How Guide Dogs caters for all walks of life

Specifically designed for people who are blind or have low vision and others with different disabilities, the new Sydney flagship office of Guide Dogs NSW/ACT is a template for the disability-inclusive future workplace.  It features benches and furniture with rounded corners, textured strips of flooring to guide those who use canes and large-text notices in contrasting colours along with other carefully considered design elements. Guide-dogs are also catered for, with resting places, refreshment stations and desk tether points so the dogs can be secured.

The office design was informed by extensive consultation with staff and clients which continued through the design and construction phase. Hallways are wide enough to accommodate two dogs with two handlers walking past one another, or two wheelchairs abreast, and there is a hearing loop for those who have hearing difficulties. Flexible workstations can be adjusted to best suit employees’ needs.

The office can accommodate about 100 employees and about ten per cent of the current workforce has a disability of some kind, says Guide Dogs NSW/ACT chief people officer Gemma Farquhar. “We really want a diverse employment base,” she says.  “It’s important for us to have diversity on the agenda.”

The organisation is keen to hire more people with disability and the premises launched last year provides a world-class facility for potential employees, she adds, noting the organisation can work with new hires to specifically meet their needs.

Current employees who are blind or have low vision are enthusiastic about the new office, she says. “They say it has absolutely transformed their working environment,” she adds, “they say there are no barriers to overcome and the office is a really safe nurturing environment.”

Guide Dogs NSW/ACT caters for about 4,000 clients and guide dogs account for about 20 per cent of the organisation’s capacity – other services include technical assistance, such as helping clients become accustomed to using a mobile phone or a computer and occupational therapy – helping clients with the tasks of daily life.

The Sydney office serves as a template for other organisations interested in providing a welcoming working environment for employees with disabilities. “A lot of people come in and look at the building,” Farquhar says. “We have a lot of donor functions in the building and occasional puppy training in the building – it’s a really diverse space.”

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Social Ventures Australia

Specialist disability housing

Young men and woman have been left to live in aged care homes; others with disability spend their lives in hospital wards because there is simply nowhere else for them to go. As many as 12,000 of these Australians with extreme functional impairment and very high support needs are stuck in limbo while they wait for appropriate housing.

Specialist disability accommodation is covered by the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS), so Social Ventures Australia decided to join forces with Federation Asset Management to create the Synergis Fund and show the construction of specialist disability housing could show a healthy return on investment.

New specialist accommodation can be let to tenants with disability who can pay rent from their disability accommodation payments, disability pension and commonwealth rental allowance, thereby providing investors with a rental stream return on their investment.

Social Ventures CEO Suzie Riddell says the housing can be individual villas or apartments designed to suit people with varying disabilities: some have ramps and extra-wide hallways, or hooks for pulleys in the bathroom and bedroom. Furniture such as tables and chairs, and kitchen benches are adjustable, and user-friendly and easy-to-use modifications will ensure the accommodation can meet a range of needs.

On some occasions people might share accommodation, but they would have their own spaces. Some of the housing would have room for carer accommodation as well.

“People on this scheme can now live independently,” Riddell says. “It was designed to attract capital to encourage people to build more specialist disability houses and to show institutional investors that this is a legitimate asset class and a good bet for them.”

The housing can be metropolitan or regional in all states in Australia. “We have a pretty good understanding of where the need is,” Riddell says. “We hope to build in places where people want to live and near their families, friends and support networks.”

Thirty-five properties providing accommodation for 110 tenants have been completed and more than 100 have been approved to house a further 423 people with disability. The goal of the Fund is to eventually provide housing for more than 2,000 people with disability. The new accommodation lifts a huge burden from parents and other relatives who are now caring for people with disability at home.

The newly-housed tenants are delighted, Riddell says. One had been living in hospital for 18 months because he had no safe and stable accommodation to go to, so the new home was a life-changer for him. “It was heartwarming,” she adds, “he could move into his own house with his own sound system and host his friends and family”.

Bolton Clarke

Buddy App

Loneliness is an increasing burden as we age, partners are lost and friend circles shrink. Bolton Clarke, Australia’s largest independent non-for-profit aged care provider, has been buoyed by the success of a trial “Buddy app” intended to help residents of its aged care homes communicate and stay in touch.

Bolton Clarke innovation manager Sharon McKinnon says about 90 aged care home and retirement village residents were surveyed about their daily challenges and loneliness and isolation loomed large.

The pandemic added to the problem. “It was difficult for older Australians and isolating for them,” she says, but the Covid check-in requirement meant many of the residents bought smart phones and tablets and while they understood the potential of the technology, they were worried about scams.

The company developed a prototype app for retirement village residents to use, and about 95 were recruited for a Buddy app pilot which proved to be a resounding success, McKinnon adds. A village drop-in centre was staffed for a month for face-to-face troubleshooting when the app was introduced.

“They like to know what’s going on, they like reminders of events,” she says. “There’s a news feed so they could share information, and we could share information. One group of residents set up a chatgroup for a footy tipping competition. They spent every Friday and Sat night chatting about their tips.”

A payment system was added to the app, so residents no longer brought cash to the office. By the end of the pilot the Buddy app had proved itself a valuable addition and 100 per cent of the surveyed residents wanted it to be continued.

It’s like a little Facebook for the village,” McKinnon says. “Residents might post a little photo with a little description to share with the village. They can respond with an emoji, and they can use the chat messages. It might take them longer, but that doesn’t bother them.”

Bolton Clarke will now gradually introduce the Buddy app to the company’s remaining 37 retirement villages and explore the possibility of introducing it to its 87 aged care homes and 130,000 community-based clients.

Australian Financial Review