Most people are blissfully unaware of the issues of accessibility and inclusive design, although these issues affect the buildings, environments and services we use on a daily basis. Charlie Turner of System Concepts considers how employers can ensure that their offices are accessible for employees, visitors and members of the public.

Why make offices accessible?

The main reason why employers should make their offices accessible to all is that there is a moral and legal duty to do so. Under the Equality Act 2010, public sector employers have a similar duty to service providers such as shops and cinemas, which means that they have to anticipate the needs of disabled users and proactively ensure that their premises are accessible. They also have to meet the requirements of the Disability Equality Duty of 2006, which states that all public sector organisations have to promote equality of opportunity for disabled people.

In the private and other sectors, the duty under the Equality Act 2010 is less strict. If the employer is not a service provider, their duty is reactive: this means that these employers should make reasonable adjustments for disabled employees only after they identify a need to do so.

Apart from legal requirements, there are other reasons why all employers should make their offices accessible. Making a building accessible does not mean it has to be ugly, complicated or difficult in some way. Accessible buildings are better places for everyone to work in, regardless of their ability. Simple, low-cost changes can make a big difference, such as providing step-free access or fitting handrails to external steps. Visitors, interviewees, older workers and those with temporary conditions that affect mobility (eg a sprained ankle) will all benefit from these sorts of adjustments. Making buildings more inclusive will make them better places to work in, and this will improve employee morale and organisational reputation. Building a reputation as an accessible employer may also help to attract talent from groups that may not have had an opportunity to apply previously.

Inclusive design

The fundamental principle of inclusive design (ID) is that products and/or services should be accessible to, and usable by, as many people as reasonably possible without the need for special adaptation or specialised design. When considering office buildings, this principle applies to the building’s key features, eg horizontal and vertical circulation, acoustics and layout.

As an example, consider the use of colour and tonal contrast (wall/floor colours, the reflectivity of surfaces) throughout a building. Choosing walls and floors that contrast well with each other, and avoiding reflective and highly polished surfaces, will assist visually impaired people to find their way about. This makes the building more accessible and usable without making it any less accessible for everyone else.

There is a legal requirement to use inclusive design principles in non-domestic buildings. Part M of the Building Regulations 2010 sets out accessibility requirements that must be met in the following situations.

  • Any newly erected building.

  • Extensions or material alterations (eg refurbishment) to buildings.

  • Material changes of use to existing buildings (eg conversion to a shop or hotel).

Guidance on Part M is found in Approved Document M — Access to and Use of Buildings (ADM). It specifies design features for specific building areas that will help achieve compliance, although they are not the only way to meet the requirements. Constraints of structure and context in some building types may make generic solutions impossible, so alternative solutions will need considering.

Most of the guidance in ADM comes from BS 8300:2009 + A1:2010 Design of Buildings and Their Approaches to Meet the Needs of Disabled People. Code of Practice, which contains more prescriptive guidance on accessibility features. It is good practice for buildings to meet this guidance, although it is not a legal requirement. However, BS 8300 may be useful in suggesting alternative ways to meet legal requirements if the guidance in ADM cannot be met.

Access audits and statements

In theory, all modern offices should comply with Part M, although in practice this is often not the case. Features such as wheelchair-accessible reception counters (these have a section at a lower level suitable for a wheelchair user) are all too often not present, with no alternative solution available. Not complying with Part M can put employers at risk of costly legal claims, or result in equally costly unplanned refurbishments.

Access audits and access statements are two of the most commonly used tools to avoid these pitfalls. They help employers meet legal requirements, adhere to the principles of inclusive design and avoid claims of discrimination.

An access audit is a detailed review of all building features to assess compliance with Part M, and highlight any significant barriers to access. The auditor will spend time on site to review building features, interview disabled users of the building and meet with key stakeholders (eg building managers and facilities personnel). He or she will then prepare a report that summarises the level of compliance for each building area, such as entrances, vertical circulation, WC provision, etc. For any areas of non-compliance an audit report will recommend reasonable adjustments to resolve the issue. When making recommendations, auditors should consider the reasonableness of making any adjustment, based on factors such as the likely cost, the resources available and how significant is the barrier to access.

Access statements are a statement of intent that set out how accessibility features will be considered during planned new builds and refurbishments. They are typically submitted to building control bodies by the architect responsible for the work, together with building plans. They follow a similar format to access audit reports, summarising the architect’s approach to inclusive design for specific building areas and any key access issues. They are also updated as building work progresses to reflect decisions made that may affect accessibility, and the rationale behind these decisions.

Training and information

Staff training is an essential part of making an office accessible. Often, offices have equipment that is intended to remove barriers to access, but poor staff training can mean that this equipment is not used as intended. System Concepts once undertook an access audit for a client who had portable induction loops at all reception desks in its offices. Unfortunately, none of the reception staff had any idea how to set the loops up and were also unaware of the need to keep the batteries charged. In theory, it was a great idea; in practice, the loops were a costly white elephant for the client.

Front-of-house staff should also be aware of how to interact with disabled people, whether clients or visitors. For instance, it can be quite challenging for a security guard to know when to offer assistance to a wheelchair user or a blind person, as well as what language to use and the best way to interact with the person. A short training course in disability awareness will help ensure that these issues are solved and that disabled people are treated with dignity and respect.

Conclusion

In conclusion, a truly inclusive working environment:

  • recognises that inclusion adds value to the business

  • includes everyone in the way the workplace is designed

  • gives people the right tools and equipment to do their jobs and move around the workplace effectively

  • creates the right processes and systems to make the workplace more inclusive

  • trains people and gives them enough information to ensure that they can use the tools, systems and processes effectively.

Further information

Information about the Disability Equality Duty from the Office for Disability Issues: http://odi.dwp.gov.uk.

Equality and Human Rights Commission: www.equalityhumanrights.com.

Last reviewed 28 November 2012