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Inclusive Design: How to Make an Impact For People With Disabilities

Feb 22, 2023
Safety professional woman using a sit stand workstation and looking at her computer in a brightly lit office

Safety professionals, particularly those specializing in or familiar with ergonomics, are uniquely positioned to adapt inclusive design and make a major impact for people with disabilities.

A recent presentation by Jourdan Saunders, MS, CCC-SLP, a disability inclusion consultant and CEO and founder of The Resource Key, underscored the intersections between ergonomics and inclusive design. By adopting some universal design principles and taking a human-centered approach, safety professionals can make their work environments safer, more inclusive and better positioned for the future.

What Does Disability Really Mean?

“Disability is not an inherent attribute of the individual, but rather is the result of the interaction of the individual with the environment, including social norms,” Saunders says, referencing the Institute of Medicine Committee on Disability in America’s Social Model of Disability.

Consider it from this perspective: Our environments are adapted to us. Think about the height of kitchen counters, the standard use of stairs or the size of a bed. All these things were created with a specific group of people in mind. But, if most people were in wheelchairs, countertops would be much lower, hallways wider and stairs nonexistent.

That really puts the need for adaptation not on the individual with the disability, but on the people designing the environment.

“Consider that definition, that it’s not inherent to an individual but rather a mismatch between the physical and/or social environment because that is almost essentially the definition of ergonomics,” says Rachel Michael, CPE, CHSP, a past ASSP Ergonomics Practice Specialty administrator and one of the organizers of the presentation. “The human factor is to really be a force in designing those environments.”

How Inclusive Design Intersects With Ergonomics and Impacts People With Disabilities

“In ergonomics, you’re always finding new ways to navigate the world with the focus being humans,” Saunders says.

Ergonomics combines disciplines to improve the interaction between humans and the environment. Universal design does the same.

To put this in perspective, consider universal design principles that are used to develop buildings, products and environments to make them accessible to all people regardless of age, disability, size or any other factor, Saunders says.

Consider these principles, for example:

  • Equitable use: Is it accessible to everyone?
  • Flexibility in use: Does design address a wide range of preferences?
  • Simple and intuitive: Is the design easy to understand, regardless of the user’s experience?
  • Perceptible information: Does the design communicate information effectively?
  • Tolerance for error: Does the design minimize hazards and adverse consequences?
  • Low physical effort: Can a person use the product efficiently, comfortably and with a minimum of fatigue?
  • Size and space approach: Is the environment navigable regardless of a user’s body size, posture or mobility?

These principles align with ergonomic principles, which include safety, comfort, ease of use, productivity/performance and aesthetics.

“There’s so much overlap in all the work we’re doing,” Saunders says.

Collaborating Effectively to Build Meaningful Tools, Systems and Inclusive Environments For People With Disabilities

Achieving inclusive or universal design in work environments requires collaboration among individuals, departments and industries. It also involves including people who have disabilities.

“Cross-sector leaders recognize that the most robust and sustainable solutions will come from designing with (and not just for) the communities most affected,” Saunders says, citing the article, “The Need for Cross-Sector Collaboration.

As designer Robert L. Peters said, “Design creates culture. Culture shapes values. Values determine the future.”

Saunders provided several tips for how to effectively collaborate on inclusive designs.

  1. Build trust: At the core of this, we’re also building relationships and networking so it’s important to build trust from the beginning.
  2. Have empathy: Understanding one another helps bring us closer to the goal.
  3. Identify purpose: Define your goal together.
  4. Have adaptability: Get ready to go outside your comfort zone.
  5. Really listen: This is not just listening to say you heard someone, but actively listening and incorporating what others say.
  6. Keep a human-centered focus: Ultimately, it’s always important to keep human-centered thinking in mind, Saunders says.

Examples of Inclusive Design in Action

People with disabilities are constantly finding ways to adapt products and services that were not designed with them in mind, Saunders says. Here are a few ways they have hacked existing products or created new products that have people with disabilities in mind.

  • Eldar Ysypov is a Tel Aviv, Israel-based copywriter with cerebral palsy. Because he could not sit on a couch or use a dresser as designed due to his disability, he created small hacks that attach to IKEA’s products to make them more accessible. He contacted IKEA Israel, which created a hackathon and developed 13 designs to bridge gaps between existing IKEA products and the needs of people with disabilities, including a plastic pad protecting the bottom of a bookcase with glass doors from wheelchair damage and an easy handle added to the seamless door of a shelf.
  • When Rimas Buinevicius suffered a severe fracture to his leg and became a wheelchair user for the first time, he experienced all the aches and pains that come with it. He teamed up with NASA mechanical engineer Salim Nasser, who was paralyzed 15 years earlier, to build a wheelchair that propels the user forward using a rowing motion, rather than a pushing motion, reducing the risk of shoulder-related injuries.

Putting Inclusive Design in Action

To get started creating more inclusive products or work environments, Saunders suggests primarily starting by involving people with disabilities in your design decisions:

  • Host workshops where people with disabilities lead the conversation.
  • Create industry feedback sessions with internal employees with disabilities.

Above all, keep the human at the heart of what you do, she says.

“I think the field of ergonomics understands that everything has to be human-centered,” Saunders says. “People with disabilities are human. We have to make sure we’re including them from start to finish. We have to look at how we’re designing environments.”

We Are Committed to Diversity, Equity and Inclusion

We aim to provide an organizational culture that is diverse, inclusive and advances equity across all aspects of our Society. We know that bringing together, listening to and incorporating a wide range of perspectives makes us stronger and workplaces safer.

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