As National Disability Rights Awareness Month comes to a close, we review the topic of Universal Access, and how this affects South Africans in the workplace.

By Tendai Innocent Khumalo, Managing Director of Qunu Workforce, a division of Workforce Holdings Ltd

As National Disability Rights Awareness Month comes to a close, we review the topic of Universal Access, and how this affects South Africans in the workplace.

Universal Access (UA) or Universal Design refers to a spectrum of ideas and innovations aimed at producing buildings, products and environments that are inherently accessible to both people with and without disabilities.

But what does this mean for the South African workplace?

South African labour law stipulates that companies need to ensure that 2% of their workforce are persons with disabilities. But are South African companies prepared to accommodate people with disabilities together with employees comfortably?

Tendai Khumalo, Managing Director of Qunu Workforce, a division of Workforce Holdings, suggests the first step towards making a workspace universally accessible is our mindset. “Our intention counts more than our actions. How do we individually define disability and what is our reference point that contributes to that definition?” he asks.

Khumalo is a paraplegic. Once a rugby player standing almost six feet tall, a spinal biopsy resulted in a blood clot that damaged the nerves in his spine and left him paralysed. Ironically, this gave him his life’s purpose – to become a universal access ambassador.

Khumalo suggests asking tough questions in the workplace as this is step one towards raising awareness and beginning the process of change. This needs to be a deliberate and all-inclusive initiative as there is no common understanding and definition of disability.

“You have to include all stakeholders in these discussions as it is impossible to solve a problem without the collaboration of everyone involved,” he advises. “Think about Universal Access as ‘For us and with us’. There is often too much generalisation in the corporate world and a need for short term fixes which ultimately leads to frustration for both employer and employees. One must strike a balance between the individual needs of people with disabilities and the business drivers for corporates, with the answer lying in-between. This can only be achieved through raising awareness and learning from each other.”

Hiten Bawa, Universal Access consultant agreed with Khumalo’s belief that the first step in adapting a company to be universally accessible is for individuals to first adapt their attitudes towards disability. “Universal Access does not just involve disabled persons,” he explains. “UA is about making places accessible to everyone equally.”

“When I consult with a company on how to make their office space accessible, I first ask what the company hopes to achieve? And then ask them to picture how their employees, whether they are abled or disabled, navigate the exterior of their building, through the interior and to their individual work space. Are they free to access their work space independently and comfortably? Are they able to work unobstructed by any noise, visual or tactile obstacles? Are they able to quickly and efficiently evacuate the building in a worst-case scenario?”

Bawa mentions some of the, often overlooked, ways a company can make their workspace universally accessible.

“Something like moving a door handle lower down on a door is just one way you can ensure that all employees are able to open and close doors unassisted,” he says. “Or creating plug points higher up on a wall so that someone who is in a wheelchair wouldn’t have difficulty bending over to plug something in.”

“Many people take things for granted but little things can become big obstacles for some.”

He explains that correct signage is actually one of the most important aspects of Universal Access.

“It’s very important that employees and visitors to your workplace are able to find their way around the building easily. That means there has to be enough of the correct signage. You have to think about the letter height and the font on the signs, the colour contrast, is it easy to see? Does it provide enough information? Does it use international symbols? You should also provide signs in braille for sight-impaired people.”

Workplace Universal Access is focused on ensuring a comfortable working environment for all, where their work is not hindered by any external factors. For example, having the right acoustics in an office space so that background noise is absorbed rather than enhanced, or having appropriate lighting for specific activities, not just standard lighting.

One thing Bawa says is often overlooked by companies is a detailed and comprehensive evacuation plan for all employees.

“Apart from a fire alarm, there should also be strobe lighting as an emergency device, for the hearing impaired, as well as an evacuation chair in the fire escape staircase for employees who are in wheelchairs.”

While companies start to look at Universal Access or Design to ensure compliance with Health and Safety regulations, both Bawa and Khumalo believe that UA is more than just ticking a box.

“Companies need to think beyond compliance,” Khumalo says. “Universal Access is about equality for all. There are three aspects of Universal Accessibility: infrastructure, information, and communication & collaboration. I believe that it all starts with communication and collaboration. Honest conversations and a willingness to include everyone in all discussions will lead to effective adaptation.”


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