By Colleen Jones, director of Jones Consultancy
I’m not talking about your construction site or building project workplace (where realistically an expectation of accessibility for people with impairments, particularly mobility impairments, is not as achievable), but rather your office workplace; the place where your office staff are based and where your site-based staff occasionally call in.
If your office has a code-compliance certificate you might understandably assume that it is bound to be accessible. After all, the local authority has deemed it compliant with the Building Code.
And given that part of the Building Code covers accessibility, why would you think otherwise? Well, there are a few reasons why this could be the case.
As you know from the construction projects you’ve been involved with, when a building is issued a code-compliance certificate, the consenting authority is stating that it is satisfied the facility meets the Building Code and is acceptable for use.
However, we all know that building inspectors have a lot to look at when assessing a place for compliance with the Building Code and it is easy for some of the less prominent accessibility items to be inadvertently overlooked.
Things like the requirement for doors to be contrasted with the adjacent walls so people with visual impairments can better find the door may slip through the cracks more often than something more obvious, like not having a ramp, or an accessible toilet room.
In my experience, these less prominent items are rarely, if ever, rectified after the code-compliance certificate has already been issued.
Even if your workspace does meet all Building Code accessibility requirements, additional features and adjustments to spaces can go a long way to making it useable for everyone, regardless of their ability or lack of ability.
Take a good look at your surroundings
To be fair, unless we have the experience of needing accessible features, either personally or for family and friends, most of us just don’t realise that our space isn’t as good as it could be. Take a moment to look around your office. Now take another look and imagine what it would be like if one of your staff members suffers a temporary impairment such as a broken leg.
Having a more accessible office means that it is likely they can return to work sooner in a space that accommodates reduced mobility – one with level thresholds, wider doorways and extra manoeuvring space.
And you might be surprised to find that what makes an office easier to use for someone with a broken leg also makes using a hand truck to deliver boxes of paper or moving furniture a lot easier too!
Whether an impairment is temporary or permanent, the person affected may still be able to and want to work. There may be a few adjustments needed in the office space to provide a safe, comfortable and productive place for them.
It only takes one barrier to stop a person in their tracks, no matter how accessible everything else is. Most likely, that one barrier is not that hard to eliminate or improve.
Why not lead the way?
While it probably isn’t something we automatically think about yet in our construction projects, accessibility items might start to be more noticed, especially by people who need these features to make it easier to use a building.
The voices of those who champion for better accessibility in the built environment around them are growing, and the New Zealand government has recently provided some back up to their calls.
At the end of 2018 the Government signed off a major accessibility work programme with the goal to “thoroughly explore how we can achieve full accessibility for disabled people and all New Zealanders”.
The announcement and details of this programme are here: www.beehive.govt. nz/release/government-signs-major-accessibility-work-programme.
The focus of this programme means that accessibility in the workplace will become a more prominent issue and will make it easier for people with temporary or permanent impairments to formally request that a workplace be configured to meet their needs with government support behind their request.
But why wait for legislation? If you value diversity and the contribution that everyone can make, by taking affirmative action now you could become known as a leader in an increasingly valued area.
The numbers can speak for themselves
Don’t be fooled. The accessibility work programme is not an altruistic feel-good initiative solely for the benefit of people with disabilities. There are some hard economic numbers behind it as well.
A 2017 report by the New Zealand Institute of Economic Research has calculated the economic gain for New Zealand of removing barriers to work and study is worth $862 million.
Do these numbers affect you? Most likely. What would the financial and productivity costs be to your business if, for example, you needed to hire a temp for six weeks if you or one of your staff experienced a temporary impairment?
Providing a more accessible workspace could well reduce that jolt by getting your team member – that integral part of your business – back to work sooner.
By taking action in your own workplace, you are not only improving things for your own business, but also by raising awareness, you can lead the way and show your clients and other project stakeholders that making our workplaces accessible from the outset is worth it for everyone.
Colleen Jones is an enthusiastic advocate for buildings that provide inclusive, equitable and dignified access for all people, regardless of age, size, ability or disability.