Universal design is an exciting opportunity for constructive, innovative changes that benefits ALL of your employees and clients as you engage deaf and hard of hearing employees The term universal design (UD) was first coined by architect Ronald L. Mace to describe the design of products and the built environment to be both aesthetic and usable to the greatest extent possible by everyone, regardless of age, ability, or status in life. In 1963, Goldsmith, author of Designing for the Disabled (Goldsmith, 1963/2011) initiated the concept of free access for people with disabilities. This concept gained most traction with the dropped curb on all sidewalks – now a standard feature of our environment in many western countries. Individuals without a physical “disability” all benefit from ramps, for example, to push a baby stroller, grocery cart or suitcase. Captioning is a form of UD. Members of the Deaf community fought for captioned TV programs in the 1970s and 1980s. Captioning has become mainstreamed over time and is used by individuals who hear on many occasions (Burgstahler, 2012). In a gym with multiple TVs or a noisy bar, for example, TV programs are frequently shown with captions. Captioning, once thought to be specific for people with hearing loss now is seen as a benefit for all. The Deaf community has not yet experienced UD applied to visual fire alarms for safety in public places that could benefit all.
You can brainstorm with your employees, universal design ideas for your workplace that break the sound barriers and benefit all. Think outside of the box for creative solutions. Some examples to get you started, are as follows:
- Wearing clear masks instead of white masks to control spread of germs makes it easier for reading lips and also leads to easier communication for everyone in noisy environments.
- Providing materials before meetings will benefit not only deaf and hard of hearing employees, but also employees who are newcomers to Canada, have English or French as a 2nd language, who have a learning disability and so forth.
- Providing ASL classes for all employees not only makes the environment accessible and engaging for deaf employees but benefits all employees for easy communication in a noisy work environment and enriches everyone with another language.
- Flexibility is a major principle of universal design and can include how work is performed (example facing an open entrance rather than facing away from an entrance for visible sight lines); when work is performed (example flexible scheduling when interpreters are available) and where work is performed (example remote work locations using video relay service [VRS] or communication access real time translation [CART] speech to text interpreting service).