People with disabilities aren’t limited until a barrier is put in their way. The daily workplace experiences most of us are familiar with—sitting at a desk, attending meetings or grabbing a cup of coffee—can be complex for those with disabilities if a space isn’t designed to accommodate their needs. And the reality is that design can create barriers for all of us.
To be truly democratic and barrier-free, design should be fully inclusive of those with disabilities—both visible and invisible. Nearly 20 percent of people in the United States have a disability, which could encompass a physical, psychological, vision, hearing and cognitive disability or a neurodiversity such as autism spectrum disorder and dyslexia.
Today the number of those Americans entering the workforce is greater than in any time in the past two decades. That’s the good news. Now here’s the bad: Nearly 6 in 10 working-age adults with a disability remain unemployed in the U.S. For designers, that statistic alone should inspire us to think how we can create more accommodating and welcoming workplaces.
Consider, for example, how a person with a disability would access your building for the first time. In many cases, the entrance for people with disabilities may be on the side or back of a building, which gives a person with a disability a much different experience than those without a disability entering the building.
Oversights like this often come from a lack of engagement in the design process. Other times it’s because we choose to solve problems for one user at the expense of another. Regardless of the reason, one thing is clear: Truly inclusive design requires thoughtfulness and attention to each aspect of the experience for every user.
Another potential downfall comes in the prioritization of one sensory experience over another. As designers, we tend to be overly focused on creating visual experiences. But to create more inclusive spaces, we must make multisensory design imperative. If we design for every sense—leveraging light, color, texture, smells and sounds—we can create richer experiences for every user and ensure that those who are neurodivergent or live with other disabilities can engage with a space in a similar manner as the rest of the workforce.
In our work on UPMC’s Vision and Rehab Institute, HOK engaged Chris Downey, AIA as a consultant. Downey lost his sight after an operation to remove a benign tumor in his brain, yet he has continued practicing architecture by relying on his other senses. His insight into how the blind people experience a space has influenced the design of numerous buildings, making these spaces more accessible and useful for all. Downey offers a reminder that to design for all users, we must invite all users into the design process.
So, next time you’re planning a significant building project, or even just relocating the coffee machine for your organization, look around the table at the decision makers. Do they represent the diversity of your customers and your staff? Do they bring perspectives that represent the neurodiverse and those with other disabilities Do they offer perspectives that vary from your own?
Inclusive design preserves the richness of the experience no matter who the end-user is and ensures equity of access. By inviting those with disabilities into the design process, we can better understand how to create immersive, sensory experiences for all.