Getting a Move On With Accessible Spaces
Our recent move has highlighted for me the benefits of accessible spaces, and the added benefits of thinking accessible, that make a new space a welcoming one.
Yes, the echidnas have found a new burrow at 148 York Street, and have spent the last two weeks making it our own. This got my colleagues and I thinking about what makes spaces accessible and what lessons we can pass on to others making changes to their work environment in an inclusive and accessible way. Most people immediately think of elevators and washrooms that are wheelchair accessible, but it doesn't stop there.
CHECKING IN BEFOREHAND
Before the move got underway, colleagues checked in with me to see how the moving and transition could be done most accessible way. This was a great first step in starting a dialogue where I had the time to ponder and suggest things more proactively than had we waited. In the end, the week we packed and moved I was pretty ill and was not there to even pack up my desk nor assist in the move itself. Thankfully my colleagues were thoughtful enough and had the time to make up for my absence.
USING HIGH-TECH AND LOW-TECH SOLUTIONS TO FIND THE NEW LOCATION
One of the tricky things with navigating, particularly with a cane, is finding new places. Certainly GPS helps, but without military-grade accuracy, the best I can often hope for is the correct intersection. Fortunately for me, my colleagues and a family member were able to help.
One of the things I’d asked about in the check-in process was for a description of where the new building was exactly. This included the cardinal directions of the intersection (northwest corner of Richmond and York). What I also received, which was exactly what I needed but more than I had anticipated, was some really granular description of the entrance and how I’d access it, including where the scanner for my key card was, and where the internal staircase was to get to my floor. I was impressed.
To be clear on the exact location of our new home relative to the intersection, I had a family member use Google Earth to tell me the building’s relative position to the corner (it is the second in). They were able to give equally granular descriptions of what I would encounter along the way, which reinforced what I’d already been told. Having access to such a solution meant that I could be doubly sure of my route to work.
This form of navigational aid may not work for everyone. Not all are “visual” learners who can “see” an intersection in their head as it’s described. Some would prefer to practice a new route to a new place repeatedly, either with a colleague or a professional orientation and mobility instructor. Making allowances for all options is what makes a workplace truly accessible, and this is where the early check-in and continued follow-up conversations become particularly important.
TAKING THE TIME FOR A TOUR
Relying on descriptions of locations is fantastic, but it usually requires a basic understanding of a place. Finding the building through verbal instructions, for instance, was possible for me because I already had an image of a basic streetscape in my head from which I could “fill in” the finer points. For navigating the new office internally though, I had no context from which to draw, so needed more help.
This was where an in-person walking tour became most critical. Meeting a colleague at the exterior doors to the building, we were able to walk and rewalk the routes from that door to my desk and back again, reviewing the parts of the route that remained shaky or unclear. Having colleagues indicate key points of interest such as our kitchen and the rest room was also part of this tour. Taking it slowly and allowing me to repeat certain sections was necessary here, and thankfully I didn’t feel rushed throughout. I’ve taken more time to wander the halls on my own to solidify my understanding of the building, and the few times I’ve gotten lost, I’ve had colleagues to help by either guiding or describing where I’ve gone wrong and how to get back to where I hoped to be.
A CONVENIENTLY-LOCATED DESK
It would appear from in-office chats that setting up a new seating plan was a complex process. In a new setting with larger spaces, deciding who would sit where was a challenge. My colleagues were thoughtful in where I was placed, conscious of my need for a desk that was easy to find while understanding my requirements for a quieter space so I could easily hear my screen reader through my headphones. Understanding an employee’s needs to perform at their best are critical for all employees, and the specific needs of employees with disabilities are no exception to this.
ALTERNATE FORMATS FOR NEW INFORMATION
New spaces have meant new signage and appliances, from new washrooms to a dishwasher and microwave in the kitchen. Some things will probably require Braille labels, but for some things, tactile dots used as craft supplies have done the trick. Our new microwaves, for instance, is a turn dial, not button. Adding craft jewel dots marking regular intervals on timer dials, allow me to heat my lunches without guessing at the time. This was neither my idea nor my initiative: two colleagues (thanks Alison and Emily!) provided the dots and stuck them on of their own fruition. It’s pretty fabulous when I don’t even have to ask before accessible changes are made.
A NEW EMERGENCY PLAN
I confess this hadn’t crossed my mind, but thankfully it had crossed the mind of our HR. A new space, with a new desk location and new floormates has meant that my prior individualized emergency exit plan is no longer helpful. This will be revised so that emergency plans are clear and understood by everyone. This will be essential so that there is no guessing when time is of the essence.
KEEPING THE DIALOGUE GOING
As with digital accessibility, things will change in our new space and new accessibility concerns may arise. It is critical to keep the dialogue open on all sides to address any recurring or unexpected concerns.
So today our boxes are unpacked and everyone is just about settled. Keeping an open space for accessibility in this process has been key to its success for everyone. Checking in early and continuing to keep tabs will mean that everyone’s needs will be met now and in the future.
About the Author
Sarah Jevnikar joined Digital Echidna in 2014. As a person with visual impairment, Sarah brings a first-hand perspective to Digital Echidna's accessibility efforts. She is well-versed in the application of technology for accessibility issues, including applications on today's mobile technology. She is proficient at evaluating website accessibility not only from an AODA/WCAG 2.0 compliance perspective, but also in terms of optimizing the user experience. She is a regular Echidna blog contributor.