If you’ve never heard of dyspraxia, the chances are that your office design or fit out commission won’t cater for employees and visitors who are neurodiverse. Dyspraxia, like dyslexia and autism, is one of a number of so-called “hidden disabilities” which the property industry needs to be aware of.
The British Council for Offices recently published their research paper on neurodiversity available here to members BCO – Designing for Neurodiversity. This is a starting point rather than a definitive guide, partly because the needs of the neurodiverse workforce are so wide-ranging that there is no “one size fits all” solution. The key point is that the built environment is itself one of the factors which can turn a diagnosis of, say Asperger’s, from a condition into a disability. Both employers and those responsible for design and management of buildings need to have an understanding of the conditions falling under the neurodiversity umbrella.
There are biological responses to disabling physical spaces which can lead to burnout syndrome, the effects of which can be long lasting and debilitating. For example, a noisy space with many visual distractions due to the movement of people, patterns or cluttered sightlines might mean it is very challenging for someone with ADHD to know what to respond to. This requires considerable mental energy and can create a sensory overload, which is not sustainable in the long term. If a building is designed for neurodiversity, that can support the health of many other people who use the building, in the same way that a physical ramp makes access easier for everyone.
This is relevant because the Equality Act 2010 sets out protection for people with specified protected characteristics, one of which is disability. Neurodivergent workers are likely to be considered disabled, and this means “reasonable adjustments” can be required. What’s more, the Equality Act can override lease provisions relating to alterations. Tenants making an application for consent for a licence to alter should make sure the application specifies whether part of the works include reasonable adjustments for which consent is, in this case, not required.
Managers of buildings, especially buildings with a number of different occupiers, need to be alert to the issues around neurodiversity. Clear uncluttered signage and wayfinding will benefit all visitors to the building, not just those who find it harder to navigate spaces.
Advisory firms have an important role to play in guiding their clients on these issues, even when the advice may need to be critical. It’s true that design is client-led, but clients also rely on the specialist expertise of trusted advisors.
Just as sustainability issues have moved from a nice-to-have to an essential consideration of every building project or refurbishment, the BCO expect that awareness of neurodiversity issues will become more important over the coming years. A restorative workplace will benefit all staff and improve productivity, as research on air quality demonstrates. Yet even the most thoughtful fitout can’t overcome the culture of a workplace – one thing which cannot be mandated, though it is essential, is empathy.
- Building managers and employers need to make reasonable adjustments for people with disabilities, but not all disabilities are visible
- The requirement to make adjustments might over-ride the terms of a lease
- Designers and other advisors have a role to play making sure their clients are aware of issues around neurodiversity