far beyond the needs of people with disabilities.

By George Xinos


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