Build a Better Workplace: How to Design an Accessible Office

Web Accessibility Knowledgebase

Here’s the run-down on accessible office design so you can provide a space conducive and inclusive of everyone.

accessiBe Team

Accessibility and inclusion in the workplace are fundamental aspects of creating a positive and productive work environment for everyone. While it’s not rare for businesses to adopt a more inclusive culture in their branding, fewer businesses make the physical changes needed to include employees, vendors, and partners with disabilities. Accessible office design is an important factor in accessibility for inclusive businesses.

Creating an accessible workplace shows a commitment to the belief that all employees are valued and respected, regardless of their abilities. Better yet, an accessible workplace improves morale, sense of belonging, and ultimately employee retention, because people can see how their inclusion, comfort, and well-being are prioritized. 

“Columbia Ability Alliance has been able to provide an environment that provides maps of the building at eye level, well-lit exit signs, and ergonomic desk options for staff. These are easy accommodations that most businesses can afford and will make their buildings more accessible.”

- Laurie Rivera, Columbia Ability Alliance

Here’s the run-down on accessible office design so you can provide a space conducive and inclusive of everyone. 

Install ramps and elevators

Installing ramps and elevators for wheelchair accessibility is critical in creating an inclusive and accessible work environment for employees with mobility disabilities. Follow these steps to add these features to your office space: 

  1. Assess the Building: Conduct a thorough assessment of your building to identify areas where ramps or elevators are needed. Pay attention to entrances, staircases, and other barriers that may inhibit wheelchair access. Sometimes consulting with an accessibility expert will provide the best solutions for your specific building layout.
  2. Prioritize Access Points: Determine which access points are most frequently used by employees and visitors, such as main entrances or common areas. These areas should be prioritized for the installation of ramps or elevators to ensure that everyone can enter and move around the building safely and independently.
  3. Design Considerations: When designing ramps or selecting elevator models, consider factors such as slope gradient, width, and surface materials for ramps, and size, capacity, and placement for elevators. Ensure that ramps are wide enough to accommodate wheelchairs and have handrails for support. Elevators should be spacious enough to comfortably fit an employee with a wheelchair and a companion, if necessary.
  4. Construction and Installation: Once you have finalized the design plans, proceed with the construction and installation process. Hire qualified contractors or construction firms with experience in accessibility projects to ensure that the ramps and elevators are built to code and meet quality standards. Regular inspections during the construction phase can help identify and address any issues or discrepancies.

Hallway and doorway dimensions

Next, make sure wide doorways and hallways are fit for easy navigation. Start by considering the dimensions of doorways and hallways to accommodate employees of all abilities. Aim for doorways with a minimum width of 32 inches to fit wheelchairs comfortably, and ensure that hallways have ample space for movement. Avoid clutter or obstructions that could hinder navigation, and provide flooring surfaces that are level and slip-resistant.

In addition to physical dimensions, consider the placement and design of doors to enhance accessibility further. Use lever-style door handles instead of knobs, which are easier to operate for employees with limited hand dexterity. Install automatic door openers where feasible to provide greater convenience and independence for users. 

Designate parking spaces

Designated parking spaces are for employees with disabilities who can benefit from having convenient access to the building and must be able to navigate the surroundings safely and comfortably. Here's how to make sure that parking spaces are accessible:

  1. Designate accessible parking spaces close to building entrances with marked and appropriate signage and symbols. Accessible spaces should be wide enough to accommodate wheelchair-accessible vehicles and have adjacent access aisles to facilitate entry and exit from vehicles.
  2. Consider the placement of accessible parking spaces in relation to building entrances and amenities. Ideally, these spaces should be located as close as possible to main entrances, elevators, and other essential facilities to provide maximum convenience and accessibility for employees.
  3. In addition to designated parking spaces, consider providing additional amenities to enhance accessibility, such as curb ramps, accessible pathways, and drop-off zones. These features further improve the accessibility of parking facilities and ensure that individuals with mobility disabilities can navigate safely and independently. 

Encourage Ergonomic Design

Adjustable desks and chairs are essential ergonomic features that include employees with diverse abilities or preferences. These furniture options allow employees to customize their workspace to suit their requirements, whether they are standing, sitting, or want additional support. Adjustable desks can be raised or lowered to support people of different heights or anyone who prefers to alternate between sitting and standing throughout the day. And, adjustable chairs with features such as height adjustment, lumbar support, and armrests can offer comfort and posture support for all employees.

“We utilize a local agency to provide ergonomic evaluations in which a physical or occupational therapist visits the office of one of our staff members, views the space, takes measurements and makes recommendation of different equipment like desks, keyboards, monitors, chairs, etc. We've purchased several items over the years to make our staff members work workstations more accommodating.”

