Accessibility Must Not Be An Afterthought In Workplace Design

An open workplace By Lesley Kelly, Studio Lead and Principal, Design at workplace creation experts Unispace.

The government recently published its National Disability Strategy in July 2021, which outlined recommendations to create a more accessible workplace for employees with disabilities, including mental wellbeing considerations. Though there were several recommendations included within the Strategy, three core highlights stand out for employers:

  • Introducing workforce reporting for larger businesses with more than 250 staff, to report the number of colleagues who identify as having special needs
  • Launching a one-stop online advice hub, providing information and advice on disability discrimination in the workplace, flexible working, and obligations around reasonable adjustments
  • Piloting an Access to Work passport, capturing the in-work support needs of individuals with disabilities, and empowering them to have confident discussions about adjustments with employers

The Strategy signals further progress on the UK's existing efforts to improve workplace accessibility, in line with regulations such as the 2010 Equality Act, which mandated employers to make "reasonable adjustments" for staff, and the Mental Health Discrimination Act (2013), which removed the last significant forms of discrimination on the grounds of mental health.

Yet there is more still to be done. According to recent statistics, less than half (48%) of the 14,000 employed people who identified as disabled and responded to the UK Disability Survey agreed or strongly agreed that their employer is flexible and makes sufficient reasonable adjustments. So, while it is positive to see an increasing visibility of accessibility topics on the corporate agenda, it’s clear to see that a holistic approach to accessibility is still needed.

Considering Non-Visible Disabilities

It’s crucial that all employers take into account that not all disabilities are visible. Amongst the working population, a quarter (25% or 8.4 million) adults, identify as having a disability – and of this number, 70% are defined as ‘hidden’ disabilities. It’s therefore imperative that businesses ensure workplaces are equally accessible to support colleagues with non-visible considerations.

In addition to accessible entries, for example, many businesses are considering lighting and noise adjustments – looking at solutions to optimise lighting for ease of working, managing noise levels in different zones, and providing adaptable workstations. These design adjustments are taking into account mental wellbeing and should be fully integrated from the start of the design process – not added in later as an afterthought.

Mental Health And Wellbeing Initiatives

Mental health is increasingly – and rightly – being acknowledged as an integral workplace design consideration by nearly all organisations. Research from the Office of National Statistics has recently attributed over 12% of sick days to mental health conditions, and according to a 2019 survey from Penketh Group, 66% of 25-34-year-olds want more work settings designed to support mental health. Mental wellbeing was a prominent part of building an inclusive workplace pre-pandemic, but is even more important now.

Indeed, the British Council for Offices (BCO) published a briefing note in April 2021 to its members with guidance on how to design and manage buildings for health and wellbeing. It suggests that a multisensory approach to workplace design can help improve workers’ mental health.

The second version of the WELL Building Standard (WELL v2), which is increasingly being adopted in the UK, includes 10 factors for health and wellbeing in the workplace: air, water, light, nourishment, movement, thermal comfort, sound, materials, mind, and community. In practice, this means that employers should consider incorporating areas such as ‘wellness zones’ into their workspaces, which are quiet, comfortable, tech-free zones with natural light and biophilia for colleagues to take a break from their desk and reset within the working day.

These areas are in increasing demand as employees return to the workplace. Outdoor areas – such as gardens, or spaces in high rise buildings, and terraces - are becoming increasingly popular, and employers are now additionally beginning to ensure they are also wi-fi enabled so employees have the option to access fresh air while they work.

Enabling Technologies

As mentioned in the National Disability Strategy, technology offers a range of potential solutions to the challenges that individuals face within the workplace. This goes beyond wi-fi-enabled spaces, and instead focuses on offering personalised settings and environments focused on each individual’s needs, such as apps that allow colleagues to change lighting before arriving to their desk.

While it is not a new concept, ‘Accessibility Tech’ has increased in prevalence in recent years as employers become more attuned to the needs of their teams. For colleagues with learning considerations like dyslexia, for example, app-based software is now available which enables dictation instead of typing, with a spell-check function built in to handle any necessary edits. Technology can help with mental wellbeing, too – McKinsey’s HealthTech Network suggests that digital solutions like chatbots, wearables and apps could all support as part of mental health employee programmes.

Similarly, investment in integrating hardware to support with accessibility, such as touchless entry, speech recognition systems, screen readers and hearing loops in meeting rooms, is on the increase. The integration of this technology is most convenient and accessible when aligned with other products that are designed for, and understood by, everyone. This guarantees maximum up take amongst employees, who won’t need specialised training to understand how to use it.

Investing In Accessibility

Ultimately, the National Disability Strategy has taken important steps in the right direction towards improving workspaces and reducing the disability employment gap, however there is certainly more for employers to consider.

Businesses must be open to innovation and fresh perspectives, allowing themselves to be forward-thinking. Investment in accessible, strategically designed workspaces that use assistive technologies and cater to employee wellbeing will deliver measurable benefits, improving both recruitment and retention, allowing colleagues to feel more comfortable and happier in their workplace surroundings.


Click the article to enlarge it.

Accessibility Must Not Be An Afterthought In Workplace Design