Inclusive Design Lessons: How Higher Ed Influences the Workplace

By Jacalyn Pollock | Senior Designer

The Background

A tremendous milestone for inclusive design occurred 10 years ago that isn’t often associated with interior design itself. On August 14, 2008, a measure was passed that had wide-ranging implications for the world of education, encompassing everything from transparency requirements for the Department of Education to restrictions on textbook publishers and a range of provisions regarding federal grants and much more. While there is little in the document that discusses students with disabilities, a few lines therein carry much weight, including this one (as summarized by

[The HEOA] Makes eligible for HE[O]A student aid any intellectually disabled students who have been accepted for enrollment and are maintaining satisfactory progress in an IHE comprehensive transition and postsecondary education program for such students.

In effect, the Higher Education Opportunity Act (HEOA) altered the requirements for Title IV financial-aid dollars. The law waived certain restrictions—specifically that a student must have earned a high-school diploma and be matriculating toward a degree to qualify for federal money—and thereby increased the access and affordability of higher education for intellectually disabled students.

The immediate effect of this legislation, from an interiors perspective, was a mad dash to meet standards for ADA compliance, as colleges and universities created programs to meet the new demand. The ClemsonLIFE program at Clemson University is a good example. Unfortunately, we too often equate meeting accessibility codes with good design, rather than recognizing the codes for what they are—the minimum standards for inclusion. But in the 10 years since the passing of the HEOA, a few institutions have risen to the occasion and made spaces that are not just compliant, but truly inclusive.

Having designed for both workplaces and inclusivity-focused educational institutions, I believe there are a handful of design principles that many educational institutions have come to embrace that workplaces should adopt in 2019. 

1. Accessibility is Very Different From Inclusivity

“In fact we have a moral duty to remove the barriers to participation, and to invest sufficient funding and expertise to unlock the vast potential of people with disabilities.”– Professor Stephen Hawking

Accessibility is truly the bottom rung of designing for inclusivity. While credit is due to those organizations that lead the charge, simply making spaces accessible to individuals of all abilities doesn’t ensure inclusivity. Workplaces are just now starting to recognize the difference between accessibility and inclusivity that several educational institutions have recognized for years, such as the necessity of bariatric seating, the need to avoid grouping individuals with disabilities, and designing for invisible disabilities. In all three of these examples individuals may have physical access to a space but their time in that space may be uncomfortable, isolating, or otherwise not allow them to experience the space as the design intends. This gap in a space’s functionality is an unfortunate side effect of diversity blindness in which users with certain disabilities are empowered while users with other types of disabilities are forgotten. It is only through embracing the ideology of universal design that workplaces and educational facilities can hope to make truly inclusive spaces.

2. There is No Inclusivity Without Information Accessibility

At the most basic level, college classrooms are designed to allow for the transmission of information from one point to a larger group of individuals. The same cannot be said of workspaces, although there are many spaces within an office setting that do have similar functions.

Confidential Client, London. Photography © Hufton+Crow.

Since the transmission of information is the core function of a significant percentage of spaces on a given college campus, it is not surprising that methods for ensuring information accessibility are more advanced there than you might find in a workplace. In the educational environment, I personally have seen to the implementation of specialty lighting to ensure that a speaker’s face is well-lit, monitors that allow for closed captioning, specialty video screens to aid those with visual impairments, auxiliary audio systems, and more. Yet this sort of information infrastructure is often overlooked in the workplace. Luckily, there’s hope. With design firms like IA ever on the lookout for more opportunities to design inclusive spaces, and businesses now hyper-vigilant to identify opportunities that make the transmission and collection of information more efficient, the stage is set for workplaces to embrace the technology and methodology with which educational institutions are familiar.

3. Create Wayfinding Independence

Accessibility empowers users with the ability to utilize a space, but this means nothing if people are unable to find the space. As inclusive design becomes more widely understood, the definition of successful wayfinding is beginning to change along with it.

