Most clinical lab settings are unwelcoming and uncomfortable to persons with disabilities. In many cases, they are inaccessible.
When designing a clinical laboratory, architects, engineers, and clinical lab leaders should consider the needs of all potential end users—including those with physical or sensory impairments. This way, clinical lab spaces can be a safe and effective working environment for everyone.
In the US, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is an antidiscrimination law that regulates and guides general building design to meet a range of differences, including mobility, vision, and hearing impairments. Many other countries have produced specific accessibility legislation and guides to good practices to provide better access for people with disabilities.
Although any change or adjustment to the workplace requires an individualized assessment, this article provides insight into how clinical labs can work with existing guidelines to accommodate employees with disabilities and help them reach their potential.
Designing spaces to accommodate different mobility needs
Old buildings are less accessible by nature. Elements such as heavy doors and narrow pathways and corridors pose barriers to persons with disabilities, particularly to wheelchair users.
According to the UK inclusive mobility guide, people who do not use a walking aid can walk along a passageway less than 27.5 inches wide, but using a cane or walking stick requires more width than this—at least 29.5 inches. Someone using two walking sticks, crutches, a walker/walking frame, or a wheelchair needs a passageway that is a minimum of 35 inches wide, while a person with vision loss using a long cane or with a service dog needs about 43 inches.
"The best approach to accessibility is to be proactive and implement Universal Design principles."
When working in the clinical lab, all staff must be able to access multiple areas safely. They must also be able to move away from a hazard or incident safely, quickly, and independently. To do this, people with mobility impairments need enough space to make 90-degree, 180-degree, and even 360-degree turns. The current Guide to the ADA Accessibility Standards explains that users of manual wheelchairs can turn 360 degrees in the space of 60 inches x 60 inches. This minimum dimension allows wheelchair users to move safely up and down the center without bumping into other workers and materials on either side of lab benches.
Whenever possible, existing passageways in historical buildings should be modified to meet these requirements. Modifications to improve accessibility may include repositioning shelves, tables, and equipment. On the other hand, brand new buildings and renovated areas must be designed to be completely accessible.
Accessible work surfaces and equipment
The best approach to accessibility is to be proactive and implement Universal Design principles in existing and new clinical lab environments. This ensures lab spaces are inclusive, including for persons with disabilities.
For example, creating an inclusive clinical lab environment might involve installing light and easy-to-use doors (e.g., automatic doors or doors with handles at a suitable height for wheelchair users). Barrier-free safety showers and eyewash units also provide accessibility to all employees.
Accommodations for employees with mobility impairments
"Some small changes allow people with disabilities to perform the same tasks other lab workers would do,” says Daína Lima, a laboratory researcher with limited mobility due to myelomeningocele. "A person with limited mobility can find it challenging to perform an analysis that involves standing for 30 minutes, for example. However, labs can make accommodations to allow this person to work seated,” she adds.
Lima has experienced accessibility barriers in the lab: "When I started working in the lab, I couldn't access the glassware because it was in a high cabinet. But when new cabinets were installed, lab staff positioned them at a lower height.”
Other simple yet effective choices can ensure lab safety and enable people with limited mobility to access what they need in day-to-day activities.
"Labs can adopt flexible-height workstations rather than static benches designed to be used at standing height."
For example, labs can adopt flexible-height workstations rather than static benches designed to be used at standing height. The flexible height enables wheelchair users to sit right up close to the bench, facilitating fine motor control and visual access. Storage cabinets can also have accessibility features, such as castors or revolving trays that make it easier to access lab materials.
Other accommodations that might be useful to clinical lab workers with mobility impairments include placing utility and equipment controls within easy reach from a seated position. Labs should also provide flexible connections to electrical, water, and gas lines. In addition, sinks and fume hoods that consider the needs of people using a wheelchair are readily available from most suppliers.
Accessible solutions for people with sensory needs
For people with visual or hearing impairments, the environment can dramatically affect their ability to conduct lab activities independently and safely.
For employees with hearing loss, reasonable adjustments might include offering written instructions or notes and transparent face masks that provide the option to lip-read. A satisfactory level of light also facilitates lip reading.
Similarly, people who are visually impaired need a good level of lighting. And large-print, high-contrast instructions and illustrations allow them to process visual information more efficiently. Strongly contrasting the color of the floor with the color of the surrounding areas, including baseboards, walls, door frames, and lab work surfaces, can also enhance accessibility for employees with low vision.
"For people with visual or hearing impairments, the environment can dramatically affect their ability to conduct lab activities independently and safely."
It is also essential to ensure that the furniture layout in the lab remains consistent. This allows persons with low vision or blindness to navigate the lab safely, especially if they have already received orientation and mobility training.
Finally, emergency communication must not depend only on voice alerts as this could jeopardize the safety of people with sensory impairments. Instead, integrating visual, vibrotactile, and auditory stimuli can ensure the safety of people with visual or hearing impairments in emergencies.
Creating a culture of accessibility
Designing a lab that accounts for every potential disability would be impossible. However, building a culture of accessibility is crucial to accommodate employees with disabilities. “It's important to ask a person with a disability what they need to be successful in their role,” says Jéssica Fernandes, who was involved in COVID-19 research at the Translational Psychiatry Laboratory, University of Southern Santa Catarina, Brazil. Fernandes has congenital hip dysplasia, which reduces her physical mobility. "Every person has different needs, and maintaining good communication helps find accommodations that work for everyone in the lab," she says.
"Today, I do everything my colleagues do,” says Lima. “And this was possible because I was welcomed and received needed accommodations to help me succeed in my role.”
Upgrading existing lab spaces to accommodate individuals with disabilities is crucial to ensuring their safety and success during lab operations. Moreover, clinical labs that commit to inclusion can expand their talent pool and create an environment where everyone can thrive.