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Making workplace better for disabled employees

Companies can make work far easier for disabled employees, if they want to.


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One consolation for Mr Takeuchi was his work environment and the support it gave. That was because he ran his own company—GoCardless, which processes direct-debit payments for businesses. The firm’s board waited patiently while his health improved. It also helped that the business could move offices. At the previous site, the desks were tightly packed and it was difficult to manoeuvre a wheelchair. The new office is more open and has parking spaces, so he can drive a specially adapted car to work. He comes in later than others, as it takes a long time to get ready in the morning.

Few disabled people have such an accommodating workplace. In 2015, 35% of Americans with physical disabilities were employed, compared with 62% of those without. A recent survey by the Toyota Mobility Foundation of 575 wheelchair users across five countries (America, Brazil, Britain, India and Japan) found that 39% had been unable to work because of mobility problems. Only 4% felt they had suffered no negative effects while working or job-hunting.

Even the most treasured employees face difficulties. August de los Reyes is a designer who works for Google, having previously been employed by Pinterest and Microsoft. When he was at Microsoft, he had an accident that broke his back, leaving him paralysed from the chest down. He is fortunate to have a powered wheelchair and nursing assistants that can help him get to work. But travelling for business now is much harder than it used to be, he says; planes cram more people in, for instance. His wheelchair needs 1.5 metres to turn 360 degrees, making cramped spaces very tricky.

Mr de los Reyes’s difficulties emphasise the importance of his area of expertise: design. Disability, he argues, is simply a mismatch between a person’s ability and their environment. In that sense, disability is designed into the world. Imagine that your home had been built by cats. Entrances and exits would be small flaps; that is all a cat would need. Humans would be trapped inside, rendered immobile by a particular environment.

In her book, “Mismatch: How Inclusion Shapes Design”, Kat Holmes recounts a wartime example of how a rigid approach to design can go wrong. America’s Air Force took the bodily measurements of its pilots and used the average to design the cockpit. After many unexpected crashes, a researcher took ten of the most important measures and found out how many of 4,000 pilots matched all of them. The answer: zero. Instead of forcing everyone to conform to the average, the best approach was to make the seat adjustable.

Wheelchair ramps are probably the most obvious example of a design change aimed at making environments more inclusive. But several everyday objects and processes have their origins in approaches designed to deal with disability. The original intent of the tv remote control was to help people with limited mobility. Vint Cerf created some of the early email protocols in part to find a way to communicate with his wife; he was hard of hearing and she was deaf. Some of the drive to develop speech recognition and voice commands came from the need to help disabled people.

Ms Holmes says the ideal is “universal design”, which creates an environment that can be used in the widest possible range of situations without any need for adaptation. For disabled workers, this means that all the elements of a workplace need to be accessible: entrances, lifts, meeting rooms, coffee facilities and, not least, toilets. If it is difficult for people to travel to meetings, firms must provide videoconferencing. And disability is not just about mobility. People with poor vision can be helped by increasing the colour contrasts on computer displays, for example.

Unless employers are aware of these problems, however, they will not try to solve them. And unless they hire people who are disabled, they will not find out how helpful innovative design can actually be. In the right businesses, such as consumer electronics, that unfamiliar perspective could even help companies come up with better products.


SOURCE: This article was first published on The Economist with the title: Better by design.

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