Meet John Kenwright, Accessibility & Inclusion Coordinator at Parks Victoria and the brains behind programs such as the TrailRider all-terrain wheelchair program and The Walk in the Park program, designed in tandem with Blind Sports & Recreation Victoria. Programs, he says, that are developed in conjunction with people such as the late Dr David Stratton.

“He was a keen bushwalker and he had Multiple Sclerosis (MS) and so he was no longer able to get out into nature, including to more wild parts of parks as he’d done for many years” 

“He really helped me understand the importance of what these all-terrain wheelchairs mean to people.”

“That was a key highlight for me, not just in rolling out the program, but the amazing people that I met who had a passion for getting out into nature but had low mobility “

As a finalist of the 2017 Victorian Disability Awards and long-time disability advocate, it’s clear John’s important work shows no signs of slowing down.

“I’ve worked in the disability field for many years prior to working at Parks Victoria, he says.

“I first got involved in actually coordinating programs, developing programs in the community to enable people with disability to have more independence and have opportunities to pursue what they wanted to do “.

“It was very important for me that they had that support to enable them to pursue whatever their passions were”

Today, he works with staff across Victoria to improve the level of access for Parks Victoria, visitor experiences. His role encompasses everything from breaking down existing barriers to park visitations to co-designing equipment and facilities that make activities such as canoeing, mountain bike riding and hikes possible for people of all abilities. 

Over the years, his numerous initiatives and co-designed products helped nab Parks Victoria the 2017 National Tourism Award (Specialised Tourism Services Category).

A testament, John notes, to centring accessibility from the outset. 

“It sends a message that all people are welcome to parks and that they’re being catered for ” 

Amongst one of Parks Victoria’s latest projects includes the Jells Park nature-based all-abilities playscape, which included a brand-new Changing Places toilet. He stresses the importance of Changing Places for tourism providers, park and facility owners alike. 

“There are so many visitors with disability in the past that I have spoken to, who love coming to parks, but they can only stay there for a few hours because their personal care needs required them to get back to home or the day centre where they’re from”

“Changing Places is a key amenity to have. It really enables them to extend their stay and participate in a whole range of activities with their friends and family that may not be possible if we didn’t have that facility”

“Parks Victoria is really committed to Changing Places and we’re hoping to actually roll out more of them in the future”

John also knows as we do, that accessibility has innumerable benefits – including great business. 

“By having a Changing Places facility, it’s another incentive to inspire people with disabilities to come and visit their business and access their services and products.”

“It promotes increased visitation. Research has shown that a lot of people with disability access tourism destinations and other businesses often during the week, during the off-peak times”

“During those quiet times, businesses are not getting much business generation, because they may rely very much on weekend traffic or public holiday traffic. 

This focus on accessibility, he notes, is especially important for tourism providers.

“It’s a significant market that a number of countries around the world have been working on for some time now, mainly due to the aging population, but also due to instances of disability in a population,” he explains. 

“One in five people have a disability of some type in Australia, and we’ve also got an aging population, as I mentioned. A number of these older Australians acquire disabilities later in life.”

“They’re really needing better access to tourism experiences and tourism activities, whether it be overnight accommodation or a destination in a park, etc. So, these are really important”

On top of his regular duties, John develops partnership programs with disability organisations to enable people with disability to get the full health and wellbeing benefits of getting out into nature. 

With COVID-19 plunging the state into its sixth lockdown last August, John stresses the importance of accessibility during this time. 

“It’s become more important now with the COVID-19 lockdowns of visiting parks and receiving the many mental health and other benefits”

“People with disability are now getting the support that they require to get out and participate in outdoor recreation, or to have an overnight stay somewhere. That’s also another factor that’s driving this growing market”

“Pre-COVID, it’s estimated that the domestic accessible tourism market to be around an eight-billion-dollar industry. And that’s not including incoming visitors from overseas.”

“It is a significant market and a very important one for businesses to really look into and see if they can expand their business to be more inclusive.” He says.  

A vital, often overlooked aspect of creating accessible spaces John notes, is promotion.

“A lot of businesses may be quite accessible, but they don’t actually advertise it very well”

They need to provide that information on their websites and promotional material. They also need to have good imagery, so people can then actually make an informed decision of whether the business or that destination is going to meet their requirements”

But it isn’t just their own channels facility owners can choose to advertise on, John notes.

“There’s a number of tourism websites, for example, that are starting up now where you can list your business.”

“It’s also ensuring that you’re advertising through disability newsletters or user-generated content such as TripAdvisor because that’s what people really need”

“If they do it well, they’ll do good business out of it.”

For those with disability looking to enjoy Victorian Parks nearby, John notes the wide range of options available.

“There’s some great range of experiences that people with disabilities can get out into parks and access first-hand”

“We’ve got a lot of information that we’ve put on our website to make that easier depending on what their access requirements are.”

“We also have a lot of opportunities for going down to coastal parks with beach wheelchairs and opportunities for volunteering in parks.”

Organisations looking to get started building their own Changing Places facility should visit our getting started page to find out where to begin: https://changingplaces.org.au/build-a-facility/build-a-toilet/