- Susie Mack, North Dakota Center for Persons with Disabilities 

Ergonomic keyboard and mouse options are essential tools for promoting comfortable and efficient computer use in the workplace. These ergonomic accessories are designed to reduce strain and fatigue on the hands, wrists, and arms, which minimizes the risk of injuries like carpal tunnel syndrome. Ergonomic keyboards feature split or curved designs that enable a more natural hand position and reduce wrist extension, while ergonomic mice may include features such as contoured shapes, programmable buttons, and adjustable sensitivity settings. Providing employees with access to ergonomic keyboard and mouse options assures that they can work comfortably and safely, regardless of physical abilities or ergonomic preferences. 

Make restrooms accessible

Accessible restrooms in the workplace should be equipped with features like grab bars, accessible sinks, and toilet stalls that can house wheelchairs and provide ample space for movement. 

Break areas should also include proper seating options, such as chairs with armrests and back support for employees with mobility disabilities or fatigue. Accessible facilities like these make sure that all employees can access essential comforts with dignity and independence. 

Hang up Braille signage

Braille signage plays a crucial role in facilitating navigation and communication for people who are blind or have visual disabilities. By installing braille signage throughout the office, you provide essential information in a format that is accessible to everyone. Braille signage should be strategically placed in key locations such as entrances, corridors, restroom facilities, and room entrances to assist employees in navigating the space independently.

Signage should be strategically placed at eye level and positioned consistently throughout the office to provide clear directional cues. Signage should also be well-lit and free from obstructions to enhance legibility, particularly for employees with visual disabilities. Consistent signage placement helps both employees and visitors orient themselves within the office environment and locate key areas such as meeting rooms, restrooms, and break areas with ease.

Tactile markings on doors, elevator buttons, and room numbers are important accessibility features, too. Raised lettering or symbols, provide tactile cues that can be felt with the fingers, allowing employees to identify and locate key areas within the office. Install tactile markings on door handles or frames to indicate room entrances, on elevator buttons to represent floor numbers, and on room numbers. Consider using high-contrast colors or textures to enhance legibility for employees with low vision. 

Consider lighting and acoustics 

Adequate lighting and acoustics are essential considerations for creating a comfortable and accessible workspace for employees with diverse sensory needs. Bright, evenly distributed lighting helps anyone with visual disabilities navigate the environment safely and comfortably while reducing eye strain and fatigue for al. And, controlling ambient noise levels and minimizing echoes can benefit employees with hearing sensitivities or disabilities. Employers can achieve this by using adjustable lighting fixtures, sound-absorbing materials, and strategic layout designs to create a conducive environment for all sensory needs.

“Misophonia is a sensory-related disorder so accommodations tend to include things like white noise machines or headphones, private work spaces or WFH accommodations, rules regarding sounds in the work area, no-food-or-gum policies, training for staff, ability to leave triggering situations, etc.”

- Cris Edwards, So Quiet

Approve service animal entry

Allowing service animals, such as guide dogs, in the office space is important for employees with disabilities who need their animals for assistance or support. Service animals are trained to perform specific tasks, such as guiding employees who are blind or alerting people who are deaf to sounds. 

“It is somewhat amazing what our furry friends can actually be trained to do. Their training is something that happens over a period of time with refresher courses for the animal and their person. It is quite remarkable, in my opinion, and something to honor.”

- Janis Kent, Stepping Thru Accessibility

By allowing service animals in the workplace, you can make sure that employees with disabilities have equal access to employment opportunities and can perform their job duties effectively with the assistance of their service animals. Employers need to understand and comply with relevant laws and regulations regarding service animals in the workplace, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities who use service animals. 

Consider a Hybrid Work Model

A hybrid work-home model offers significant benefits for employees with disabilities, enhancing their ability to balance work responsibilities with personal needs. This model provides the flexibility to work from home, reducing the physical and logistical challenges of commuting and navigating potentially inaccessible workplaces. It allows for a more comfortable and controlled environment tailored to individual needs, whether it involves specific ergonomic setups, assistive technologies, or a quieter space to focus. 

“Our organization operates completely virtually so employees are all encouraged to work where they are the most comfortable and can be the most effective- their own homes. This allows employees to utilize the tools they have likely already incorporated into their own residences, such as enhanced lighting and accessible furniture, assistive devices, and technology, to extend into use at their workplace.”

- Kathi Wagner, Cure CHM

As businesses continue to evolve and adapt to the changing needs of their workforce, prioritizing accessibility in office design is not only the right thing to do, it's also good for business. By investing in accessible office environments and policies, your business can attract and retain top talent, improve employee satisfaction and productivity, and enhance its reputation as an inclusive and socially responsible employer.

By embracing accessibility as a core value and integrating it into all aspects of your physical environment, your business can create a workplace where everyone can thrive and contribute their best.