In the education sector, college campuses are used to accommodating individuals with a variety of backgrounds and abilities, and the sprawling nature of many college campuses mean that many institutions have had to make navigable spaces a top priority. As workplaces move towards incorporating a wider variety of spaces and a more globalized workforce, 2019 should see the prioritization of many elements that are synonymous with inclusive wayfinding, such as:

Amanda Eggleston, an Experiential Graphics Designer with IA had this to say on the subject of inclusive wayfinding:

"Inclusive wayfinding design should strengthen intuition to create an experience with the flexibility to accommodate a wide range of individual preferences and abilities, where everyone navigating the space feels immediately welcome and oriented without having to question what to do or where to go next."

4. Flexible Spaces Will Enable Inclusivity

We’ll give the educational sector credit for implementing flexible spaces in small group learning areas, but there is still a lot of room for improvement when it comes to implementing that scale of flexibility in large learning environments.

Unlike other principles of inclusive design, the use of the modular group learning environment can’t be credited to HEOA. In large part, this change in how learning environments are designed is the result of an evolving understanding of how students learn best, regardless of their varying backgrounds or skillsets. Rearrangeable, flexible classrooms have found champions in the fields of deafspace and special needs, and these lessons can be applied in the workplace to some degree. This year, 2019, should see more organizations than ever relying on modular, customizable workspaces that allow users to create their own “learning environment.” Moreover, businesses will embrace customizable lighting and temperature controls that can help those with unique needs get the most out of their workspace, while operable walls and advanced audio/visual solutions will bolster the utility of group work areas. It is pivotal that users be allowed to create individual experiences within a larger space to facilitate people working differently, but together. Ultimately, when end-users are empowered to modify their environment, they are empowered to ensure it meets their needs. 

5. Inclusivity Will Be a Part of a Larger Plan

As the world of education discovered years ago, simply creating an inclusive space is but one step in a very complicated process. Ultimately, inclusive design centers around unique individuals and how they interact with space. All change should be a result of user feedback. Higher education generally excels at understanding their users’ needs, and I predict that 2019 will see the workplace gaining ground when it comes to understanding needs, as well as an increased reliance on the principles of universal design implementation that many schools have known and used for quite some time. More than ever, workplaces will rely on the input of experts and user groups that can inform design decisions and provide feedback on a regular basis. They will implement communications strategies that ensure that all stakeholders are kept abreast of relevant changes, and capitalize on their investments by incorporating inclusivity into recruitment and retention messaging.

What Are the Principles of Universal Design Implementation?

Understand existing needs and identify experts

Organizations will need to not only fully understand the needs of their staff, but also prospective employees and other visitors. Relying on the guidance of universal design experts and receiving feedback from real users will be instrumental in effecting change.

Keep stakeholders informed

Users of the space including managers, facilities management, and human resources will more than likely have to accommodate for these changes and how they work. Allow stakeholders time to plan for these changes; give them opportunities to provide feedback or ask for help or seek clarification in how they can amplify messaging.

Implement the space

Here, the design strategy is put into action.


Create a feedback system

As with any human-centric system, relying on user feedback is of primary importance. This might include identifying test groups, creating lines of communications, and inviting new users to experience the space, followed by revision and more testing.


Creating an inclusive space will certainly help the users who inhabit it, but this effect can only be maximized by seeking out those who stand to benefit the most from such spaces. Universities are generally excellent at communicating the accessibility they offer to a wider audience, and businesses stand to benefit just as much from mentioning such offerings in their Human Resources and Public Relations communications.

Foster systemic change

As the physical space is developed, large scale operational changes will occur. Ultimately, inclusive design should be celebrated, and plans should be made to ensure these changes are echoed in other activities occurring within the building.


When we design for disabilities, we all benefit. I predict that 2019 will be the year that designers of the future will identify as the time when workplaces started separating “designing for disabilities”  from “designing to meet standards,” and aiming for the former. As inclusion becomes a more accepted part of culture, the reflection of that ideal in the physical spaces we inhabit will become second nature and benefit millions, thanks in large part to a charge led by higher education.

Jacalyn Pollock

Senior Designer

Jacalyn Pollock is a senior designer in IA’s Philadelphia office. She earned a Bachelor’s of Architecture degree from Syracuse University and is particularly passionate about creating highly functional environments and promoting inclusivity through design. 

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