Business owners and facility managers are increasingly compelled to improve building accessibility. This is driven by the twin forces of legislative compliance and ever-stronger public demand.
This article explores why going beyond what is legally required is now commercial common sense, and how to action accessibility improvements.
When compliance is not enough
The Equality Act (2010) provided an important legal framework, encapsulating measures to tackle disadvantage and discrimination. Obligations placed on employers were aimed at ensuring disabled workers (or job applicants) are not disadvantaged in any way.
It is discrimination to treat any differently-abled person unfavourably and that includes someone trying to visit your premises such as a customer, supplier or meeting delegate.
However, media exposure and the internet have made people even far more aware of their rights to enter workplaces and public areas unhindered by their different abilities. So, it is no longer enough to simply ‘comply’ with the letter of the law. Visitors and staff will expect their convenience, comfort and care to be considered.
For example, having wheelchair access via a back entrance and a ‘service lift’ which normally carries goods could be viewed not just inadequate, but insulting! As could holding meetings in the foyer or a too-small groundfloor room, because narrow doorways or a too-small lift restricts the opportunity to use normal meeting facilities.
The emphasis is now on businesses taking responsibility to update and improve premises, making them far more accessible, including fully functional lifts that reach to all floors. This can protect your company’s reputation as a caring, forward-looking and equality-conscious organisation.
The alternative is visitors or staff who feel disenfranchised and negative towards your business. How many sales could you lose through this, and could recruiting and retaining high calibre staff be affected if you fall short on expectations?
Auditing workplace accessibility
The starting point of improving workplace and public facility accessibility is to thoroughly evaluate the entire building.
This should include not just the doorways and stairs which limit wheelchairs. For example, is your current signage adequate for people with visible impairments and can interior colour choices and lighting make progress around the site confusing?
Plan out low-cost accessibility improvements
The audit will inform a strategy to improve the configuration and features of your building, to make it far easier for differently-abled people to move around.
You may even find that there are low-cost quick fixes, such as altering the use of certain rooms or rearranging equipment to create a better ‘flow’. Or, you may be able to improve access by moving communal and conference rooms closer to disabled toilets and accessible lifts.
Simple changes could also include adjusting work station heights and other equipment configurations, to provide differently-abled staff with a greater degree of comfort.
Perhaps your reception and HR teams – or entire workforce – would benefit in up to date training in how to handle the challenges and needs of differently-abled colleagues or visitors.
In some instances, greater equality and accessibility could be actioned by putting disabled parking spaces near your entrance or allowing staff more freedom for flexible and remote working.
Opening your building to more equal use
However, there are going to be some accessibility improvements that require a greater resource commitment. To be a truly inclusive and equal employer – and show building visitors that you are a caring company – you may even need to invest in structural changes.
This often pivots on making it possible for wheelchair users to reach all floors in your premises, via specialist wheelchair lifts, or by providing wider lifts accessible from your foyer.
Also, widening doorways or smoothing out lips and steps using permanent or robust temporary ramps may be necessary. There may also be areas of your building where handrails could improve access, or technology could be used to provide important support and information for disabled staff and visitors.
It is also possible to use carpeting and interior colour schemes to improve your workplace, offering ‘sensory signposting’ for disabled people.
How to know where to start
Your own workplace audit will be an invaluable platform to improve accessibility within your business premises – and around your exits and entrances. However, it is recommended that you consult with differently-abled staff, national charities dealing with disability, and specialist suppliers of such items as wheelchair lifts.