The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the issues many disabled people still face in the workplace. Yet, when I look at the work done on diversity and inclusion in recent years, disability is one issue that I believe has sometimes been overlooked.
As someone who grew up with siblings who are profoundly deaf, I am very aware of the shortcomings of many workplace environments and the obstacles they throw up to workers, be it physical or psychological.
I feel privileged every day to have something as fundamental as my hearing, but I also know many take it for granted. The lived experience of my siblings throughout Covid has been difficult. How do you communicate with a deaf person while wearing a mask in the workplace or elsewhere?
Communicating in a virtual world might also appear easier on the surface but my siblings are relying on facial expressions and body language — all of which are much harder on a screen shared with multiple people.
So, the question is what needs to change as we build back better?
It goes beyond physical access, the extent to which entry, exit and key interaction points are easily accessible to all users. For example, how can design promote developmental and intellectual health through, say, strategies that employ colour, texture, images? What about wayfinding strategies to help individuals navigate in the workplace?
Ergonomics is another crucial consideration, and safety is, of course, paramount. What strategies do employers have to support easy access to all spaces and amenities, while minimising the risk of injury, confusion, or discomfort?
While organisations ready to provide a better remote-working experience will be in a strong position to harness talent from a wider pool of potential employees, not all people will want or be able to work remotely all the time. The onus is now on employers to rethink the difficulties their physical workplaces may pose.
Sodexo’s Wx Consultancy specialises in inclusive design in the workplace, based on making working life easier for all, rather than simply complying with the letter of the law. Spaces and places that are truly inclusive are not limited to compliance with local codes. Rather, they are purposely designed to accommodate all users. It focuses on access and usability across a range of design considerations.
The key is to understand the needs of all employees. Design can have a huge impact on who can access, use and interact with a space, but many environments are not designed with the needs of all people in mind.
Workplaces are going to change, but, while new hybrid working models offer opportunities for some employees with disabilities, including enabling some to access the workforce more fairly, we need to be careful about limiting opportunities in physical workplaces.
Simply telling colleagues with disabilities that they can work from home does not address the fundamental issue of access and equality. The bottom line that employers that have not previously addressed these questions must now do so and take advantage of a golden opportunity to promote inclusivity.
Author: Julie Ennis, CEO, Corporate Services, UK and Ireland and Country President Ireland at Sodexo