Inclusive work-spaces & communities, why have we missed this?

Updated: Apr 22, 2020

A while back I was approached to par-take in inclusive consulting. It's a field that does not get a lot of attention, however it is one that needs to be highlighted, as a forethought for anyone working with people, products or service delivery. Unfortunately, inclusive design is often an afterthought. A retrospective application of 'oh shit! We forgot to add these lights or speakers or sound systems [insert need for access here], we'd best figure out how to do it'. Once design compliance as per law requirements has been satisfied, businesses rarely go above and beyond to be inclusive and accessible.

I believe it is hard to incorporate inclusive designs from the beginning if you have not been impacted by impairment or disability personally, however I do not believe that it is hard to implement it if you include all stakeholders to the conversation and design process from the beginning. We might even say this is thinking outside the box, getting society to include rather than exclude before we build a space or process. Here is an excellent article which helped me visualise how I want to help contribute to being more inclusive in my role as a healthcare professional and community member. I strongly recommend you give it a read as it will help you understand one person's journey into how she is not letting hearing loss hold her back.

Inclusive design: What does this mean?

Inclusive design: A design methodology that enables and draws on the full range of human diversity. Most importantly, this means including and learning from people with a range of perspectives.

Designing inclusively doesn’t mean you’re making one thing for all people. You’re designing a diversity of ways for everyone to participate in an experience with a sense of belonging. Beautifully said by Microsoft, more information available here.

Accessibility, which has a different meaning to inclusion, is defined as:

1. The qualities that make an experience open to all.

2. A professional discipline aimed at achieving the first point.

Accessibility is an attribute and inclusion is a design process.

Don't forget about inclusive design, make it part of every process when you are designing a product, service, work space or community. Inclusive design does mean engaging with a range of stakeholders to figure out the most practical, open and usable way to optimise a work-space or community area, to ensure a product is designed for the greater good, rather then the average number of people. Remember, we are all temporarily able. This means that one day, we will want these spaces to be accessible to our needs as we age or an accident occurs.

Why is Inclusive Design important?

We may all encounter a disability at some stage in our life, we are all temporarily able. A disability is any continuing condition that restricts everyday activities. It may present in a neurological, cognitive, physical, social-emotional or intellectual form, or any combination of the above. A disability may not be visible to others; and when undertaking a new design or designing new facilities, it is important to engage all stakeholders.

Inclusivity + Accessibility = An experience that is more than compliant. It is usable and open to all.

As an audiologist I often see how hearing loss impacts the individual social and emotional psychology, personal and professional relationships, community contributions and cognitive connectedness.

Hearing loss is invisible. As we cannot see the immediate effects of hearing loss we tend to assume people can hear us when we talk to them or ask them a question.

If the person does not respond we tend to give them a grace and repeat ourselves. When this period of graciousness disappears, this is when frustrations build, communication break downs occur and assumptions creep in. We may feel ignored, sad or rejected when the other person does not respond, or we may feel they are being arrogant towards the question. If these issues are not resolved, the quality of life between relationships changes. The research shows early intervention such as audiological care and hearing aid use helps to improve quality of life and wellness for the individual and their relationships.

Inclusive design is important because if we truly designed spaces and communities with disability access and inclusion during step 1 & 2 listed above, everyone would benefit.

The outcome of some of my inclusive consults

1. My initial inclusive consult and meeting went well. What I mean by this is the actual meeting and recognition process that occurred during the meet up was met with head nods and yay-sayers. I had an employee who required access, the Chief Technology Officer and the Head of the health and safety team all in one meeting with me; all agreeing that whilst their new offices looked great and had compliant features, no one knew how to access or use them to the best of their ability. You read that correctly, even the CTO and his team, were not 100% clear on how all the technology that was installed, could be accessed/utilised. This made me cringe internally. A brand new office with all the 'break-out spaces', 'dead-spaces', and bells and whistles you could ask for had been installed.... But no one was sure on the brands of the speakers or microphones, for example, or if the Infra-red loop system could be linked to the microphones.

What became apparent was the lack of understanding towards the impact of hearing loss and the dismissive nature towards the importance of accessible communication, not just for those with hearing loss, but to improve communication for work relationships. The CTO later took me on a tour of the office spaces, showing me the technologies in the meeting rooms, the main board room and disclosed to me of a hearing loss they had! You will be surprised to learn this process of scope of works and tendering has stalled, despite individuals advocating for themselves internally.

2. The second meeting I had, with a different company, went really well. Whilst they were forth coming with information and the idea of change, their hesitance to engage in an inclusive consult was a bit like a dating game. We both knew communication was needed, but we kept each-other at arms length.

The Chief's and I (Chief Technology Officer, Chief Financial Officer and Chief Operations Officer) sat down and drafted out the needs, then and there, that this company thought they would need and what their strategies were to achieve them. I was extremely impressed and excited to work with a brand and company that walked the talk and truly wanted to learn more about inclusive decision making and education. Needless to say, this business and brand has tackled the hearing loss space successfully and in an innovative manner. I feel honoured I get to work with such amazing people.

Don't get me wrong, I am learning to be more inclusive everyday. These opportunities that have arisen have a strong communication and hearing healthcare focus, given my profession and experience these consults and contracts make sense. I don't pretend I know all the answers to everyones cases, like the person, each case and need is individual, it needs to be personalised.

What I have observed is once people are educated on the impact of hearing loss and how an acoustic environment can impact individual communication, people are more open to working towards a solution. They want to learn to make hearing and listening better for everyone.

"We are all temporarily abled."
And people get it to a certain extent when used as an empathy measure for inclusive designing.

This is not a substitute measure for involving all stakeholders, it is a measure to help individuals understand the overall needs of what it means to be inclusive, especially if they do not know anyone with impairments or disabilities.

Why have we missed inclusive design?

A few reasons we miss being diverse and including a variety of stakeholders is our own lack of education and awareness in this area. I know I wasn't clearly or fully aware of inclusive design and processes till I heard a speaker present on this and use examples of how this company and brand changed the way they designed and iterated their products. Once I was made aware of inclusive design processes it was like a light bulb went off. I had a fresh new way to view the world.

It then helped shaped how I approached my clinical practice and the advice I give out when working with client's. I've done some research, met some incredible people working in this space and listened to some insightful podcasts that have helped to shape my view on why we (as a society) have missed such a vital step in the design process.

Another reason I think we miss inclusive design is our perception and attitude towards impairment and disabilities. There is still a stigma attached to disabilities and how individuals may access and use rehabilitation. I believe there is an open ended and diverse approach in the way we bridge the education and attitude gap towards disabilities and designing workspaces and community spaces.

I view each meeting and networking event as an opportunity to educate individuals, communities and companies on improved communication behaviours. On a side note, I also take the opportunities to discuss societal and personal views on healthy ageing and how we might all contribute to a more inclusive, accessible and diverse community structure.

What I want to see and work towards is a society where we design access and inclusion for everyone over expecting others to conform to the standard which doesn't benefit all.

Cheers, Kat Penno

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