How To Design Inclusive Spaces

More than a quarter of Americans have a disability, and disability is often intersectional with other dimensions of diversity (e.g., race, class, age). Accessibility is increasingly important to ensure that we’re designing environments where people with different needs can thrive. Inclusive space design helps achieve that goal.

In my interview with Cheryl Durst, IIDA executive vice president and CEO focused on inclusive space design, she shared, “The physical environment affects our emotions and our sense of belonging. When you walk into a space, you feel an experience viscerally if you belong or not.”

Inclusive Design Principles

To create more inclusive spaces, start by asking the question: is this space inclusive to all human beings who utilize it? While there is no one-size-fits-all criteria, consider these principles to start:

  1. Accessibility: clear pathways, access for mobility aids and uncluttered spaces
  2. Flexible seating: chairs, stability balls, bean bags, cushions and standing desks
  3. Visual cues and signage: restroom, quiet spaces and collaboration spaces
  4. Sensory considerations: noise-canceling headphones, fidget tools
  5. Use of natural lighting: dimmable lights and adjustable window coverings
  6. Assistive technology: screen readers, text-to-speech software and alternative keyboards
  7. Inclusive decor: posters, artwork and photographs that represent a diverse range of cultures
  8. Safety considerations: secure heavy furniture, cover sharp edges and ensure ventilation
  9. Collaborate: let people co-create their physical space to empower them (when possible)
  10. Ongoing evaluation and improvement: be ready to pivot as needed

Durst recommends that, when designing or redesigning spaces, you put yourself in the shoes of those who are using the space. “Be deeply empathetic for those experiencing the space. Take into consideration the aggregate experience of most people,” Durst suggests.

Inclusive Design Assessment

If you’re unsure of what needs are being met or unmet, start from a place of inquiry. Ask groups that may need more accommodations for feedback, without blame or shame. Existing spaces often do not need full remodels, but instead small changes in how they are used and accessed. Consider these assessment questions:

  • Ask, “What do you need to feel included?” or, more specifically, “What do you need to complete X goal?” or “What do you need to feel good here?”
  • Share a story about a place or experience that made you feel good or at your best, or share other ideas to spur discussion.
  • Facilitate a discussion where everyone shares what they need and make a community bulletin board or visual accountability space to remind the group of their needs.

Inclusive Space Design Ideas

  • Luxury vinyl tile (LVT) flooring, low-pile rugs, soft sculptural elements to help control sound
  • Light, unsaturated earth tones to help with calming
  • Different colors to designate different spaces
  • Use of glass windows/doors to allow natural light, using blinds vs. curtains and adding dimmers to existing lighting
  • Sensory fidgets to noise-canceling headphones
  • Imaginary play structure that doubles as quiet space
  • Plan wall to sensory wall
  • No water play to small water feature
  • Raised planting bed for a sensory garden
  • ADA drawer pulls and bathroom accessibility
  • Automatic door opener with access button
  • Modular organizers to reduce clutter
  • Large foam grips for crayons and utensils
  • Visual boards to display choices of activities
  • Modular roll-under pieces that can be modified to store additional materials
  • Inclusive outdoor play equipment, replacing wood chips

While these are not exhaustive lists, think of them as starting points. It’s important that it’s a continued conversation over time. As organizations serve more employees, customers and community members, needs will change.

As Durst summarizes, “When we are comfortable, we tend to feel safer. Safe places mean more than physical security, they are also emotionally secure.” Inclusive space design is about accessibility for the most marginalized parts of society—creating spaces for all that work better for all.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *