Google software engineer Sasha Blair-Goldensohn takes issues of accessibility very personally. The lifelong New Yorker, who was injured when a tree fell on him during a walk through Central Park in 2009, now uses a wheelchair to get around, including the company’s office on 8th Avenue in New York, a massive former Port Authority Building.
The building’s massive floorplates mean 500 or so people can work on each floor, so most employees don’t need to use the stairs much. But when Blair-Goldensohn, now a paraplegic, finished rehab and began working in the office again in 2010, he realized accessibility could be improved. Additional automatic door openers and more ramps, while not required by building code or law, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), all of which the building already met, could help himself and other Google employees with disabilities be more mobile, active, and welcome. But there wasn’t a process in place to push these improvements.
“It wasn’t like somebody was saying, ‘hey, let’s make things harder for Sasha,’” he said during a meeting at the Google offices. “But like many diversity issues, there wasn’t somebody in a wheelchair doing the design. The designers were thinking about how we could make a great space that looks cool.”
Building better offices is a job that’s never done
Blair-Goldensohn brought his suggestions to the facilities team, which he said was quite receptive. But observations by him and others also spurred the tech giant to rethink how it designs for accessibility in its office spaces.
During a tour of the company’s offices in Chelsea last week, during its in-house disability week, Google reps showed off the ways a new design process they’re implementing can help them improve their workspaces for everyone, using the observations of everyday Google employees to shape these changes.
“We’ll never be done making our spaces better,” says Tracy Needles, a Google facility manager. “It’s an iterative process. We’re pushing for universal design and making our spaces as accessible as possible for the most amount of people.”
About three years ago, Needles and others on the real estate workplace services team began reaching out to Google employees with disabilities, asking them about their work environment and what changes they felt would make the most difference. The focus was on hearing what these employees knew first-hand instead of having designers make assumptions.
The company about to put in place a four-point program to improve current offices and build better in the future, based on the work of Needles and her colleagues. Together, the four aspects of this system—new construction, education, maintenance, and existing buildings—form a holistic roadmap for continual improvement, and making all their workspaces “ADA-plus.”
Designing for accessibility means designing for everyone
Needles became passionate about accessibility issues during college at Cornell. A goalie on the soccer team, she hurt her thumb and discovered how inaccessible her sorority house was while wearing splints. At the same time, her grandfather suffered from a stroke, further inspiring her to study ways to make the built environment more accessible.
During a tour of the 14th floor of the Google office, one of company’s most recently redesigned workspaces, Needles pointed out numerous changes and additions the team had made. Additional automatic door openers have been installed to make it easier to get around the office in a wheelchair. Podiums were redesigned in house to accommodate wheelchair access. Differently textured floor mats make it easier for blind team members and visitors to navigate.
Braille wayfinding covers both conference room names and numbers (the team found that meeting invites often had listed just a name or a number, leading to confusion). This signage also corresponds to a responsive tactile map, which includes numerous auditory and sensory clues to help navigation. A series of custom shelves curve down to meet the wall, so there’s more convenient surface area for those using canes to notice their placement.
Another key observation that Needles and others worked into their plan is the importance of making maintenance central to accessibility. Textured floor mats aren’t useful navigation aides if chairs are scattered about. To encourage awareness, maintenance crews are now rewarded for creating plans that help clear floors and consider the importance of unobstructed space. In addition. new team members also watch an on-boarding video that explains the benefits of universal design, to help make them more aware of the value of making and maintaining more accessible space.
Expanding the diversity of design
Google wouldn’t provide statistics for how many disabled employees they have in New York City or overall. But they see these efforts as not only the right thing to do, and ways to retain and attract quality talent, but also efforts that benefit the entire office. It’s a core tenant of universal design. Adding more ramps for moving between floors, or creating easier-to-use navigation systems, benefit everyone, from injured employees and older employees to those with a long-term disability.
There’s also value in increased awareness of accessibility, and how it can bleed over to the company’s products. Blair-Goldensohn, for instance, an advocate in his own right who has written about the subway’s terrible record for accessibility, has spearheaded efforts to make Google Maps better for users with disabilities.
Recent additions to the user feedback aspects of Maps now collect information on wheelchair-accessible entrances. Since the team started asking for information in 2016, Google now has data on 80 percent of venues, and Blair-Goldensohn says the Maps team plans to expand into collecting and displaying even more information, such as the presence of wheelchair-accessible restrooms, parking, and auditory assistance devices and theaters, and has called on frequent users to contribute.
Needles says that Google is on the cusp of rolling out these new guidelines for their offices and real estate, but needs to figure out logistics, such as how and when to do accessibility reviews on new or newly revised facilities.
The team also has a wider vision for additional changes, and a larger scope. So far, Needles and others have focused on mobility and sensory accessibility, making sure everyone can get to and from their workspaces. But they eventually wants to expand the scope to promoting what she calls neural diversity. This would entail designing space for those on the autism spectrum or with ADHD and reducing distractions and creating quiet workspaces, what she calls designing for attention. At a time when we’re over-saturated with screens and online distractions, this effort seems another example of how a focus on universal design can add features and focus on issues that benefit the workforce as a whole. It’s all part of a larger move by Needles and others to showcase the value of accessible design. It’s gradual, and not completely revolutionary, but most importantly, it’s achievable.
“Google is very good, and they can afford to be nice to their employees,” says Blair-Goldensohn. “But a lot of places can afford to be nice, and aren’t.”