Universal design and workplaces

Multi-generational workforce depicted through an office meeting. “The universal design approach aspires to create spaces that are not just accessible or usable, but inclusive for everyone.” This is the opening line of a chapter on universal design and workplaces in the Handbook of High-Performance Workplaces

Authors Imogen Howe and Andrew Martel remind us that disability can be temporary or permanent and at any stage of life. Complying with codes in workplace design is not that same as quality design or even adequate design. That means some people will experience barriers that prevent participation and make them feel unwelcome and second class.

Seven principles expanded

Howe and Martel turn to the seven principles of universal design and take them one step further. They should be applied to assistive technology, tools, organisational or operational decisions, as well as the physical space of the workplace. Integrating these elements into a universal design approach benefits all workers.  

The signboard says, Diversity is a fact, Equity is a choice, Inclusion is an action Belonging is an outcome.The authors explain how the principles of universal design have moved from the 1997 interpretation to a more contemporary one. The principles were formed primarily with the built environment in mind. Universal design thinking has evolved to embrace a broader concept of inclusion in all aspects of life. 

Universal design should remain agile and flexible to respond to socio-cultural advancements. It was never meant to be one-size-fits-all as this is impossible. An inclusive society needs both mainstream and targeted individual solutions as well. 

A checklist is included at the end of the chapter where each of the principles is applied to workplace situations. This is one of the difficulties of explaining universal design. On one hand it isn’t about a checklist – it’s a thinking process. But designers need something to guide them. In co-design processes with end users, checklists often become redundant. However, checklists are a good place to start for people new to the concept of designing inclusively. 

From the conclusion

Since the pandemic many businesses have introduced flexible work arrangements which have proven to be efficient and productive. Urban-based office buildings are just one place to work. Working from home is one strategy that suits people who struggle with transport or have caring duties. 

A universal design approach is a way employers can attract people with diverse needs when seeking work. The principles of universal design can assist designers to implement inclusive thinking in their designs. Implementing these principles early in the design process is inexpensive and can result in more flexible, sustainable buildings that benefit all users.

The title of the chapter is Universal Design and it is open access.

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