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Leaning into community diversity to bolster service accessibility

For the past five years, SA Water has been on a journey to remove barriers to services faced by its customers who are living with a disability, ageing, digitally excluded, or who come from culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) backgrounds.

Set to discuss the implementation of the utility’s Wider World Program at Ozwater’23 in May, SA Water Customer Experience Design and Delivery Lead Nina Rampal said the program has challenged the organisation to make products and services more accessible, more equitable, and more inclusive for all customers.

And it all began in 2018 at the South Australia Council of Social Service conference.

“During that conference, we learned of some of the barriers that are faced by our customers living with a disability. So from there we started work to understand the different needs of our customers,” Rampal said.

“Then, over time, as we kept learning and speaking to customers, our scope grew to include those from CALD communities and ageing customers, because we realised that they had overlapping challenges and needs.

“More recently, we've also shifted our focus to include customers who find themselves dealing with complex situations, where we've realised that our regular channels may no longer serve their needs.”

Diving deep

Rampal said progress on the Wider World Program was underpinned by extensive research to understand the diverse needs of SA Water’s customers.

“Early research started in 2019, where we identified that marginalised customers were underrepresented in research,” she said.

“From our research we created four persona groups: people who need help with tasks; people with high information needs; people with communication challenges; and people with high care needs.”

The next step involved taking a deeper look, which involved a broader customer research project in 2021 to better understand what each persona group expected from the utility.

“We had a qualitative research phase, where we had more than 100 in-depth interviews and focus groups, including 53 people with a disability, 14 carers, 26 customers from CALD communities – and we worked with translators to reach out to those communities,” Rampal said, adding that the research also included 15 customers aged 65 years and older.

“By listening to these customers, we understood some key themes and some of the key needs those customers expect from us.”

The research also had a quantitative component.

“That resulted in responses from 350 customers living with a disability and 200 customers who speak a language other than English,” Rampal said.

“I'm really proud to say that we conducted that research with various accessibility options – we had online and telephone surveys, and we translated the survey into eight languages.”

Key messages

SA Water learned four key messages from this research: their customers wanted to have choice, for the complexities of their lives to be made easier, for the utility to have a human face, and for the utility to involve customers in decisions that directly affect them.

“Often these customers are overlooked, not being heard, pushed to the sidelines. For them to be listened to and understood is really important,” Rampal said. 

Part of SA Water’s efforts in responding to this call was to form its Wider World Customer Advisory Group, which brought together a small group of diverse customers who meet every three months to give the utility feedback.

“The Wider World Advisory Group advocates for customers with specific needs, and they consult on our accessibility program and projects,” Rampal said.

“There's a cross section [in the group], including customers living with various types of disabilities, customers from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, Aboriginal backgrounds and ageing customers.”

The group co-designs and tests concepts, processes, products and services for the utility, giving feedback and providing a customer perspective.

“We've got a great relationship with that group, and I think that's a really important part of the co- design approach that we're following in the Wider World Program: ongoing, continuous relationship building. It's a dialogue,” Rampal said.

“We have formed wonderful relationships with this group of customers, where they feel  invited to give us honest and candid feedback. We always encourage open conversations that are respectful.”

Reframing perspectives

Another crucial aspect to the Wider World Program’s success has been how it has shifted the way SA Water approaches the needs of its customers.

“Historically, disability has been viewed in medical terms – so people are disabled by their differences and it's a personal problem for an individual to overcome. But with our approach, we are following the social model of disability, and needs-based service design as well,” Rampal said.

“That puts the responsibility on society – and organisations like ours – to be more accessible and inclusive. It was really important for us to understand the challenges and shared needs of our customers so that we could create more accessible solutions now – but also in the future.

“And, for that, we've realised that we needed to broaden the conversations from volumes to values – driving efficient channels and services for the majority of customers creates the capacity to offer dedicated support to those who need it the most.”

The outcomes SA Water has implemented from its research so far have ranged from reopening its face-to-face service counter, which had been closed during the COVID-19 pandemic, making use of its bilingual employees who together speak more than 30 languages; and trialling accessible meter options with customers.

The utility has also installed accessible kayak launch pads at its reservoirs.

“Just like our water services, we want our reservoir reserves that are now open to the public to be as accessible as possible,” Rampal said.

“This is an excellent example because it shows another principle that we're applying: universal design. So even though we have designed the launch pads, with customers living with a disability and wheelchair users in mind, they've also proven to be really useful for other kayakers, including families with young children.”

Interested in hearing more about SA Water’s successes with its Wider World Program? Register for Ozwater’23 here.