My Accessible Workspace

Opening the door to function and efficiency

Article Highlights:
  • Software development engineer Scott Bennett, who has Duchenne muscular dystrophy, gives a tour of his office's accessible features.
  • Accessibility options can be as simple as adjustable desks and tabletops.
  • DIY (Do It Yourself) Web sites can help employees and companies visualize work space adaptations before starting any costly renovations. 
  • Be sure to have an emergency evacuation plan in place, and share it with coworkers and staff.
by Scott Bennett on October 1, 2009 - 9:37am

QUEST Vol. 16, No. 4

Making a workspace accessible means different things to different people, from someone with back pain who needs ergonomically designed desks and chairs, to someone with carpal tunnel syndrome who needs voice-recognition software for operating a computer, to someone in a wheelchair with limited arm mobility who needs adaptive equipment to access the entire workspace and perform a job.

For me — a 45-year-old software development engineer with Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD) who has very limited mobility and is ventilator-dependent — “workspace accessibility” means using specialized software to make my computer more versatile and fully accessible to me, and a variety of other details, large and small, that all add up to a workspace that enables me to be independent, efficient and productive.

Here’s a brief tour of my accessible home and work offices, and the kinds of equipment and resources I find valuble.

Scott Bennett operating his door
The author uses a multipurpose pointer stick mounted on his wheelchair to operate his office door.

My computer

Without voice recognition software, it would be extremely difficult for me to work as a software engineer. The software (Dragon NaturallySpeaking Professional Edition by Nuance), gives me full access to my computer, including all software applications, the mouse and the Internet. Because I use the professional edition, I’m able to create specialized voice commands for the software-development applications I use in my job. 

In conjunction with the voice recognition software, I use both a wired microphone and a wireless microphone to operate the computer (the wired microphone is used when the wireless microphone needs to be recharged). The wireless CS50 USB microphone by Plantronics allows me to be more mobile by not having to sit right in front of the computer. 

The Microsoft accessibility tool Sticky Keys, which comes with the Microsoft Windows XP operating system, gives me the ability to type combination keyboard commands like Ctrl-Alt-Delete one key at a time rather than all at once. The Mouse Keys tool allows me to use the numeric keypad on the keyboard as a mouse. These keyboard accessibility tools come in very handy on the few occasions when the voice recognition software crashes, a common problem with PC applications.

My office telephone has a serial port connection that I’ve connected to the serial port of my computer, allowing me to use telephone software combined with my voice recognition software to dial my telephone via voice command.

Details, details

Just as important as the computer and computer assistive technology are the small details that make my workspace accessible for me.

For example, I have a permanent microphone stand for mounting my wired microphone, and an earpiece holder is mounted on my wheelchair for using the wireless microphone. I have a pointer stick mounted on my wheelchair that I sometimes use to press buttons on the telephone and/or keyboard, and I had stands made for the telephone and keyboard to hold them stationary and in the right position, so I can use the pointer stick effectively. 

I hire assistants from among my co-workers to help me during lunchtime, and I’ve had a bench set up in my office that’s at the right height for my assistant to help me use the urinal. (I need the bench because I get out of my wheelchair for that task.)

Other important details include:

  • a table/desk at the correct height for me;
  • a cup holder mounted on a gooseneck stand so I can drink water during the day;
  • an automatic door opener mounted on my office door;
  • a heater on a timer that turns on when I’m in the office, as I get cold easily; and
  • motion sensors to turn on the lights in my office.

Another detail of workspace accessibility is having an emergency evacuation plan in place. My plan includes not only the location of the accessible emergency exits but also the appropriate medical care I should receive if I’m having a medical emergency. This is very important so your co-workers will know what to do.

Working with your employer

Bennett's ergonomically designed workspace includes thoughtful touches such as the adjustable water bottle holder at right.

Your employer is an important resource in making your workspace accessible. When starting a new job or when changes are needed to your workspace due to changes in your disability, you and your employer should work together to make sure that you have the assistive technology and accommodations needed to make your workspace accessible. (Note: see The ADA, employment and assistive technology.”)

I work closely with my department managers and the people in the human resources and health services departments. They make sure I have all the assistive technology, accommodations and services I need to do my job and support my particular health care needs. 

