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Inclusive Design Can Remove Barriers, Prevent Social Isolation

A woman with braided hair smiling for the camera.
​Crystal Renée Emery

It was going to be a momentous day. A day that Crystal Renée Emery had dreamed of since she was a girl.

The 2016 documentary that she wrote, directed and produced, "Black Women in Medicine," had been nominated for an Oscar. The intense and expensive process to qualify for Oscar consideration included hosting a premiere in an Academy Award-approved theater in New York City.

Emery, who has a type of muscular dystrophy that leads to paralysis, uses a wheelchair. A member of her staff, checking the venue to make sure it was wheelchair-accessible, confirmed that there was a wheelchair lift mounted on the wall of the theater.

As the big day neared, Emery's staff checked the venue once more. They discovered that the lift was old and was designed for a manually operated wheelchair. It could not handle a 350-lb. motorized chair and the person using it. And, to make matters worse, the lift could only be accessed by climbing some steps. 

The 54-year-old filmmaker was unable to attend her own movie premiere, a moment she had dreamed of since she was a girl. Instead, Emery appeared at the discussion panel that followed the screening via Skype.

The lift was an example of universal design—a modification made to increase accessibility, also called inclusive design—that failed miserably, she said, despite the theater owner's genuine attempt to make the venue accessible.

Emery is the founder and executive director of URU, The Right to Be Inc., a nonprofit media production organization in New Haven, Conn., that promotes cultural competency and collaboration among diverse groups. She also is the author of Against All Odds: Celebrating Black Women in Medicine (URU, The Right to Be, 2015).

She shared her story at the recent Inclusion by Design disability employment forum in Arlington, Va. The National Organization on Disability (NOD)'s Corporate Leadership Council hosted the event, which attracted about 70 organizations.

Emery also recalled how an employer remedied a problem with her cubicle, which was too small to accommodate her scooter, when she worked at Showtime Networks in New York City. Her manager ordered a reconfiguration that enlarged her workspace and moved her closer to the bathroom.

"This was an example of a company's willingness to [adapt] a physical space that was already considered handicapped-accessible," Emery said. It also reflected corporate culture that is "sensitive to the needs of disabled people and a willingness to accommodate a special-needs person," she added.

"Universal design should be design to meet the needs for all," she said, not just those with a disability.

The Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment notes that "the quality of buildings and spaces has a strong influence on the quality of people’s lives. Decisions about the design, planning and management of places can enhance or restrict a sense of belonging. They can increase or reduce feelings of security , stretch or limit boundaries, promote or reduce mobility, and improve or damage health. They can remove real and imagined barriers between communities and foster understanding and generosity of spirit."

"Inclusion drives innovation" is the theme of National Disability Employment Awareness Month in October, according to the U.S. Office of Disability Employment Policy.

"Americans of all abilities must have access to good, safe jobs," said U.S. Secretary of Labor Alexander Acosta in a news release announcing the theme. "Smart employers know that including different perspectives in problem-solving situations leads to better solutions. Hiring employees with diverse abilities strengthens their business, increases competition and drives innovation."

[SHRM members-only resource: Disability Employment Resource Page]

Inclusive Design Benefits Customers, Employees 

Maryellen Reardon, Ph.D., director of competitive analysis for Prudential Financial, has experienced severe hearing loss for the past 20 years.

Her employer gave her a laptop that had closed-captioning capability so that she could participate in meetings. However, technical problems in the meeting room meant that she couldn't be present at the meeting; instead, she could participate only by using the laptop from her office.

"To have a solution that isolates a person is not true inclusion," Reardon said. Her manager solved the problem by giving her an iPad with closed-captioning capability that could be used in the meeting room.

Inclusive design is "the reality of what you as companies do for your customers," said Carol Glazer, NOD president, noting that such design benefits the company commercially. She pointed to New York City-based OXO, the maker of rubber-handled, ergonomically designed kitchen tools, as an example.

In 1989, businessman Sam Farber noticed how his wife, who had arthritis in her hands, struggled to use a vegetable peeler. After seven iterations, he created an easier-to-use tool, and the next year he developed OXO Good Grips Inc., introducing the concept of universal design to mass retail products.

People often use accommodations without realizing it, noted Claudia L. Gordon, Esq., senior manager, government and compliance, for Sprint in Washington, D.C., who served in President Barack Obama's administration and was the first deaf black female attorney in the United States

During a small-group discussion, Gordon—who communicates using American Sign Language (ASL)—described a recent conference where the microphone malfunctioned but an ASL interpreter was present. Those who were deaf were unaffected by the technical problem. Those who were not deaf and at the back of the room could not hear the speaker. Without a working microphone—an accommodation—their experience was hampered, Gordon pointed out.

"There are immediate fixes you can take action on and do every day to make universal design part of your culture," Emery said, noting that it benefits everyone to do so. Steps organizations can take:

  • Listen carefully to what your employees say they need. "The solutions are right in front of you, but you have to be open to hear [what they are]."
  • Practice courageous conversations. "Be willing to have that conversation about the hard stuff, the awkward stuff, the stuff that is [too much information]." 
  • Assess your workplace with clear eyes and make necessary adjustments. If entrance to your building requires climbing stairs, add a ramp that's easy to find and use. Update any existing accommodations—such as an old wheelchair lift—and make sure they are easily accessible. 
  • Model a corporate culture that is sensitive to the needs of people with disabilities and that shows a willingness to make accommodations.
"Universal design can be a reality," Emery said, "but it's up to you to make that happen."  

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