Inclusive design is the responsibility of everyone who works in the built environment, but facilities managers have a particularly important role in ensuring accessibility for all workers. Eddy Finch reports.
6 June 2017 | Eddy Finch
Many forward-thinking organisations recognise the need to be 'disability smart'.
Compliance is only the first step. Inclusivity presents a strategic business goal and the facilities manager can play a key part. Furthermore, enabling people to take part in the workplace irrespective of disability is a wish that most people share - simply as a matter of justice. It means giving everyone what they need to be successful in life. More and more, we encounter disability-smart organisations that seek out talented employees irrespective of their impairments.
Jean Hewitt, director of the Centre for Accessible Environments (CAE) says organisations should be raising the bar. "FMs need to recognise that part M is a minimum standard; to run an inclusive business or an inclusive service you've to go beyond that."
But let's look at the day-to-day reality. Facilities managers may have inherited poorly designed and ageing property. This will inevitably place more pressure on the soft-FM service issues. They may have a good grasp of how to manage an inclusive facility, but this awareness may not filter down to reception, security and cleaning staff. The repercussions of getting it wrong may be substantial, with reputational risk often eclipsing legal risks. The question then becomes "how do I operationalise inclusive facilities?"
As a starting point, let's consider the obstacles faced by those with a physical or mental impairment.
Government statistics suggest that we are reducing the disability employment gap1. This gap has fallen up until 2010 as a result of increased employment rates for disabled people. Since 2010 this reduction has faltered. Employment rates differ according to disability. For example, in 2016 the disability employment rate for those people with severe learning difficulties was 24 per cent. This represented a gap of 56 per cent compared with non-disabled workers (80 per cent employment). At the other extreme, those with difficulty hearing had an employment rate of 66 per cent, representing a much smaller gap of 14 per cent. The message for FMs is that they appear to be improving access to the workplace, but there is room for improvement. This particularly applies to poorly understood disabilities such as depression, epilepsy and mental health.
A recent study by Scope revealed just how awkward people feel when dealing with disability2. Two-thirds of British people feel uncomfortable talking to disabled people. A quarter of disabled people have experienced attitudes and behaviours suggesting that people expect less of them because of their disability. Perhaps most surprising is that one-fifth of 18 to 34-year-olds have actually avoided talking to a disabled person because they were unsure how to communicate with them. These statistics have ramifications for anyone attempting to operationalise FM. Some deeply embedded attitudes have to be overcome, particularly when dealing with younger staff who may have had limited experience with disabled people in their own lives.
We can start by looking at language. A UK Government guidance note highlighted words to avoid and those to use in their place3. For example, replacing the expressions 'afflicted by', 'suffers from', 'victim of' (all of which have negative connotations) with the expression 'has (name of impairment). When referring to wheelchair users, we should avoid expressions like 'confined to a wheelchair' or 'wheelchair-bound' - just refer to them as wheelchair users. At the end of the guidance note it suggests that we should not be "too precious or too politically correct - being super-sensitive to the right and wrong language and depictions will stop you doing anything". This last sentence is perhaps the most useful one to share with staff. People with disabilities want to be addressed in just the same way as everyone else.
When it comes to interactions there are ways to enhance communication and reduce anxieties. Just looking at visual impairment we might recommend:
- Orienting the person in the work environment, describing where physical obstacles arise. If they have been there before, it's important to inform them of any changes to obstacles.
- Avoiding revolving doors and make them aware that the stairs or escalators are going up or down
- When giving directions, using specific words such as 'straight ahead' or 'forward' rather than 'over there'.
- The American Psychological Association has produced a useful online resource that highlights ways to enhance interactions with people that have a range of impairments4.
- Day-to-day FM interaction is important. As Tracey Proudlock of Proudlock Associates explains: "The most effective adjustments are often low cost or even no cost to a well-managed building."
- Assist people with doors.
- Remove stored items from an accessible WC.
- Provide some way-finding assistance.
- Speak communicatively, with clear diction while facing the person.
Reasonable adjustments in reasonable time
Equality law stipulates that an employer only has to make adjustments when they are aware that a worker has a disability. This reactive approach contrasts with the proactive approach required in law for goods and services providers. Making these adjustments often involves coordination between the FM, human resources, IT and health professionals.
