I've lived with a disability for more than 3 decades. My wheelchair has given me a unique perspective that I wouldn’t trade for the world.
How to Design an Accessible Office
Setting up your office space or making your work area work for you is crucial to building a foundation for great success on the job. If you have a physical disability, it can be even more important to ensure that your work area is well-suited to your needs and that any reasonable accommodations are made so that you are both comfortable and efficient. Check out the tips below for ways to personalize your work area to accommodate your own level of ability.
1. An Accessible Office Desk
The most basic of office furniture, your desk is where you will spend eight hours a day, five days a week cranking out reports, taking phone calls, delving into emails, and holding meetings, so it only makes sense to start with making your desk as comfortable as possible.
If you work for a company in an office building, know that under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), you can submit a reasonable accommodation request to have your desk adjusted.
Note: You do not have to sit at a predefined desk just because it is there. If it’s too tall, ask your HR department to submit a request to lower it. If you have a bad back, request a standing desk. If it does not allow you enough room to park your wheelchair underneath, request a different model.
2. A Comfy Chair
Don’t forget to find a chair that works with your desk.
There are several disability-friendly chair options like:
- Lumbar support chairs to provide needed support if you have back concerns.
- High or low adjustable chairs to make your seat work with the desk model of your choice.
- Adjustable arms that can go up or down depending on your height.
- Easy roll or no roll, depending on if you are transferring in and out of a wheelchair or whether or not you want a safe or solid chair that won’t scoot out from under you.
- Tilt the seat so you can have control over the perfect angle for your body.
3. Office Equipment
Now that your desk is at your comfort level, it is important that your office equipment and desk essentials also function to the level of your ability.
Laptop or Desktop Computer
Consider getting an ergonomic assessment. Many companies will offer this free of charge or cover the cost of any adjustments needed. You can even have your doctor recommend someone to do the evaluation and request a doctor’s note based on the assessment in case your workplace needs to submit it for insurance purposes or to cover any costs.
There are many, many computer options to choose from. If your workplace issues you a laptop, (or you use your own laptop for work at home use) consider requesting a lightweight model which will make it easier for you to transport.
If you use a desktop model, keep in mind there are endless possibilities for different monitor models. Remember, it’s not worth cranking your neck, not being able to see properly, or having to slouch to make your computer work for you.
Consider some of these disability-friendly monitor options:
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- Height adjustable monitors
- Movable arm monitors that mount to the wall rather than sit on a desk surface
- Large monitors to accommodate visual impairments
- Low and high contrast monitors
- Dual monitor set up for wider picture screen, eliminating the need to crane your neck
Mouse and Keyboard
One benefit of living in the information age is the vast choices we have for technology equipment. Now mice and keyboards come in virtually any shape and style you can imagine, accommodating any need from carpel tunnel to ergonomically approved to those adapted for people with limited hand and finger mobility.
- Optical trackball mice have a large ball for easier navigation requiring less finger dexterity.
- Joystick mice also increase navigation for people with limited hand mobility.
- Mouse button boxes come complete with large buttons that the user can press rather than maneuvering specific clicks.
- Vertical mice eliminate forearm twisting and relieve wrist and arm pain.
- Touchpads perform basic mouse functions with the simple swipe of a finger.
- Large print keyboards are available for those with sight limitations.
- Bluetooth keyboards with keyguards allow the user with limited hand motion to make fewer mistakes.
- 3D keyboards are fully ergonomic to reduce movement and tension in the hand.
- Braille labels can also be purchased and placed over keyboard letters for the visually impaired.
Assistive Technology Software
There is a wide variety of alternative input software to help those with disabilities perform their jobs better and take care of personal business on their computers.
- Dragon is perhaps the most well-known disability-friendly software. The speech recognition software allows the user to input their data and control their computer with their voice. This eliminates the need to use a keyboard or mouse, making it ideal for people with vision impairments or those with limited hand and arm mobility.
- VivoMouse follows the motions of your head and the sound of your voice to control your computer.
- Biggy Cursor expands the size of your cursor and provides several different colors.
- Sooth Sayer Word Prediction literally predicts the user’s words to help you construct sentences.
- Big Button Braille Phones come with a braille keypad and large touch keys for those with visual impairments.
- Amplified Telephones are designed with signals that light up when you are receiving an incoming call making it easy for those with hearing impairments to recognize when a call is coming through.
- Bluetooth headsets can be purchased to work with both speech recognition software and programmed to correspond to your telephone, creating a hands-free work area for those with limited hand or arm dexterity.
Once your desk, chair, and assistive technology are all in place, don’t forget to create accessible storage areas for items like filing papers, your purse, or for snack storage or office supplies.
Many offices provide premade cubicles with built-in shelves which are universally assumed to work for everyone. If your cubicle or office has built-in shelves at a height out of your reach, request that they be lowered.
Not only are shelves at improper height inconvenient, but they can also become a workplace hazard if you have to strain to reach or access them, possibly implicating the company with an HR or workers comp issue.
- Soft close drawers allow the user to open and close drawers easier without worrying about catching their fingers.
- Shelf extenders can be purchased from most hardware stores. They are easily installed in cupboards or cabinets to make pulling items from shelves closer to yourself, especially in lower cabinets that may be difficult to reach from a wheelchair or if you have limited mobility.
Space can often be the last thing many employers think of when creating an accessible work area.
- Leave plenty of room between workstations for wheelchairs or mobility equipment to get through from all angles. Just because a workstation or office is accessible from one side does not mean it will work from all angles or be the most convenient.
- Consider the turning radius of the cube area. Though it may be easy to get in and out from behind the desk for wheelchair users or those with mobility equipment, consider whether or not the employee can turn around or will be constricted in their area. Constricted areas can make for awkward encounters with coworkers and frustrating interactions with clients.
Finally, consider the flooring that is installed below employee workstations. Ideal flooring for people with disabilities includes nonslip surfaces and easy maneuverability.
This often means hard surface carpet that is easy to roll across in a wheelchair, non-slip tile, or hardwood with a flat mat on top of which a chair can easily maneuver.
It’s important to ensure that all cords are cleared from the workspace as well, not only to increase accessibility but to eliminate the possibility of tripping, slipping, or falling for those who may have mobility concerns.
Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) Standards
Keeping the above tips and considerations in mind, find out what the ADA has to say about employee rights and accessibility on the job.
First, some important terminology as defined by the ADA in relation to employee work areas and offices:
- The ADA refers to one’s work area as their “primary function area.”
- Businesses must be compliant with “paths of travel” which can include streets, parking lots, sidewalks, and facility entrances.
- The ADA defines an employee work area as “all or any portion of a space used only by employees and used only for work.”
- The ADA does not consider hallways, bathrooms or break rooms employee work areas.”
Equal Employment Opportunity Council (EEOC) can provide more information and answer any questions you may have about how to prevent discrimination against people with disabilities in the workplace.
To read a full explanation of all regulations under the ADA, visit www.access-board.gov.
Are you an employee with a disability or an employer who has team members with disabilities? What creative tips and tricks have you used to create an accessible work area? Share your own ideas and advice in the comments.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.