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Why ‘Building Back Better’ means building back inclusively

Diane Lightfoot, CEO of Business Disability Forum

Two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, there is much talk of “Building back better”. Many businesses are looking holistically at where and how they work; making decisions to move premises, change locations, or to resize – so there is a real opportunity to build in accessibility and inclusion too. It’s a particularly hot topic as many businesses think about how to make “hybrid” work in practice and it’s vital that even part-time home working is not seen as an excuse not to make workplaces accessible – hybrid needs to be a choice for all.

But these conversations are not new; for some years now, businesses have been thinking about sustainability and climate change and reducing their carbon footprint. None of these drivers are an either/or but an opportunity to build accessibility and inclusive design into everything we do.

Featured in Business Disability Forum’s guide ‘Access for all: Creating inclusive global built environments’, sponsored by HSBC. 1.85 billion people globally with disabilities which is larger than China. Source: 2020 Global Economics of Disability Report by the Return on Disability Group annual report. Business Disability Forum

One billion people – or fifteen percent of the world’s population – have a disability. The global spending power of people with disabilities and those around them is estimated to be a market the size of China. Surely, in 2022 accessible design should be the default. Yet, too often, people with disabilities are literally unable to access goods, services and employment opportunities due to inaccessible built environments.

For too long, we have been presented with a false opposition: a choice between good design and accessible design. I’d argue that by definition, inaccessible design cannot be good design because it is failing to meet the requirements of all who use it. To get it right, user involvement at all stages is crucial. This is literally about inclusive design – a process which identifies and removes exclusion from the get-go.

Nobody wants to get it wrong; no-one wants to be in the situation of welcoming a disabled colleague or customer and realising – too late – that they cannot physically access the building. But too often we simply don’t know what we don’t know; it is easy to assume that because a lift or a building or a room or a toilet is accessible to one wheelchair user that it is accessible to all. In the UK, we are still using a 1980s manual wheelchair as the reference size when designing accessible spaces. This is woefully inadequate for a user of a much larger electric model. It is only when we truly include and listen to people with all kinds of lived experience of disability (and sadly, most likely, of exclusion) that we will get it right for everyone.

Once we do know, we can all be allies and notice and call out things that aren’t accessible. I was really heartened when I spoke with a senior contact at a relatively new BDF Member organisation recently who said that they were looking at new office locations and he had vetoed one as he had noticed that the immediate surrounds were cobbled and thus inaccessible – something as someone with no mobility difficulties that he simply wouldn’t have noticed before.

The challenges are multiplied for businesses operating across multiple countries with different legislative requirements and cultural norms. So, I am delighted that, thanks to the support of our Partner HSBC, we have launched our guide “Access for all: Creating inclusive global built environments” to help global businesses navigate this complex landscape and to go beyond local requirements to best practice.

Of course, getting the built environment right is not just about physical access but ensuring that a space meets the wider inclusion and sensory needs of those who will be using it. This can bring its own complexities with preferences, say, for bright and clear demarcation between doors and walls or flooring to improve the experience of people with visual impairments vs a need for softer and “quiet” décor for people who find bright colours and patterns overwhelming. It can be a delicate balancing act but again, by involving people throughout the process you are likely to reach the best possible solutions (bold but plain demarcation and softer lighting in some areas, for example).

Because ultimately that’s what it’s all about – making sure that the experience of every colleague or customer who comes through your doors is the best that it can possibly be.

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Read “Access for all: Creating inclusive global built environments”


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