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Improving Accessibility in the Workplace Through Inclusive Design Principles

Over the past couple of decades, businesses have increasingly prioritized diversity, equality, and inclusion, which has greatly improved their ability to cater to diverse populations. This has particularly benefited individuals with disabilities. This upsurge is partly due to broader media recognition providing a global audience with insights into the lives of individuals with disabilities, including the challenges they often encounter in workplaces that lack suitable accommodations. This enhanced understanding has been vital in driving the necessary changes in workplace culture and environment.

Office building owners and occupiers have been forced to rethink what the office looks like and what role it should play for their organization. A byproduct of that refocus has been more interest in making the workplace more accessible for everyone. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was first established in 1990 when President George H.W. Bush signed it into law. It was a historic moment for the community of people with disabilities who had pushed for years to get the bill passed. Among other things, the new legislation required accessible entrances, exits, and desks and tables in workplaces to provide clearance to fit wheelchairs. 

While the ADA’s passage marked an important turning point for visibility and accessibility, many in the community, especially those who frequently navigate public spaces and private offices, have said it’s not nearly enough. Now, as players from all corners of the commercial real estate industry take a fresh look at how offices look and feel and plan for the future, it’s time that industry leaders make good on the idea that offices can be truly inclusive to all workers.

Designing for everyone

Major design firms seem to have gotten the message about the importance of accessibility and inclusivity and are making it a big priority in their work right now. Gail Napell is a Senior Associate at Gensler and leads the firm’s Inclusive Design Network. She has 40 years of experience, with a background as a technical architect, and has spent the last 12 years at Gensler. It became clear to Napell how crucial inclusive design was three decades ago when she had a daughter with intellectual disabilities. “I began to realize what we have for accessibility codes just begins to scratch the surface of truly inclusive design,” she said. She has certainly seen accessibility become more of a priority over the last few years, as the pandemic made the office design community realize what was and what wasn’t working. One event that Napell sees as bringing more change to how offices are built for workers was the murder of George Floyd in the summer of 2020, the horror of which led to widespread protests and heightened awareness about racial injustice. “We think about disabilities and race and gender and socioeconomic background, size, age—I think there’s really been an increased understanding that what we have done with codes is a step in the right direction but not quite getting us there,” she said.

As part of her work at Gensler, Napell and her colleagues frequently scan accessible building codes around the world to understand what other countries are doing. In cases where countries don’t have accessibility codes, she often sees designers and architects using a code even if it hasn’t been adopted yet. In Latin America, the ADA is used frequently. Occasionally they find a country that is really forward-thinking and creating a standard even higher than we have in the U.S. “The ADA is wonderful, but it doesn’t begin to address people with neurodivergent conditions,” Napell said. The federal code doesn’t update that frequently, and it’s a long process when it is updated. Several advocacy boards, including architectural groups, have pushed the government to revise the ADA to be more inclusive. There are, of course, implications in adding more requirements. Additions could mean the physical footprint of an occupier’s space will need to be larger to accommodate, for example, wheelchair users who will need more space in all areas of an office for turning diameters. 

The first step when Napell and her colleagues meet with a client looking for guidelines in their space is to meet with the people who will be the most impacted by the spaces—namely, the office workers. They speak with and listen to groups within an organization to better understand their key challenges and barriers in their space and what’s working well in their space that they don’t want to lose. One of the difficulties in attempting to meet everyone’s needs is the fact that many people with neurodivergent conditions don’t disclose it. Conditions like hypersensitivity to light and touch, or on the opposite side of the spectrum, those who need more stimulation, are quite common. Many people may not be as sensitive to consciously realizing it, but a headache or bout of frustration could come from something as small as the ballast on an LED light flickering. “We may not see that, but someone sensitive sees it, and it drives them crazy,” Napell said. “If we address people who have sensory sensitivities, it’s ultimately benefiting all of us.”

Other things to consider, besides having a variety of spaces that support different kinds of work styles and accommodate people of different sizes, are things like how the temperature of an office impacts workers. Some workers may feel more comfortable with the thermostat set a little higher, and others may work better in a cooler space, and that can even change at different times of the day. 

Flooring, which may seem like an afterthought, can also greatly affect how a person experiences a workplace. One of Napell’s clients focused more on flooring patterns after realizing that while some loved vibrant tiles in certain areas of their office, it made others dizzy. “It was a simple thing that can easily be made right,” she said.

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‘What about the rest of us?’

When thinking about accessibility in the workplace, it’s important to remember that not all disabilities are visible and extend beyond what most people normally think of when they think of workplace accessibility. A lot of office buildings have the basics in terms of ADA compliance. Entrances and exits with enough clearance for wheelchairs, braille in and near elevators, and at least one larger bathroom stall that is accessible for wheelchair users. But as many in the disability community will tell you, that’s not enough. Roisin Dermody is a disabled rights activist in Dublin, Ireland, who works at the Department of Justice in strategic policy, planning, and research. Dermody is blind and uses a guide dog. As a regular office user, she knows all too well how difficult it can be to navigate office buildings and public spaces in a world designed for more abled individuals. 

