Inclusive Design Lessons: How Higher Ed Influences the Workplace

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By Jacalyn Pollock | Senior Designer

The Background

A tremendous milestone for inclusive design occurred 10 years ago that isn’t often associated with interior design itself. On August 14, 2008, a measure was passedthat had wide-ranging implications for the world of education, encompassing everything from transparency requirements for the Department of Education to restrictions on textbook publishers and a range of provisions regarding federal grants and much more. While there is little in the document that discusses students with disabilities, a few lines therein carry much weight, including this one (as summarized by Congress.gov):

[The HEOA] Makes eligible for HE[O]A student aid any intellectually disabled students who have been accepted for enrollment and are maintaining satisfactory progress in an IHE comprehensive transition and postsecondary education program for such students.

In effect, the Higher Education Opportunity Act (HEOA) altered the requirements for Title IV financial-aid dollars. The law waived certain restrictions—specifically that a student must have earned a high-school diploma and be matriculating toward a degree to qualify for federal money—and thereby increased the access and affordability of higher education for intellectually disabled students.

The immediate effect of this legislation, from an interiors perspective, was a mad dash to meet standards for ADA compliance, as colleges and universities created programs to meet the new demand. The ClemsonLIFE program at Clemson University is a good example. Unfortunately, we too often equate meeting accessibility codes with good design, rather than recognizing the codes for what they are—the minimum standards for inclusion. But in the 10 years since the passing of the HEOA, a few institutions have risen to the occasion and made spaces that are not just compliant, but truly inclusive.

Having designed for both workplaces and inclusivity-focused educational institutions, I believe there are a handful of design principles that many educational institutions have come to embrace that workplaces should adopt in 2019. 


1. Accessibility is Very Different From Inclusivity

Accessibility is truly the bottom rung of designing for inclusivity. While credit is due to those organizations that lead the charge, simply making spaces accessible to individuals of all abilities doesn’t ensure inclusivity. Workplaces are just now starting to recognize the difference between accessibility and inclusivity that several educational institutions have recognized for years, such as the necessity of bariatric seating, the need to avoid grouping individuals with disabilities, and designing for invisible disabilities. In all three of these examples individuals may have physical access to a space but their time in that space may be uncomfortable, isolating, or otherwise not allow them to experience the space as the design intends. This gap in a space’s functionality is an unfortunate side effect of diversity blindness in which users with certain disabilities are empowered while users with other types of disabilities are forgotten. It is only through embracing the ideology of universal designthat workplaces and educational facilities can hope to make truly inclusive spaces.

2. There is No Inclusivity Without Information Accessibility

At the most basic level, college classrooms are designed to allow for the transmission of information from one point to a larger group of individuals. The same cannot be said of workspaces, although there are many spaces within an office setting that do have similar functions.

Since the transmission of information is the core function of a significant percentage of spaces on a given college campus, it is not surprising that methods for ensuring information accessibility are more advanced there than you might find in a workplace. In the educational environment, I personally have seen to the implementation of specialty lighting to ensure that a speaker’s face is well-lit, monitors that allow for closed captioning, specialty video screens to aid those with visual impairments, auxiliary audio systems, and more. Yet this sort of information infrastructure is often overlooked in the workplace. Luckily, there’s hope. With design firms like IA ever on the lookout for more opportunities to design inclusive spaces, and businesses now hyper-vigilant to identify opportunities that make the transmission and collection of information more efficient, the stage is set for workplaces to embrace the technology and methodology with which educational institutions are familiar.