How can inclusive design create a welcoming workplace?

 —  Article by William Polk
Businessman assisting handicap colleague while sticking adhesive notes on glass window in creative office
Image credit: Shutterstock

How many of your colleagues that you work with on a daily basis have a disability? Chances are it’s more than you think.

As many as one in three professionals in the U.S. has some form of disability, whether it be a visual impairment or mobility issue, and most of them simply make do with what their offices have to offer.

Fortunately, many employers go above and beyond the requirements of the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) by leveraging inclusive design.

Examples of inclusive design in the workplace can include door handles that are levers rather than knobs, flat-panel light switches rather than the traditional toggle switches, large-print labeling and instructions for equipment, wide doorways and hallways and spacious alcoves with turning space.

“Also known as ‘universal design’, inclusive design is intended to include everyone in the design of a workplace,” says Kim Vanderland, SVP Strategic Consulting at JLL. “Inclusive design prevents the need for retrofitting, and ensures all employees – from those with physical disabilities, to older workers, to those with no disabilities at all – can reach all areas of a workplace, use the equipment and function fully.”

The business case for inclusive design

Companies that leverage inclusive design have a broader talent pool to draw from which can translate into a business advantage, says Vanderland. The aging baby boomer population, for example, is prone to hearing or vision impairments yet can bring a wealth of experience to a company. Millennials are more likely to be diagnosed with cognitive or mental health disorders like autism or attention deficit disorder, while former military members may have cognitive or physical disabilities as a result of their service. However, all those groups can offer a fresh perspective on business activities.

“Over the last several years, in large part thanks to the ADA, people have become more educated and aware of a variety of disabilities,” says Vanderland. “This has led to more understanding of the fact that people with disabilities can contribute in the workplace.”

Inclusive design does not require costly updates or renovation as the modern workplace already incorporates aspects of inclusive design.

Many offices offer a variety of different areas where work can be accomplished. That variety of space suits not only employees with disabilities, but also those with different work preferences. “If someone with ADHD works better in a small huddle room than an open concept with no walls, for example, they are able to do so in today’s modern offices,” says Vanderland.

Sit-to-stand desks and circadian lighting are much more prevalent in today’s office environment and allow for personalized workspace in line with the greater emphasis on employee health and wellness.

Other aspects of inclusive design in the workplace include:

  • Ramps instead of stairs
  • Following the “closed fist” rule whereby equipment, door handles and other objects can be operated with a closed fist
  • Use of different colors for horizontal and vertical surfaces and changes in elevation to reduce the risk of falls and to help those with vision impairments
  • Adoption of adjustable lighting operated by touch panel rather than traditional switches
  • Removal of obstructions from hallways or open spaces
  • Providing blinds or curtains to eliminate glare on computer screens
  • Investing in ergonomic chairs, desks, keyboards and monitors with storage accessible for people of all heights
  • Installation of multi-sensory safety alarms (visual, audible) and large-print instructions for emergency and safety equipment

Promoting inclusivity

Creating an inclusive workplace shouldn’t fall on a single team – it’s a combined effort from across the business and can involve bringing in outside experts, says Vanderland.

“Defining the organization’s vision and goals is critical and should include the perspectives of human resources, IT and a company’s real estate function, as well as employees themselves,” she explains. “It is also helpful to supplement the core team with universal design consultants, architects and designers who can recommend the most effective methods and products to accomplish an organization’s goals.”

With today’s companies comprised of diverse, multigenerational workforces, inclusive design can not only help accommodate the varied needs and preferences of different people, but make them feel welcome, valuable and productive. In this regard, inclusive design is a win-win for both employers and employees alike.

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