Disability design

Yesterday someone sent me the following enquiry:

I am on a working group related to disability employment within Birmingham, the aims of the group are about increasing the numbers of people with a disability in employment.

I wondered if either of you have come across any innovative approaches elsewhere in terms of organisation design or such just success stories you might have come across?

If you have could you let me know, am trying to get the group to look boarder than just the UK public sector which is where they are at the moment.

I thought this was fascinating. I'd never really thought of organization design in terms of disability in employment and what it might mean in terms of the four aspects of organization design I'm now tending to juggle with: people, process, organization, and space.

In general terms there are numbers of legal requirements around disability and access – so space design means compliance with these. For example, the organization I work with also has a whole group of people working on making technology Section 508 compliant. (Section 508 requires that [US Government's] Federal agencies' electronic and information technology is accessible to people with disabilities. There is good information on what this means on this website: http://www.section508.gov/

In a wider context 'disability' is a sliding scale. One might be disabled at one point in time and able in another. The day I got the enquiry I'm now writing about I read a profile of Gail Devers, (a US hurdler) who developed Graves Disease and a side effect of her treatment was that 'Devers would often have to crawl or be carried because walking was too painful'. To cut a long story short 'Devers proved she was back by claiming the 100m hurdles silver medal'. You can read her story in the book Gail Devers, Overcoming Adversity.

Turning to an excellent introduction on disability from the World Health Organization, Towards a Common Language for Functioning, Disability and Health: ICF I found that their definition does accommodate the sliding scale of disability.

The Guide makes the point that: Disability is a complex phenomena that is both a problem at the level of a person's body, and a complex and primarily social phenomena. Disability is always an interaction between features of the person and features of the overall context in which the person lives, but some aspects of disability are almost entirely internal to the person, while another aspect is almost entirely external. In other words, both medical and social responses are appropriate to the problems associated with disability.

With this perspective it "offers an international, scientific tool for the paradigm shift from the purely medical model to an integrated biopsychosocial model of human functioning and disability".

This is a model that "synthesizes what is true in the medical and social models, without making the mistake each makes in reducing the whole, complex notion of disability to one of its aspects … that provides, by this synthesis, a coherent view of different perspectives of health: biological, individual and social."

By its nature "ICF puts the notions of 'health' and 'disability' in a new light. It acknowledges that every human being can experience a decrement in health and thereby experience some disability. This is not something that happens to only a minority of humanity. ICF thus 'mainstreams' the experience of disability and recognises it as a universal human experience. By shifting the focus from cause to impact it places all health conditions on an equal footing allowing them to be compared using a common metric – the ruler of health and disability."

Having access to both performance and capacity data enables ICF user to determine the 'gap' between capacity and performance. If capacity is less than performance, then the person's current environment has enabled him or her to perform better than what data about capacity would predict: the environment has facilitated performance. On the other hand, if capacity is greater than performance, then some aspect of the environment is a barrier to performance.

With this concept and framework in hand organization designers can start to look at their designs from the perspective of matching capacity and performance across the spectrum of health and disability.

Many of the themes in the ICF guide are taken up in a book called Universal Design 2E:

Though the emphasis is on the application of universal design in the build environment, there is a mass of material that is pertinent to anyone researching or teaching universal or inclusive design. The fact that it covers a wide set of issues across the various design communities is especially useful as it helps designers and researchers place their own practice and interests in context with approaches in other design fields.

Thanks to this enquiry I've now learned a little more that will inform my organization design practice. If you have any help you can give the orginal enquirer please let me know and I will pass details on.