For the Love of People April 20, 2023

How to design sensitive, responsive environments that support everyone

A new toolkit offers crucial strategies.

Tucker Dupree has won swimming competitions all over the world. In 2008, he qualified for the U.S. Paralympic Team and competed in Beijing, then in London in 2012 and Rio in 2016. He won four Paralympic medals during his swimming career. The now 33-year-old swimmer, who became 80% blind at age 17 after being diagnosed with Leber hereditary optic neuropathy, recognizes that his story is a relatively unique one. “I was traveling the globe with some of the most capable and athletic people who embodied a variety of neurological and physical differences,” he says. “It was awesome and inspiring, to say the least.”

But visiting different countries and experiencing varying accommodations for Paralympians also shed light on the shortcomings that can arise from a lack of universal design standards to support both physical and neurological needs. Dupree cites different elevations of pool decks, which create obstacles for visually impaired people who use a cane, and venues in which the acoustics make it difficult for teams to communicate when the crowd cheers.

It’s fitting, then, that Dupree is now part of BP’s global Workplace Colleague Experience team, responsible for creating engaging and inclusive workplace environments in the Americas region. “At the Paralympics, I saw thoughtfully designed spaces and not so thoughtfully designed spaces,” he explains. “Back then, swimming was my job, so I understand how awful it can be coming into an environment where you have to excel while you also can’t be your true self.”

Before joining BP’s global Workplace Colleague Experience team, Tucker Dupree was a three-time Paralympic swimmer, winning four medals across his career.

That’s a reality for more people than you might think. Universal design is becoming more common, but still has hurdles to overcome. Additionally, a study by the National Institutes of Health indicated that 15-20% of the world’s population is in some form of neurological variation. It would stand to reason that organizations focused on employee recruitment and retention wouldn’t want to design environments that leave out up to one-fifth of the workforce. At the same time, more diverse organizations earn 2.5 times higher cash flow per employee, while more inclusive teams can raise productivity over 35%, according to a 2022 market research report.

When BP America’s leadership began the process of redesigning their Washington, D.C. office, which they moved into in early March 2023, inclusion and neurodiversity were top of mind. “It can’t just be, ‘Here’s the section for people who need special accommodations,’” Dupree says. “It’s really important that these spaces make people feel equal.”

BP teamed with global architecture and design firm Perkins&Will for the project—in large part because the firm offered an opportunity to integrate diversity and inclusion into the project’s design solutions. In fact, the firm recently developed what it calls the Neurodiversity Toolkit, which helps designers understand an array of neurological and physical differences so they can create supportive spaces where everyone thrives. “Designing for neurodiversity is good for everybody, and there’s so much creative potential,” says researcher Jesce Walz, who co-authored the toolkit with designer Georgia Metz. “Who wouldn’t want to design for that?”

The toolkit organizes a variety of neurological needs into six experience categories: audible, visual, environmental, physical, social, and cognitive. It then examines seven areas in which needs can be better represented during the design process: site, circulation, interior environments, workspaces, collaborative spaces, amenities, and equipment and furnishings.

The Neurodiversity Toolkit encourages architects and designers to consider six categories of human experience during the design process.

Design solutions take shape in ways both obvious and subtle. At BP, in addition to inclusive aspects like wider doors on phone booths to allow wheelchair access, the design team chose carpets with calming patterns to minimize disorientation for people whose brains process visual information differently. They also included small low-stimulus focus rooms for concentration and privacy, and a wellness room for mediation and rest. Gathering areas encourage social interaction, and dimmable lighting in all closed areas offer visual support. “The idea is that anyone can find a place to work here. It’s universal design,” says Julie Gauthier, who led the design team working on the BP Americas headquarters.

For Dupree, it’s about access and comfort in the workplace as a basis of design, rather than as an extra step. “Having the ability to walk into your workplace and not have to ask for anything special just alleviates that pain point.”

BP’s Washington, D.C. office, shown in a rendering, will incorporate design principles from the Neurodiversity Toolkit in everything from low-stimulus focus booths to calming carpet patterns that are less likely to disorient those with cognitive differences.

Corporate interiors aren’t the only spaces that can benefit from design that carefully considers inclusion and neurodiversity. At the Enchanted Hills Camp and Retreat in Napa, California, which serves blind and visually impaired people of all ages and their families, architects integrated a system of walking paths and trails that safely accommodate visitors who walk with a cane or use wheelchairs. They also designed indoor gathering spaces that include noise control methods, such as fabric-wrapped acoustic panels that allow sound-sensitive visitors to learn comfortably.

“We are only as capable as the world around us allows us to be, and only as incapable as the world makes us. That’s why accessibility is so important,” says Hoby Wedler, a blind advocate, chemistry instructor, and former camper at Enchanted Hills. “This camp allows people to do their thing and live their lives as independently and productively as possible.”

Both Wedler and Dupree agree that if every architect and designer embraced universal design and followed the principles outlined in the Neurodiversity Toolkit, fully inclusive environments that support everyone would be the rule rather than the exception. “These tools help us embrace every part of society. The more we bring people in who think or live differently, the more unique and efficient solutions we’re going to get,” Wedler says.

Adds Dupree: “The goal is that individuals who experience differences, neurological and otherwise, are no longer looked at as a subpopulation. And we’ve come very far. I lost my vision in 2006. It’s 2023. Technology and the world at large have evolved. We’re not as afraid to talk about it anymore. But we still need to be seen as people first. That’s where real change comes from.”

Check out the Neurodiversity Toolkit:
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