You’ve worked hard to create an office space that’s attractive: it’s well-planned, functional, vibrant, and comfortable. It’s a place you’re proud to show off, one where employees are happy to spend their time. But how can you be sure your office space works for everyone? What does inclusion in the workplace look like, and how can you fully achieve it?
Inclusivity is a growing topic of conversation within office design. As spaces change and become more sophisticated, companies are doing more to proactively create and outfit spaces that are functional and welcoming for everyone.
Inclusion in the workplace isn’t just a “nice-to-have” item on your office design list, either; in many respects, it’s a matter of law. The most commonly recognized set of laws — the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and its supplement the ADA Amendments Act (ADAAA) of 2008 — protect the nearly 41 million Americans with a disability, as reported by the U.S. Census Bureau in 2018. Employment is one of the biggest areas of concern in meeting the standards; nearly one in five employees have some level of physical or invisible disability that falls under the ADA and ADAAA, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).
While some of the requirements for creating accessibility in retail and commercial spaces are well known, other types of disability and accessibility are less well-recognized although equally important.
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Accessibility in the workplace - The ADA
When most people think about accessibility and an inclusive workplace, the idea of physical access comes to mind. Can those who need adaptive devices like wheelchairs, walkers, and white canes (probing canes used by the visually impaired) get in and around the office with ease? Are desks, tables, signage, and interactive screens accessible?
There are four major topics within the ADA standard to consider when striving for ADA Compliance in the workplace.
• Doors - Doors present a few accessibility challenges. Firstly, they must be wide enough to allow passage. The ADA requires a minimum of 32 inches clearance for doorways. Second, heavy doors (those that require more than five pounds of pressure to operate) have to be accessible. Automatic doors are an easy solution to this issue. Naturally, be sure the buttons to operate an automatic door are also accessible.
• Desks and tables - Being able to sit comfortably at various workstations within the office is the next requirement. According to the ADA, tables should be no lower than 27 inches high, to allow assistive devices to pass easily under, allowing the visitor or employee to sit and work with the desk at a comfortable height. Adjustable height desks are a great way to ensure everyone can get comfortable in their workspace.
• Hallways - As with doors, hallways should be wide enough to allow comfortable passage, but what’s under your feet becomes just as important to accessibility. While a plush rug can be attractive and comfortable for some, it can make for slow going and potential falls when using mobility devices. Also, any cool architectural features should consider mobility. Ramps must have a safe slope percentage and handrails must be available where required by code.
Items or structures that slow down movement for those with assistive devices should be removed. Also, be mindful of anything that might pose a risk to those with visual impairments.
• Screens and digital displays - The world is going digital, which can make information easier to access, provided it’s placed within reach. For instance, digital displays (like those used for Robin’s room display and digital kiosk features) must be installed between within 27” and 80” to remain safe, accessible, and visible for all. Touchscreens should be no more than 48” - keeping them within reach for seated users. Screens and enclosures should be installed close to the wall (within 4”) to make them easy to navigate around.
• Wayfinding - Wayfinding signs need to cater to all. In addition to written information, tactile wayfinding (braille lettering) and graphical cues should be incorporated into all wayfinding design so that the information is accessible for everyone.
Inclusion in the workplace for invisible disabilities
While many disabilities are apparent to outside observers, many Americans live with disabilities that aren’t easy to spot. As many as 10% of Americans live with some form of non-visible disability, and many don’t disclose them to their employer. Though there are many forms of hidden disabilities with a range of effects, examples include:
• Physical: such as hearing loss, cerebral palsy, fibromyalgia, chronic migraines, pain, or fatigue disorders.
• Neurological: such as autism spectrum disorders (ASD), learning disabilities (LD), Multiple Sclerosis (MS), epilepsy, and others.
• Mental: such as depression, anxiety, ADHD, etc.
While many of these conditions don’t fall within the building standards of the ADA, creating a culture of acceptance and support for “hidden” disabilities is the gold-standard of inclusivity. It places the value of each visitor and staff member in their contributions and acknowledges their limitations in a proactive and supportive way.
Though inclusiveness takes many forms, there are some steps you can take to create a culture of inclusivity within your office:
• Go beyond the letter of the ADA by taking extra considerations in the design and layout of space and ease of navigation.
• Encourage employee-led accommodations and feedback and provide good support for requests, such as standing desks or ergonomic chairs. Create a culture where employees can take the steps they need to feel comfortable.
• Provide space for employees to meet their needs in a self-directed way. This may include spaces within the office where employees can control light or temperature settings, limit sound, or take advantage of opportunities for rest when needed. Even provisions like a space heater can help. For those who struggle with sensory overstimulation, empower them to move around the workplace through privacy and autonomy.
• Create effective policies that promote flexible work and inclusive culture.
While the costs of creating inclusivity in the workplace don’t have to be high, the benefits of good planning and inclusive design can pay you back tenfold. Not only will you build a space that honors both the spirit and the letter of the law, but you’ll also create an environment where all feel comfortable and supported while working towards your company’s mission.