As Susan Scott-Parker OBE, CEO of Business Disability International (bdi), observes: "We're seeing wide frustration that somehow the process which is supposed to adapt the workplace - to enable productivity, well-being, engagement and stop people from leaving - the process for making these adjustments isn't working. There is a breakdown in terms of who is responsible for what."
To illustrate the point, Scott-Parker describes a scenario. "What happens when a colleague says: 'Those lights give me migraines'? The first thing someone will say is 'Oh, don't be silly' or 'Just wear sunglasses'. Or a manager says: 'Well, we only have to act if you are legally disabled. See a doctor and come back with a certificate', which causes endless delays and ill will. Or someone says 'see occupational health' - who focus more on the headaches than on changing the light. Then you come back the next day and the headaches start again.
"And nobody is sure whose job it is to select the right light, nor where to buy it, nor which budget should pick up the cost (line managers or central budget); IT probably need to get involved (there is almost always a technology link). And so what you find is that the person waits, and their manager waits and their team waits 12 to 18 months or more - indeed sometimes the person loses their job before the adjustment is actually delivered."
A wealth of information (including podcasts) on the subject of reasonable adjustments and other disability issues is available online from the Business Disability Forum5.
A reactive approach may be the only viable option for some impairments. But many impairments are widespread in the working population (for example, mobility, hearing and visual impairment). A more universal approach using inclusive design principles could reduce the upheaval of a reactive approach. It may also reduce the costs of unnecessary reworking. Universal design is a proactive way forward for the disabled-smart organisation. It is defined by the UK government as ' a process that ensures that all buildings, places and spaces can be easily and comfortably accessed and used by everyone'.
Unfortunately, facilities managers often rely on feedback from only one disabled user, if at all.
As the CAE's Jean Hewitt told FM World: "I've had people say to me 'We know we've got reasonable access because we've had a wheelchair user come round and have a look'. Personal perspectives are useful, but unless that wheelchair user is an access professional it's likely they will be giving a personal view of their own situation and may not take into account of other wheelchair users and other disabilities."
Through more extensive user involvement a more robust solution can be determined that is not simply designed for the mythical 'universal man' (which captures only 95 per cent of the population) or indeed the 'universal disabled person'.
Nick Ross, head of facilities at law firm Mills & Reeve LLP, explains: "It's more of an inclusive design approach. Dealing with things on a case-by-case basis, things can get quite complicated, although sometimes that is necessary. Not everyone would declare that [their impairment] and you want to have an inclusive approach because that sends out the right message."
Ross illustrated an example of inclusive design that his firm has adopted.
"One of the things we did in our London office relocation in 2015 was to fit out with 'sit-stand' desks so people can alter the height of their desks. One of the big advantages of that in terms of our DSE workstation assessment was that we didn't have to ask people whether they wanted their desk lowered or raised because they could do that themselves. That was great for empowering the users to look after that part themselves. We also gave them guidance on what level the desk should be at. So if the individual was in a wheelchair or was quite tall or quite small they were able to self manage - with the individual having control of that desk".
- Here are some of the reasons why an inclusive approach makes sense for the facilities manager dealing with day-to-day workplace issues.
- Disabled people usually prefer not to have to disclose their disability.
- People with disabilities don't always wish to be treated as 'special cases', particularly when there are others that can benefit from the same design modifications.
- The emerging activity-based working (ABW) environment is based on the premise that no employee 'owns' or has an assigned workstation.
- Modern collaborative workplaces typically involve customers and clients from outside of the organisation. A reactive approach is impractical in this environment.
- A full explanation of inclusive design principles has been produced by the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE)6.
The way forward
Current management practices appear to be failing many disabled users. Reasonable adjustments are taking months rather than weeks to complete. Connected thinking between the FM and other service providers is imperative if users with a disability are to avoid the blight of an inaccessible environment. People with impairments wish to be part of the changing world: a world of innovative business practices and stimulating work settings. They want their contribution to be as relevant as anyone else's. FMs should think of disabled-smart thinking as a 'yes, and...' rather than a 'yes, but...' mentality that captures the richness of a diverse organisation.
Eddy Finch is a former professor in FM at Salford University and previously editor of the academic journal Facilities