‘Like family’: How Woodhouse Adventure Park benefits from its diverse workforce 

Woodhouse Adventure Park’s diverse staff bring valuable skills to their workplace.

Australian tourism operators are facing workforce challenges. A solution could be hiding in plain sight. Hiring staff from under-represented groups – including people who are neurodivergent or live with physical disability – unlocks a great source of talent.

Diversity is central to Woodhouse Adventure Park. The workforce is diverse. So, too, are the park’s activities.

Its 54-hectare site in the Adelaide Hills offers tube slides, frisbee golf, a maze, climbing walls and more than 20 other pursuits. There’s also accommodation on site.

About 20% of staff – or 9 people – managing office admin and leading activities have lived experience of disability or are neurodivergent. This inclusive recruitment brings many benefits, says Business Development Manager Sally Smith. And fewer workplace adjustments are necessary than some employers might think.

The benefits of an inclusive culture

One activity facilitator at Woodhouse, Matt, is legally deaf and uses hearing aids. At least 8 Woodhouse employees are neurodivergent.

‘We have staff with ASD (autism spectrum disorder), ADHD (attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder), dyslexia, dyscalculia, OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder) and sensory processing disorders,’ Smith says. She spells out the acronyms as she speaks.

Scouts South Australia runs Woodhouse, and the Scouts ethos drives this inclusive recruitment. However, the advantages are clear for all businesses, Smith says.

She says these benefits include that:

  • people living with disability have higher retention rates than other workers and longer tenures
  • having people with disability on staff can foster a tight-knit team spirit
  • all staff improve their ability to connect with a diverse range of visitors and guests
  • staff who are neurodivergent often have creative solutions.

Loyal, creative staff

People with disability in Australia have a labour force participation rate of just 53.4% (Source: Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) 2019, Disability, Ageing and Carers, Australia: Summary of Findings, 2018). Many want to work more than they do and are available to start.

Woodhouse works hard to be supportive of staff and flexible with training and roles. In response, staff stay for years and show extreme loyalty. While many are casual employees, Director of Outdoor Education Steph Tite describes the team as ‘like family’.

Activity facilitators often leave to work overseas as ski instructors or camp leaders. They know Woodhouse will do its best to welcome them back on their return. Staff respond by giving the adventure park lots of notice before leaving.

During COVID, says Smith, Woodhouse had to adapt quickly. There was a ban on school camps, more than half of its business. Staff were essential to pivoting the business 100% to the tourism market. They packed picnic baskets and did many other tasks outside their core job descriptions.

‘We didn’t lose any staff during COVID,’ says Smith. ‘Because of this, we’ve been protected from the skills shortages many others in the industry have faced.’

Differences can create ‘superpowers’

Some neurodivergent people refer to certain enhanced traits as their ‘superpowers’. Smith and Tite have both found this with Woodhouse staff members with autism. These staff bring their own strengths to the team.

Some neurodivergent staff members have been taken on in outdoor roles. However, their attention to detail meant they were also ‘amazing’ at planning, risk assessment and documentation. Doing office and project work, they have created positive change at Woodhouse by suggesting new ways of doing things.

A man on the left helping a young boy holding on to a rope to swing over a creek.

Woodhouse is fully supportive of staff who are neurodivergent or live with a physical disability.

Reflecting customers and community

Some 18% of Australians (or 4.4 million people) have a disability. (Source: Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, ‘People with Disability in Australia’ web report, last updated 5 July 2022.)  So, any tourism business with a diverse workforce better reflects the diverse community it serves.

‘Kids coming through our doors with ASD and ADHD relate so much better to our staff who are living with neurodiversity,’ says Tite. Working with neurodivergent colleagues can teach neurotypical staff extra personal skills and different approaches to thinking.

The Woodhouse team is inclusive in other ways. Some staff identify as LGBTQIA+ and staff range in age from 15 to 75 years. We are proud to mirror the diversity of visitors and guests we welcome,’ says Smith.

Tips for workplace adjustments

Many potential employers worry they won’t be able to properly accommodate staff members living with disability or neurodiversity. Smith and Tite have some handy tips.

  • Let staff know that you’re open to hearing their opinions. They will let you know the workplace adjustments they need.
  • Have regular training, and support staff with extra training where needed. It takes more time but means more competent staff and a better customer experience.
  • Roster new staff with an experienced colleague, to mentor them until they’re comfortable working alone.
  • If someone prefers a structured to a flexible environment, consider them for tasks with non-negotiable rules. This might be something like policies around safety.
  • Don’t sweat the small stuff. At Woodhouse, some staff with sensory issues don’t like how uniforms rustle or feel against their skin. The park’s choice and flexibility of uniform garments helps with this. Provided staff look neat and tidy, they can make minor alterations.

‘It’s made me a better communicator’

Smith says she once might have been slightly apprehensive about communicating with a colleague with a hearing impairment. ‘However, I find Matt one of the easiest people to have a great conversation with.’

She says only minor adjustments help effective communication. These include facing Matt and speaking clearly when talking. He also places the two-way radio Woodhouse activity facilitators use a little higher on his body.

Neurodivergent staff members will sometimes ask Smith to present information in a certain way. ‘We’ve all learned to tailor the way we deliver information,’ she says. ‘Working with Matt has taught me to be more present in a conversation.’

Working with people with disability has, Smith thinks, made her a better communicator.

Building confidence

Smith and Tite say they’ve loved seeing colleagues grow in confidence in their Woodhouse roles.

‘Even as a not-for-profit organisation, we need to be financially viable,’ says Smith. ‘Our staff do need to deliver a great experience for our visitors and guests. But by listening and adapting to all our staff’s needs, we have a happy and loyal workforce. This gives our customers and the business continuity.’

Unlocking talent for Australia’s visitor economy 

Building a secure and resilient workforce is a priority of THRIVE 2030, Australia’s national strategy for the visitor economy.

People with disability have a valuable contribution to make to your tourism business.

The Australian Government offers free resources to help employers find staff for under-represented groups including people with disability. 

JobAccess provides free and expert support to help remove barriers to employing people with disability. It coordinates and funds workplace adjustments, support and training to get your workplace ready and help an employee with disability work more productively or safely. Not all employees with disability will require adjustments, but if they do, JobAccess can help manage the process from start to finish, including arranging a free workplace assessment.

With a diverse range of backgrounds and experiences, the JobAccess team offers expertise across a range of specialist fields including:

  • disability and mental health
  • training and recruitment
  • workplace adjustments
  • occupational therapy.

Most importantly, they are passionate about what they do, and want to help more Australian employers reap the rewards of an inclusive workplace.

Growing the visitor economy

THRIVE 2030 is Australia’s national strategy for the long-term, sustainable growth of the visitor economy.