As a physically disabled person using an electric wheelchair,
I have been to many workplaces – some clearly more accessible than others. I always find it interesting to hear individual definitions of accessibility; some people feel that a building is accessible if the central room is on one level, even if it took 3 flights of stairs to get there.
Recently, I visited some office space where, although on first glance they were wheelchair accessible with ramp, lift or level access into every part of the building, they still presented as only 50% accessible for me.
This is an office space that I was considering renting. The owners of the building are enquiring into automatic doors throughout the areas that I will be frequently using.
It is commonly thought that a workplace is accessible if they have a low desk for a physically disabled person to sit at. Forgetting that the low desk is at one end of the room when the workplace community is predominately at the other end of the room.
Often, the barriers to accessibility in the workplace can be relatively easily rectified: ensure that there is level access from the front entrance – including the entrance itself. Strive to make your office space inclusive for every ability; scatter your desk sizes throughout the workspace, make all your desks height adjustable so that a disabled or non-disabled person can use them. Where possible, replace your standard push/pull doors with automatic ones or take out the door altogether. Ensure your disabled parking bays are at an appropriate distance from the building and that they are wide enough.
The Shaw Trust have listed several pieces of equipment that can be installed in your workplace to ensure your disabled employees can have equal access to their surroundings. These items are simple to install and do not have to be isolated to your disabled employees but can in fact be part of your overall upgrade plan. For example, easy reach, accessible plug sockets and flexible monitor arms can be installed at every workstation.
Adjustments like those listed above are relatively easy to implement and can support your disabled employees to feel welcomed and valued in your organisation.
Alongside these, I would like to talk briefly about a few other relatively basic designs that can be implemented within your organisation to support your disabled employees to feel part of your workplace community:
Accessible communal areas.
We all know that the workspace is only one part of your business’ productivity. A big part of what keeps your employees productive is your workplace community that employees naturally become a member of when they join your organisation. This is not any different for your disabled employees but due to restrictions on accessibility, it can feel more of a challenge to be an active member of these communities. Places like kitchens, toilets, breakout areas and even smoking areas can present as barriers to physically disabled employees if appropriate planning has not been implemented.
A popular sitcom highlighted this issue when the protagonist was left out of strategic decisions because those decisions were always made during the smoking breaks. As she did not smoke, she was segregated from these discussions.
Although we are not teenagers, toilets are seen as communal areas. Accessible toilets are quite often separated from general toilets therefore separating a physically disabled person from their non disabled peers. If possible, try building your accessible toilet within the standard toilets. When it comes to design, if you do not have experience of using accessible toilets, do not design them yourself. Commission somebody with lived experience.
Kitchens are quite often designed to take up minimal amount of space possible. This can create a barrier for a physically disabled person; not only will they not be able to reach equipment, it will be harder to take part in conversations. I have been in situations many times where the congregated group have agreed to move into a more accessible area so that I can be part of the conversation. However by the time the group has moved, the conversation has ended.
As a manager, you may not be thrilled by the idea of your employees talking about their weekend during office time. However, we all know that a happy employee is a productive employee. Therefore communal breakout time is arguably essential.
Positioning of the office workspace.
Earlier, we discussed workspace equipment that can be inclusive of all abilities and disabilities. However, depending on budget, it is not always possible to upgrade all office equipment to be accessible for all. In these cases it is worth considering where you’re physically disabled employee will be located: if you have an open plan office space, you may consider how easy it is for an employee in a wheelchair to navigate to their desk. Equally, if that person needs to have frequent contact with their line manager and team, consider where everyone in that team is located.
Hot desking is becoming popular within the workplace. This is possible for disabled employees but would be easier in a workplace that has the ability to make the office space equally accessible for all.
Finally, I would like to touch upon employee benefits. Depending on your business’ financial position, you may offer a generous and extensive employee benefits scheme. It is worth considering whether these benefits are accessible for your physically disabled employees. Some examples of this can include:
– company cars,
– gym memberships,
– travel vouchers,
– cycle to work scheme.
It is worth considering that your company cars may not be accessible for a physically disabled person. Therefore you may want to offer a wheelchair accessible vehicle as an alternative. You may want to consider whether the gym you have a contract with has any accessible equipment. Does the company that you get your travel vouchers from have information about accessible accommodation/ destinations? If a physically disabled person is not able to access the cycle to work scheme, do you have an alternative for them?
All of the above are only some suggestions, it is impossible to predict an individual’s circumstances. Therefore, you should aim to talk to that person at the earliest opportunity but always after you have offered them a position.
For more information, support and advice about how to make your workspace into an inclusive environment for your physically disabled employees, send an email to email@example.com or speak to Esi on 01256 578016.