Understanding the role Universal Design plays toward an Inclusive and Accessible Workplace
August 25 2015 By Progression
Hiten Bawa, Architect and Universal Access Consultant unpacks the various considerations of Universal Access within physical environments and the critical role it plays in enabling full participation for everyone.
The introduction of inclusive policies and non-discriminatory legislation in the workplace is encouraging companies and institutions to be more inclusive in their approach toward a diverse workforce, including individuals with disabilities.
In a recent article by Progression's Diversity and Disability experts, the issue of Reasonable Accommodation was unpacked, assessing the benefits that inclusive and accessible workplaces bring to organisations. Recognising the importance and benefits of managing diversity in the workplace, the first step to creating these enabling workplaces is through accessible work environments.
Universal Access is a concept that addresses this accessibility issue by offering an integrated philosophy which observes inclusion and accessibility as key components of developing barrier free environments. The UN defines Universal Access as 'the design of products, environments, programmes and services to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialised design.
Hiten Bawa, Architect and Universal Access Consultant, explains that as per this definition, the inclusion for all is therefore inherent in the design rather than being included as a special feature or after-thought. This suggests that diversity, and for a large part, disability, should be managed as an intrinsic part of the design/planning process rather than as a separate or isolated division within the workplace or work environment.
The accessibility of the physical environment, although often considered, may never be implemented due to misconceptions. Many organisations question if there is sufficient demand by people with disabilities for an accessible environment. There is often the belief that the provision of accessible buildings and environments is prohibitively expensive. "This is not the case at all. In fact, conducting an accessibility audit at the beginning of the building/development process can be hugely cost saving in the long-term," explains Hiten. "In building proposals and blueprints an access audit can identify and remove potential environmental barriers before any construction work is carried out. This ensures an inclusive environment from the start, and allows for cost-saving by minimising the need for expensive modifications when the need arises."
Further, there is the misconception that the provision of accessible design for the needs of wheelchair users is sufficient. "Sensory disabilities relating to hearing and vision should be equally considered together with wheelchair access in the building design. Considerations for people with sensory disabilities can include correct lighting levels for various activities, colour contrasts and proper acoustic treatments of the interiors." Hiten explains. "Technology can also be used to enable much broader accessibility. New technologies and innovations each year have helped improve building designs in many ways through the use of motion-sensor devices, automatic door closing mechanisms, adjustment of lighting levels, furniture that is height adjustable and so on." Conducting an environmental accessibility audit can help to identify where these considerations should be made and the actions that should be taken.
Conducting an audit to address the gaps around accessibility involves the use of a checklist referencing the minimum requirements set out in the National Building Regulations SANS10400-S, Facilities for Persons with Disabilities. The checklist requires the collection of accurate data through measurements and photographic evidence. Once the data is compiled and the level of compliance on different sections is calculated by score, the audit report is generated, providing an overview on the workplace conditions.
Hiten recommends utilising a professional or consultant when conducting an environmental accessibility audit. "A Universal Access consultant has both the understanding of various disability issues and the insight to identify potential barriers to access that may be indiscernible to an 'untrained eye'." A consultant will provide a list of recommendations for improving access and will be able to assist with the best course for implementation. This will ensure that both the long-term objectives around access and best-fit for the organisation in terms of bottom line are achieved.
At this years' Disability Conference, Progression, together with its team of experts, will be capacity building delegates with the tools to conduct their own environmental accessibility audit. As part of their pack, delegates with also receive and environmental audit handbook, which they can use in their organisations to create and accessible and barrier-free environment.
Best practice teaches us that we should approach accessibility and inclusion with a business-as-usual approach. "Organisational policies and procedures that make provision for people with disabilities is the first step to creating an inclusive environment, this needs to be reflected further by the provision made in actual building design," says Hiten.
About Hiten Bawa
Hiten Bawa holds a Master of Architecture (Prof) degree from the University of Cape Town and is currently working on a barrier-free environments project with the Department of Higher Education and Training and University of the Witwatersrand under Ludwig Hansen Architects and Urban Designers.