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  • Rebecca Langbein

The Key to Unlocking the Return to Work, Making it Inclusive for Everyone

There is no question that the workplace has changed a lot in the last year – and in ways that most of us likely never anticipated! We’ve all become accustomed to Zoom meetings, four-legged furry colleagues who bark during presentations, and that awkward boundary between the “workday” and “real life”. It’s not been an easy transition, but from my perspective as a Universal and Inclusive Design Consultant, I believe there is a silver lining here. We have all realized our power to be creative and adapt our environments to make them work better for us. We’ve learned how to repurpose Amazon boxes into laptop stands, use bookshelves to create “walls” for a living room office, and identified just the right type of focus music to drown out our noisy children while they’re at virtual school.

This idea of making our environments work better is a central principle in the world of universal design. Universal design intends to create products, programs, and spaces that are usable by a wide variety of people; thus creating a society that enables all people to participate equitably. Universal design strives to make it easy for people of all ages, genders, ethnicities, and disability statuses to thrive in the world around them. Universal design enhances comfort, understanding, wellness, social integration, and cultural appropriateness. But, what does this look like in the real world? Consider the following examples:

  • Remember the last time you were at the grocery store, pushing a really heavy cart out to your car? Well, the automatic sliding door probably made that task quite a bit easier than it would have been if you’d had to push a door open or use a door handle. If you’ve ever used a stroller in a public place, you are likely familiar with the convenience of these doors as well!

  • Curb cuts are one of the most ubiquitous universal design features. It’s a lot easier and safer for everyone –runners, children on scooters, people with mobility devices -- to navigate sidewalks that gently slope down at a crossing, as opposed to those that abruptly drop off into the street.

  • Direction signs and maps that have numbers, colors, and images offer a variety of ways to remember the information that is being displayed. Even if you don’t speak the language where you are, you can still gather the information that you need when it is presented in such a flexible manner.

  • If you’ve been in a public restroom in the last year, I bet you weren’t too keen on touching the faucet or toilet in the bathroom. Motion-sensor appliances that can be activated with just the wave of a hand, elbow, or fist allow people with decreased finger dexterity to use such products and also create a more sanitary bathroom space.

So you see, you’ve already begun to experience universal design in action. And I’ll be you didn’t even realize it! And that is precisely the beauty of universal design. If carried out correctly, universal design creates spaces that work simply, intuitively, and flexibly for a wide variety of people.

Applying this concept specifically to the workplace, we can imagine a world in which diverse groups of people can learn and work collaboratively, without special accommodations for people with disabilities or of different ages or backgrounds. A universally designed workspace does not make anyone feel “othered” and does not look like “separate but equal”. A universally designed workspace is one in which…

  • People with asthma can opt to use an elevator on a day they are having trouble breathing

  • A person who uses a wheelchair can wheel up to a lowered countertop in the cafeteria to pay for their lunch

  • An extremely tall person can adjust a desk so that they don’t have to slump down and hurt their back while working

  • An employee who is new to the area and is still learning the language can find their way around the warehouse to do their job effectively

A workspace that is universally designed makes all employees more effective in their jobs and makes the company itself more attractive to diverse jobseekers who can bring varied perspectives and expertise to the table. Such a workspace is also flexible and adaptable, both of which are critical characteristics for any company in 2021!

As we begin to ponder a return to in-person work in a post-pandemic world, it is the optimal time to begin thinking about our offices and other workspaces anew. Do they make it easier for us to do our jobs? Are there physical barriers that seem to complicate things, slow us down, or make us unsafe? Does the place we work welcome people of all ages, disability statuses, and cultural backgrounds?

These are just a few of the considerations that I suggest asking yourself. And if you’re not satisfied with the answer? That’s perfectly OK and it’s an excellent place to start. One great thing about universal design is that it is innovative, personalized, and variable. So, creating a universally designed workplace doesn’t have to require a brand new building or expensive upgrades ASAP. It can simply mean making small but meaningful adaptations to everyday tasks and areas that make it easier or more comfortable for employees to do what they have to. And fortunately, we’ve all learned how to flex our adaptation and creativity muscles in the past year. So, I challenge you to use yours now and make your company’s return to work stronger and better for all of your employees by beginning your journey toward a universal workspace!

Sign up for Disability Solutions' webinar on April 27th at 2 p.m. ET, Workspaces that Work: Using Universal Design to Create Environments that are Better for Everyone.

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