Just getting inside her building requires a series of moves that can be very challenging. First, she has to walk up several steps that lead up to the building. Once inside, she has to go through an atrium and a second door, where she needs to be swiped through. She often needs help finding the swipe reader. Dermody is nuerodivergent. The term describes individuals with cognitive functioning that is often considered atypical. It can include those who are autistic, dyslexic, attention-deficit, and dyspraxic. “I’m put in a situation on a daily basis that is humiliating for me, and it doesn’t have to be if spaces were designed accessible in the first place,” Dermody told me about navigating her workplace as well as public spaces. Having lived in Dublin all her adult life, Dermody has seen improvements in accessibility, but they are mostly in wheelchair access. “People assume that if it’s wheelchair accessible, it’s accessible for everyone,” she said. “Well, no, what about the rest of us?” 

Accommodating disabilities in the workplace is more important than some people may think. One in four Americans will experience some kind of disability before they turn 67, according to Harvard Medical School. While there is still a long way to go, progress is being made. A study from 2019 found that 56-65 percent of individuals with work-limiting disabilities received accommodations, a jump from prior research that estimated 20 to 30 percent of individuals received accommodations. 

In a time when office vacancy nationwide just hit an all-time low as companies struggle to get employees back in the office and crack down harder on those who refuse to comply, making sure an office is accommodating to the whole spectrum of disabilities not only shows respect and care for employees, it can help bolster occupiers’ back-to-work plans and satisfy landlords looking to keep their buildings full and occupiers happy.  Amanda Kross is the Head of People Experience, Americas for JLL, and works with occupiers on making spaces more accessible. She’s seen a notable uptick in interest in accessibility over the last few years, and for larger occupiers especially, it’s become an important component in their workplace strategy. 

“Organizations are thinking about the end-to-end experience across workplace ecosystems: home, work, and third place,” said Kross. While many companies are further along in implementing features that focus on physical accessibility, it’s planning for neurodiversity that is getting a “ton” of interest. “There’s a recognition that people experience things in different ways and not one-size-fits-all, so how can we design spaces and places and environments to help people feel safe and well and flourish,” Kross said.

Building a better future

So many existing buildings don’t go beyond what is federally required in terms of accessibility. As one recent headline put it, Why Are There So Few Great Accessible Buildings? The good news is, as awareness of this issue has grown, designers and architects are now busy digging deeper into inclusivity and accessibility when planning for future developments. As today’s professionals become more educated on the subject, tomorrow’s designers and architects are right behind them. Educating the next generation of architects on accessibility is something that will be hugely important in moving the needle on accessibility and inclusivity in the future. 

Professor Teresa Rosano teaches architecture at the School of Architecture at the University of Arizona, where she leads a semester-long Universal Design Studio for third-year students. Universal design is the concept that a building or environment can be designed in a way that makes it accessible and understood to everyone, regardless of disability, age, or other variables. It’s a concept that has been gaining steam in the real estate community, with many industry organizations offering classes on the subject. “It’s not just about getting someone from Point A to Point B, but it’s about having that experience as similar and as enjoyable as it is for everyone else,” said Rosano of the design concept. 

A simple example she points to is having one building entrance for everyone. With some of the university’s campus buildings, a main entrance often has a ceremonial-type staircase that doubles as a socialization space. But if someone needs an elevator, it’s frequently on the other side of the building. The idea of putting an elevator and a staircase right next to each other so that when building users come out, they land at the same point and have the same experience, view, and interaction in spaces is something she and her students focus on a lot in the studio. 

When she was an architecture student herself, Rosano remembers there being talk of accessibility and inclusivity in design. Still, it was always addressed peripherally and not considered an important design constraint, as her studio does now. As part of the program, Rosano brought in a physical access consultant who had been working with the university on its campus buildings, many of which are over a century old. The consultant gives guest lectures to the studio’s students and gives feedback on student projects. As a wheelchair user himself, he can speak to the nuances of daily life and the physical environment. “It’s something that may not be entirely solved, but the process of thinking about solving it in a project is more important than finding a solution,” Rosano said about accessibility design. “Changing the thought process around designing anything is the beginning of designing for everyone.”

Doing just the bare minimum in terms of accessibility in the workplace not only misses the mark in meeting the needs of current and future tenants, but it can also impact workers’ desire to return to the workplace, which affects building owners’ and tenants’ bottom line. In the studio she teaches, Rosano often thinks about issues of accessibility through the lens of matching the experience. Depending on the disability, it may be very difficult to find a way to design space to give the same experience to disabled individuals as non-disabled individuals, but it’s important to try. 

We’ve obviously got a long way to go in making every workplace truly accessible and inclusive, but there is a lot of progress being made. Universal design is being embraced by architects and developers and is poised to be a new standard for a lot of office buildings going forward. There is a growing number of office projects that are good models for what top-to-bottom accessibility can look like in the workplace. More than 30 years after the ADA brought awareness and legal requirements for accessibility in office buildings, it seems like we are just beginning a new era of workplace inclusivity and accessibility. These efforts may have been given more fuel due to the pandemic and the heightened awareness from the social injustices that followed. One day we hopefully have offices that work for all of us, no matter your ability, and we will all be better off because of it.

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