For an industry that involves climbing ladders and working in confined spaces, construction seems inaccessible for someone in a wheelchair. But according to construction academic from the University of South Australia, Jonathan Fritsch, this isn’t always the case.

James* has always been interested in construction. His interest stems from his family’s involvement within the industry. He wants to follow in his family’s footsteps and study Construction Management.

However, James was born with a physical disability called Spina Bifida. He fears that his disability will be a barrier to employment and preclude him from working in the construction industry. He wonders if it’s at all possible to work in the industry as a wheelchair user.

For an industry that is heavily reliant on job functions that need you to climb up ladders, work in confined spaces and from heights, it would seem an inaccessible industry for someone like James to work in.

This image of the construction industry not suited to people with disability is constantly put forward. But it’s false – there are many opportunities in the construction industry for people with disability.

Disability is not black and white

In 2018, it was estimated that construction industry employment reached over 1,130,200, and of these, only 91,600 people with a disability were employed (ABS 2018). Current data fails to show a more specific employment picture but remember, disability is not black and white, not everyone with Spina Bifida uses wheelchairs, and not everyone who uses a wheelchair has Spina Bifida. This number would cover types like sensory, intellectual, mental and physical disabilities.

The underrepresentation of people with disability in the Australian construction industry suggests that there’s room for improvement.

Recruiters perceive barriers to people with disability working in construction, but this isn’t accurate

Research into disability and construction are scant, but a 2019 study sheds some insight into the barriers that people with disability face when trying to find employment in the construction industry.

The study surveyed those who make recruitment decisions in construction subcontracting firms. It revealed that people who recruit prioritise those they perceive to have the lowest barriers. People with disability were ranked second highest in perceived barriers among the six disadvantaged groups in the sample.

Construction employers perceived people with disability to be incapable of working long hours, needing a modifying workplace, having health needs and adding costs to training.

Because of these perceived barriers, people with disability were ranked second to last in order of hiring priority among the six disadvantaged groups in their sample (Loosemore et al. 2019). Construction employers perpetuated the view that people with disability are incapable of contributing productively to the labour force or their company.

Underestimating the experiences and capabilities of people with disability creates an unjust barrier to employment and is one of the primary reasons for the lower participation rates and underemployment of people with disability in the workforce (Bonaccio et al. 2019).

Showing diversity in construction is doable

In Australia, there are very few construction industry firms actively involved in breaking down these barriers. Australian construction firms Lendlease appears to be leading the way when it comes to diversity and inclusion in the industry.

Showing a huge focus on providing meaningful work opportunities and removing barriers to employment for people with disability.

Alysha Abbott, diversity and inclusion manager at Lendlease, highlights that of the Lendlease employees who have been identified, there are a range of disabilities present.

“We are open to accommodating different needs and to support a diverse workforce.”

She said that if there is a way that the company can reasonably accommodate the needs of people with disability, it will.

“But it does come down to the inherent requirements of the job and the complexity of any barriers.”

She said that the company has successfully accommodated one of its site offices for an employee who recently became a wheelchair user after a non-work-related accident.

This is a unique challenge, especially considering the physical and temporary nature of a construction site and the associated health and safety obligations involved.

However, this is a positive step forward and needs to become the norm, rather than a special effort only made by those who have the time, resources, inclination or legal requirement to do so.

Construction is modernising and not every role is onsite

As the construction industry evolves and technology advances so do the roles and environments. A career in construction doesn’t have to be spent on a construction site. There is a huge range of work opportunities where environments are accessible.

Some of these roles include estimator, contract administrator, scheduler/planner, BIM coordinator/Revit designer and quantity surveyor. Many of these roles require familiarity with innovative software programs and work out of a head office or a field office on a construction site.

Also, when it comes to access, mobility and inclusion in the built environment, there is a growing SDA sector (Specialist Disability Accommodation) and public access (AS 1428). Involving more people with physical disabilities in the design and decision-making processes about our built environment, would not only be empowering but would influence better practice to inclusive design.

As a result of these changes, the industry is now needing a lot more people with different experiences and capabilities. The industry needs to start being proactively involved in recruitment programs, to encourage people with disability to explore the industry as a career path.

For James, he can work in the industry as a wheelchair user. The construction industry offers an enormous variety of opportunities in different environments, it is arguably the most diverse of all industries when it comes to career paths.

The industry needs to start addressing this underrepresentation by harnessing the experiences and capabilities of people with disability to these opportunities.

There is no doubt still a lot of bias that the industry needs to work through, but let’s see the opportunities, not the barriers.

The student’s name has been changed to maintain confidentiality.

Jonathan Fritsch is an online course facilitator of construction management at UniSA Online, University of South Australia.

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  1. I hope “wheelchair born” is a typo. Good to see this topic. I would think that the construction industry actually “creates” people with disability – crook backs and dicky knees for a start. Perhaps we can turn our attention to what is actually built in terms of accessibility for all. That includes our homes. Unfortunately the Consultation RIS on Accessible Housing seems to conclude that because the so-called costs outweigh some of the benefits the status quo should remain. But it’s up to the politicians to make the final decision about improving the design of our homes so we can age in place, work and be COVID safe.