SMBs

How does your workplace cope with disability?

Access for the disabled is a big issue here in the UK and often the simplest solutions are overlooked. Here are a few thoughts based on my experience.

In any reasonably sized organisation there is a statistically great chance that some of your co-workers will have special needs, over and above the requirements of a fully able-bodied person. How your company deals with those needs is a real mark of the quality of that organisation.

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Disabilities and special needs come in a huge variety of different complexities and it is the responsibility of an employer to make sure that they provide any necessary assistance to allow the employee to complete in as normal an environment as possible.

Here in the UK ,this responsibility is enshrined in law; the Disability Discrimination Act requires that all workplaces and places to which the public has access provide whatever help may be needed to allow a disabled person to be involved in the company's activities on as equal as possible a basis as an able-bodied person.

When the act came into force there was a proliferation of wheelchair ramps, many of which were totally useless. Employers built them cheaply from bits of scrap wood and whatever was lying around. What very few people did was to look at the requirements of a wheelchair user, look into how hard it is to propel yourself up a ramp and how much room it takes to turn a chair.

In one of the places I worked we built a large public access IT suite where people could come to use PCs, attend lessons, do research, and catch up with their mail. There was a requirement for disabled access, but nobody thought to ask a wheelchair user for advice on how to arrange access.

The first mistake was noticed when one of the lecturers, using a wheelchair, couldn't get through the door. The main entrance was a double door that opened outwards. We all took turns trying to get through the doors in her chair; she was an expert wheelchair user bur still couldn't work out how to pull the door towards her whilst using both hands to turn the wheels, a simple oversight with far-reaching consequences.

Once we had got her into the room we decided to get her to test the emergency exit. Getting the door open was simple, she simply pushed the crash bar and out she went.

Then she got stuck.

The pathway on the outside of the building was close against the wall, and she needed to do a 90 degree turn on the spot to get down it. Trouble was, the handrail did not allow for this. It took us a few minutes to disentangle her from the rail, which could have had disastrous consequences had the evacuation been for real.

It would have been simple to avoid these mistakes, had anyone of us thought to ask for help from a wheelchair user at the design stage. We could have saved a lot of money and embarrassment.

It is with this in mind that I am trying to work out how to live with one arm out of action. In the next few weeks, I will be having surgery on a shoulder injury which will involve my left arm being strapped up. As I am left-handed I thought it would be a good idea to try to get through a day without using it, and it can be extremely difficult, let me tell you. This piece took ages to type. On a more basic level, I have just tried to butter a slice of toast, with hilarious results. Imagine if you will a portly person chasing a slice of bread around the kitchen floor.

Disability awareness is something that we could all try, and may need to experience at some time in our lives; many people will break a leg at some time during their lives and will endure the experience of attempting to negotiate a heavy door whilst on crutches. If that door has a release button to the side of it, things get even more difficult. One of the customers I visit regularly has swipe card operated turnstiles in their entrance. Getting through these with a laptop case and a tool box is no easy matter; I can only begin to guess what it would be like on crutches.

Other places I visit have door release buttons that have to be held down when opening the door, again very difficult when carrying anything, and almost impossible if you are experiencing any kind of disability.

It would take years and cost a fortune to correct all the access difficulties I encounter during the working day, but that doesn't mean that we shouldn't try.

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