April 11, 2022

Universal Design Strategies Support Truly Inclusive Environments

Organizations today, and their leadership teams are recognizing the importance of design in creating inclusive places regardless of the user’s ability, language skills, or culture. Embracing Universal Design (UD) can skillfully align with an institution’s commitment for creating spaces for everyone where individuals and teams can flourish.

Social inclusion is the process in which all individuals engage in social, economic, and political systems, whereas social exclusion is where certain individuals or groups in the society are marginalized. Social inclusion is important for a person’s dignity, independence, security, and the opportunity to lead a better life.

The built environment can facilitate or hinder people’s ability to participate in society, and socially inclusive architecture is about designing an environment where many people can interact on the same playing field. UD experts have the skills to advocate for design that enhances social inclusion, by considering the equality of the experience and acknowledging demographic factors such as age, gender, ethnicity, neurodiversity, and a broad range of disabilities, creating environments for all.

A key outcome of UD is helping organizations create spaces that value diversity as part of the human experience, and better represent the world we live in. Understanding what your organization’s mission and values say about being inclusive is a great staring point. How does this translate to your built environment? How do your facilities support equity and inclusion? Although there are many ways to create inclusive spaces through design, here are five ideas that you should consider. 

1. Refrain from creating spaces or places that are simply not accessible. 

Universal Design is an approach, not a building code. There has been a tendency to create raised seating areas, lofts, single user phone booth type enclosures, or stand-up tables without lower options. While they seemingly provide a varied environment, these designs exclude some people. If a conference room only has a stand-up table with tall chairs, it becomes not only a physical but social barrier to individuals who are short in stature or who use a mobility device. Their line of sight is either below or in line with the tabletop, not allowing them to participate equally with others. I would always err on the side of lower, regular height tables and chairs, or in combination with stand-up tables in the same space. This provides choices and flexibility for individuals in real time.

2. Consider Universal access which allows everyone to take the same path of travel.

Allow people to feel both physically welcomed and psychologically included, understanding that being in a space is both a physical and emotional experience. Typically, when approaching a building from the street or parking area, you have two choices—take the stairs that are conveniently located directly in front of the entry doors or take the ramp off to the side. Stairs have always been there and because of accessibility laws, ramps came along later. Over the years, even though almost all buildings have exterior ramps to get people up to the front door, they still often remain off to the side. I think it should be the other way around, by putting the ramp front and center. Everyone can use it and it’s safer. A ramp may consume more real estate, but in fact you wouldn’t even need to pay for a stair as the ramp allows everyone to take the same path of travel from the sidewalk to the front door.  I’ve seen interior ramps successfully deployed instead of stairs in two and three story buildings where everyone takes the same path of travel.  Ramps are a deceptively simple solution as they embrace all users, accommodate people at different speeds, and ensure a safer journey.  Challenge the design team on your next project to create a concept that uses ramps instead of stairs.

The ramp at the Mary Free Bed YMCA in Grand Rapids, MI allows everyone to take the same path of travel

The Universal access concept should also be executed within the building in corridors, access to amenity spaces, restrooms, food service areas, dining tables, assembly spaces, offices, and open collaboration areas.  A simple way to instill this concept is to intentionally put access at the forefront of the design process by creating a design principle around Universal access. 

3. Always provide quiet rooms or zones.

There’s a recognition that open-office plans are great for transparency and communication, but also result in spaces that are challenging to focus in. Quiet rooms allow you to respond to the full character spectrum, fostering productivity, an opportunity to recharge, and a break for someone who is over-stimulated. They allow for introspection, deep thinking, a moment of privacy from our busy schedules, or simply a place to decompress when needed. Research shows that employees who have a greater degree of control over where and how they work, including access to privacy, are more engaged. Engaged employees are more likely to stay. A quiet room should be accessible to everyone with established use guidelines. Features can include hardware indicating the room is occupied, door seals, soft seating options, floor lamps for softer lighting, non-reflective finishes, and minimal use of bright colors and bold artwork. The room should feel soft, relaxing, and neutral. On an existing floor plate, it can be as simple as making some minor changes to a small office. 

Quiet zones in dining areas have become very popular across the globe. There are a few basic things you can do to replicate a library-type feel for those who want an acoustically controlled place to read, reflect, or relax when they eat. Since sound tends to reverberate or bounce off hard surfaces, consider absorptive materials for walls, ceilings, flooring, and furniture. It all helps to quiet the area in general. Some companies install a white noise sound-masking system. These systems make a building area seem quieter by raising the ambient noise level of an environment and making speech less intelligible and therefore less distracting. Lastly, create rules that influence the preferred behavior for the quiet zone and post them in multiple formats at the entry of the quiet zone and online with employees. You may be amazed how popular these quiet areas become.

4. Reach range awareness and sensitivity.

We all want to maintain our independence if possible as we travel through life. Through my experience, one of the most important concepts that support this is being sensitive and responsive to the reach range of others. As an example, think about how products are organized in self-service coolers. All the water, or juice is on one shelf, and if it’s the top shelf, it’s not accessible to many people. Have a conversation with the vendor who stocks the cooler helping them understand the importance or organizing products in a vertical, rather than horizontal manner. Cafeterias and cafes have a lot of products that are on display, providing several opportunities to rethink your layout. A basic rule of thumb is to not exceed a four-foot reach range above the floor. This applies to microwaves, coffee stations, cups, amenities, utensils, dry product, drinks, and food stations. Once you’ve organized everything within the required reach range, you need to provide clear floor space that allows someone access. Clear floor space can be accomplished by either a side or front approach in varying situations, but I prefer a front approach with the appropriate knee space because it is more natural, convenient, easier, and leads to a face-to-face interaction. While seated, have you ever tried to place food on a plate from your side?  It’s not easy.  So, while reach range is important, good design allows people to seamlessly approach and access their intended targets.

5. Provide opportunities and places for students to meet and interact in the classroom.

Create spaces where students can work together, read together, have discussions, complete an activity, or just socialize with one another. Use different types of seating, tables, and materials to create welcoming spaces. Individuals with disabilities should be able to make choices just as any other student. For younger students, modify games and activities to include more tactile exploration by using a variety of objects that feel quite differently and provide interesting contrast. All furniture should have rounded corners and cabinet hardware should be able to be opened with a closed fist. Lighting should be dimmable, and natural light should be controlled by blinds to reduce glare and veiling reflections. A few simple design considerations to your classroom can make all the difference in helping students enjoy the journey of learning together, and from a neurodiverse perspective, don’t assume that users are “typical.”

Universal Design is the idea that a campus, building, or product, can be created in a way that makes is more usable and safer for a diverse range of people. Taking the initiative to address these five items, will support a space that is friendlier, safer, and more productive for all.

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