Universal design recommendations for the post-Covid workplace environment

Social /Physical distancing is the new normal. Organizations are taking some short and long term measures – infrastructural , technological and policy based – to ensure safety and well being of their employees and customers.

There have been reports of instances of some arbitrary changes at workplaces and other public places which are sometimes insensitive and discriminatory against people with disabilities.

For example, a foot operated sanitizer/ tap is a huge barrier for a person with locomotor disability. A company policy that requires employees not to hold the railing while climbing stairs is an impossible task for a person with vision disability. Having online meetings without an interpreter and captions excludes a deaf team member.

In fact this is a good opportunity to review and address the existing barriers which are making people with disabilities dependent.

For example, a steep ramp or a step without a handrail that may make persons with disabilities seek help; or a place with no tactile or sound based clues would make a person with visual disability depend on external help for moving around etc.

Many of these issues can be mitigated through certain infrastructural changes, enabling people to become as independent as possible, seeking no or minimum help.

As per WHO, 15% of the population or 1 in 7 persons have some form of disability. If we include older people, the numbers would double.

This is a huge population and their rights and needs are as important as anyone else’s.

The Rights of Persons with Disabilities (RPWD) Act 2016, mandates non discrimination, reasonable accommodation, human assistance, and accessibility of built environment, technology, products and services. There are penalties for non compliance.

Several studies have indicated that accessibility inclusion of people with disabilities has business benefits, such as increased market share and shareholder value, greater talent pool, good brand image, more safe and usable workplace, products and services for everyone, and so on.

How can one ensure that the “new normal” is inclusive?

The answer is Universal Design!

Universal Design of Built Environment:

Removing barriers that exist in the physical infrastructure is the need of the hour. Some of the universal design features are listed below –

  • Ramps with correct gradients, surface, railings – not just for people with mobility impairment but facilitates easy movement of trolleys/strollers/prams etc.
  • Doors that are automatic, taps that are sensor operated – not just for people with impairment in hand but a no-touch solution for all.
  • Signage that is well planned with the principle of two senses – not just for hearing/vision impaired persons but allows a person to move around freely without making too many inquiries.
  • Detectable tactile and sound based cues that are laid out well and GPS systems for navigating spaces can help people with vision disabilities to navigate as independently as possible.
  • Lifts with accessible controls laid out horizontally, accessible heights and placement of soap dispenser, reach to taps and sanitizers – helps even children and short statured people.
  • Fully accessible unisex washrooms, which have additional provisions like auto flush, sensor based taps, etc. will help greatly.

Universal Design in products, technologies and services

Many new designs/ways of working are now being implemented. Some examples of application of universal design in products and technologies are given below.

  • A clear mask which is an example of universal design, which helps a person with hearing disability and at the same time helps everyone to communicate efficiently.
  • Accessible Apps to activate controls help people with visual disability, it also provides a no-touch option for everyone.
  • Online meetings/videos with captions helps people with hearing disability and helps people who have difficulty following accents.
  • Accessible websites and documents that are compliant with web content accessibility guidelines are useful for everybody and it improves SEO.
  • Emergency support services should be accessible. A helpline where calling or chat is possible and with an option of a sign language interpreter if required.

Universal Design in Policies and programs

New policies are getting developed and they need to be inclusive. Such policies/norms will go against people with disabilities

  • Work from home policy should take into account the various needs and circumstances of employees and individualized accommodations should be provided.
  • Work from office policy for jobs that cannot be done from home should also not discriminate against people with disabilities. Support should not be denied to people with disabilities citing the reason of social distancing. All safety and support that may be required should be provided.
  • Policies and programs designed with universal design principles, like flexibility in terms of work location, timing, accommodations helps everyone.
  • Have Universal Design and accessibility as quality parameters for any products and services designed/developed.
  • Create awareness among all stakeholders (managers, colleagues and support staff) to ensure inclusion of people with disabilities and etiquette for supporting people with disabilities if required.
  • Involve employees with disabilities and experts in ensuring that modifications are user friendly and meets the universal design principles.

Way forward

Policy makers, employers, service providers can do the following to create an inclusive environment:

  1. An assessment of the current state of accessibility through an access audit and creating a roadmap. (Offices that are at 30% occupancy or continue to operate from home. This is a good opportunity to modify the interior/exterior spaces and build accessibility through retrofitting washrooms, ramps etc. which otherwise would be difficult under normal operations).
  2. An assessment of websites and apps to make them compliant with web content accessibility guidelines. (You cannot ignore the huge market share that people with disability bring in, especially when businesses are facing difficult time).
  3. Develop/Review and modify policies related to safety, maintenance, human resource, customers and other policies to make them disabled friendly.
  4. Involve people with disabilities and experts at every stage of development. Get your plans/ programs reviewed by experts and users.
  5. Last but not the least, create awareness among all people at all levels regarding inclusion.

About the authors

Rama Krishnamachari is an expert in the area of disability policies and inclusion and Ruchira Sarin is an architect specializing in Universal Design. They are together leading DEOC, a consultancy organization with over two decades of experience in policy, accessibility and training. DEOC has been engaged with Brookfield Properties in making their campuses accessible through access audits and implementation consultancy. More about DEOC @ www.deoc.in.


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