Supported decision making

Improving Access and Support for Consumers with Cognitive Disabilities

This project is assisting a group of leading utilities and telecommunications providers to better support customers who have decision-making impairments associated with intellectual or psychosocial disabilities.

Supported decision making

The Problem

People with cognitive disabilities may not be able to access the services that are right for them because they face hurdles of inaccessible information, communication difficulties, and insufficient support in making decisions about the goods and services that might work best for them.

A 2016 pilot study by Melbourne Social Equity Institute focused on the challenges and support needs of one group of disadvantaged consumers of essential services – people who have decision making impairments related to cognitive or psychosocial (mental health-related) disabilities. The study indicated that this group lacks access to suitable, affordable products and services, has difficulty understanding information and communicating with service providers and would benefit from greater accessibility and support to fully exercise their rights as consumers.

Purpose & Outcomes

Evolving from this pilot study, Thriving Communities Partnership, with founding partner organisations, and the research team from University of Melbourne, supported by the Melbourne Social Equity Institute, came together to explore and understand how organisations can improve access and support for customers with cognitive. The founding partners who supported this research were Telstra, Yarra Valley Water, City West Water, South East Water, Energy Australia, Origin Energy and AGL.  

The aim of this collaborative research project is to assist utilities and telecommunications to better support customers who have decision-making impairments associated with intellectual or psychosocial disabilities.

The benefits for industry partners include the opportunity to spearhead industry innovation around access and inclusion. It also supports business in identifying and avoiding the negative consequences of consumers entering unsuitable contracts they cannot fulfil.

Supported decision-making has many benefits for people with cognitive disabilities.  It helps promote the rights and dignity of individuals, facilitates social and economic participation, and ensures that people's voices are heard and respected.  Supported decision-making can help develop peoples decision-making skills that align with their needs and financial circumstances.

People who have the support they require to make decisions are more likely to be happy and satisfied with their choices and to feel that they have control and agency in their lives.[i]

Collaborative Research Report Launch and Key Findings

The report, released in April 2019, found that when dealing with companies, the main barriers often experienced by people with cognitive disabilities include unsuitable information, stigma and discrimination, communication difficulties and a lack of support when making decisions. It includes a series of tailored recommendations, co-designed with people with lived experience. The report launch was at an event hosted by Tesltra and facilitated by people with lived experience from Scope and Voice at the Table, and encouraged participants to reflect on real life case studies and relate these to their own organisations' practices. By bringing together the diverse thinking of service providers, academia, lived experience and the community sector the research provides solutions that can be effective at scale.

The top five recommendations explored in the report include:

  1. Asking all customers if they need support. This includes not asking about a person’s disability or impairment directly but asking general questions to find out if a customer’s wants support, assistance and/or accessibility measures.
  2. Respecting a person’s approach to decision-making. All customers may benefit from the option of including a family member, friend, guardian or support worker in sales and enquiry conversations. This may also include giving all customers the options of listing someone on their account, so they can make enquiries or pay bills on their behalf.
  3. Speaking clearly and not rushing. Clear, concise and respectful communication is important for all customers and this may be as easy as slowing down when you speak and taking the time to listen and understand.
  4. Making sure everything is accessible. Many people do not have access to the internet, and many websites and apps are not accessible to people with disabilities. If customers are required to pay bills or manage their account online, it is important to ask about their access to the necessary technology.
  5. Implement company-wide change. Make sure a dedicated person or team with experience and autonomy is available to assist consumers with cognitive disabilities and others who require or request assistance. It is also important to provide a clear and straightforward pathway for staff to refer customers to this person or team.

Next Steps

Thriving Communities Partnership is currently exploring further opportunities to build on this research by developing practical tools to support organisations implement the findings in their organisation. If you are interested in being part of this work, please get in touch at

[i] Margaret Wallace, Evaluation of the Supported Decision Making Project (Report, Office of the Public Advocate South Australia, 2012).


Improving Access and Support for Consumers with Cognitive Disabilities Report, Melbourne University for TCP, 2019

This collaborative research report was developed in 2018 by a research team at the University of Melbourne, supported by the Melbourne Social Equity Institute, with funding provided by seven members of the Thriving Communities Partnership (Telstra, Yarra Valley Water, City West Water, South East Water, EnergyAustralia, Origin and AGL).

It presents detailed, practical guidance for organisations, hardship/vulnerability teams and frontline staff to alter their pre-contractual and problem-solving processes to improve access to services and assistance for consumers with cognitive disabilities.

Download the print friendly version of the full report here

Download the screen reader version of the full report here

Download the Easy English version of the report here

Download the Easy English screen reader version of the report here

Five Tips for Improving Access and Support for People with Cognitive Disabilities, Melbourne Uni for TCP, 2019

This document, which uses findings from the report, offers the top 5 tips as guidance to retailers to make their processes and communications more helpful to consumers.

Download the print friendly version here

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