WorkSpace Connect is part of the Informa Tech Division of Informa PLC

This site is operated by a business or businesses owned by Informa PLC and all copyright resides with them. Informa PLC's registered office is 5 Howick Place, London SW1P 1WG. Registered in England and Wales. Number 8860726.

Return-to-Office Plans: Don’t Lose Sight of Accessibility


A person in a wheelchair at a work office
Image: StockPhotoPro -
At this point, we have a rough vision of what the offices of the future (and the present) will look like — plexiglass partitions, more air filtration, voice-activated meeting rooms, and of course, sanitizer at the beck and call. But in the pursuit of the cleanest, most COVID-19-ready offices, are we in danger of leaving out a crucial aspect — that being accessibility?
On paper, the office changes discussed on WorkSpace Connect and elsewhere make sense; we need to keep offices clean and reduce contact as much as possible. But what about the blind worker who relies on touch to navigate spaces? The speech-enabled meeting room might be more accessible for blind or low-vision employees, but what about the speech-impaired employee?
Obviously, each organization will answer these questions in its unique way, but accessibility (virtual or physical) needs to be at the fore of office planning and design. This has been the case since 1990, when the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) became law. The ADA prohibits discrimination based on disability and mandates that people with disabilities have the same opportunities, including the right to employment, as everyone else.
More importantly, diverse workforces are more productive, and ultimately, are more profitable, as shown in a growing amount of business research done on diverse teams. For example, a study from leadership improvement company Cloverpop found inclusive teams make decisions twice as fast with half the number of meetings and deliver 60% better results. Similar studies from Harvard Business Review, Boston Consulting Group, and others point to other positive business outcomes.
Another point of reference comes from The Chicago Lighthouse, a social service organization for the blind, visually impaired, and disabled people and veterans, has collaborated on several workplace studies and offers training programs to place people in customer service, telesales, order entry, and similar jobs. Their studies point too other workplace benefits. For instance, in a study on retention rates of employees in the Illinois Tollway Customer Care Center, The Chicago Lighthouse found that employees with vision loss or other disabilities had a 1.7-year retention rate, as opposed to a retention rate of 0.9 years for those without a disability.
The benefits are clear, but what then to the problem at hand of creating spaces for everyone to work, regardless of ability? Architecture, design, planning, and consulting firm Gensler provided some food for thought in a recent article on how accessible design is possible even during COVID-19. The authors break down some of the common COVID-19-related workplace pain points, including office space, entrances, check-in areas, and air circulation. For entrances and waiting areas, they discussed the importance of ensuring sensors and spaces are accessible for everyone. If temperature scanners are in use, are they placed in such a way as to be able to gather data from people in wheelchairs? Can a wheelchair navigate a newly plexiglass-fortified waiting area? The authors even looked at cleaning with an accessibility lens, raising the concern of chemical sensitivity.
What the Gensler specialists didn’t explore in detail is the role of technology. While technology deployed without thought to accessibility is a problem, technology can provide a solution — or be configured to address an accessibility concern. I explored this idea in an article on our sister site, No Jitter, looking at how two application providers — EyeSpace and Be My Eyes — are providing blind and low-vision users with ways to navigate spaces, while Zoom and Microsoft provide captioning options for video meetings. The accessibility technology market is vast, comprising everything from screen reading software and devices to personal amplification devices, alternative keyboards and input devices, and much more.
Putting together all the piece parts requires cross-department collaboration and workplace leadership. IT can make sure the technology hums, real estate/facility professionals can ensure spaces are accessible for everyone, and HR can create policies to ensure workers of all abilities can succeed in the job. So, accessible office design is possible during COVID-19, as long as businesses have the desire and effort to do so.