The people in the safety and security office continually help me to ensure that my emergency evacuation plan and contact information is up-to-date. They periodically set up meetings for me to train security staff on my specific emergency needs.

My company’s maintenance staff has been very helpful creating the microphone, telephone and keyboard stands; making sure my desk/computer table and bench are at the right height for me; installing the secondary heating source and thermostat with a timer in my office; installing the automatic door opener on my office door; and ensuring that the sidewalk ramps and automatic door openers at the entrances are maintained properly. 

If your company isn’t large enough to have all of these departments and resources available, work with your direct managers to obtain the resources you need. Working closely with your employer and co-workers is very important in ensuring your workspace is accessible.

Workspace at home

Flexible work schedules and telecommuting are benefits many companies provide that help people with disabilities work modified schedules and/or work from home. 

My company offers both of these benefits, enabling me to work six hours a day, five days a week. I’m able to work from home as many days a week as I need, which I usually do about three days a week.

Working from home requires making another workspace accessible. I’ve replicated at home all the workspace accessibility features at my office, including an accessible desk; wired and wireless microphones; stands for the microphone, telephone and keyboard; cup holder; etc.

I have a secure connection directly to my office computer and the internal network of my company with access to e-mail, office printers and other company computers. And with the meeting and conference software that my company uses, I attend meetings with my colleagues directly from home. Thanks to these accommodations, I’m able to work at home as effectively as I am at the office.

To enhance my home workspace, I’ve connected my computer to an environmental control unit, the Cintex4 by Nanopac, with programmable infrared control for operating devices using infrared remotes. This allows me to use the voice recognition software on my computer to operate the television, stereo, lights and other devices, giving me full control of my home office environment by voice command.

Getting started

There are many resources available to you and your employer, such as your state rehabilitation commission, local independent living center, local MDA office and wheelchair/rehabilitation equipment company. You also may want to talk to your primary care physician about setting up an appointment with an occupational therapist or rehabilitation specialist. And there are many online resources for assistive technology and workspace adaptations.

With all of my workspace modifications, the assistive technology that I use and the assistance of my co-workers, I’m able to perform my job as productively as my co-workers. As a result, they don’t see me as a disabled employee but as another colleague. Working independently and productively gives me a sense of accomplishment and feeling that I’m giving something back to society.

Scott Bennett, who has Duchenne muscular dystrophy, works for The MITRE Corporation in Bedford, Mass. He lives independently in his own home in East Taunton, Mass., with support from longtime close friends/PCAs, family and loyal pet puggle “Peanut.” Scott enjoys reading, playing chess, science and sports. Go Red Sox!

There are many floor-plan creation programs available to purchase, but if you simply want to rethink a single room, you may not want to invest in a full-blown design application.

A Web site called Floorplanner allows use of its rather sophisticated digital design tools to help you visualize your current space as an efficient, ergonomic workspace. Best of all, it’s fun.

Basically, Floorplanner is drag-and-drop designing: First, working in the top-view mode, you outline your workspace floor plan to scale on the on-screen graph paper. Next, you drag and drop any doors and windows onto the walls. These openings can then be precisely resized.

Once your room and its openings are defined, furnish it from a library of myriad furnishings and objects, organized under categories such as Office, Living Room, Bedroom, Kitchen, Plants and People (there’s even a person in a wheelchair). Simply drag and drop the items into your floor plan, then resize them to suit your purpose. If you want to move or resize these items later, no problem. There’s also a text tool to label your workplace design.

Here’s the really fun part: Click on the 3D button and the two-dimensional top-view fades out and is replaced with a three-dimensional rendering of your design that allows a complete 360-degree view. Its perspective can be infinitely varied with your pointer tool.

Advancements in voice recognition software, other computer assistive technology, assistive technology in general and ergonomic designs have dramatically improved workspace accessibility.

Unfortunately, advancements in cell phones, PDAs and “smartphones” (BlackBerry, iPhone, etc.) have not followed suit. While most of these devices include voice dialing features, they don’t provide complete access to the device using voice commands, such as to the menus, voice mail, e-mail, text messaging and Internet.

I’ve suggested to people in the assistive technology and rehabilitation fields, voice recognition software and cell phone companies that cell phones need better assistive technology. All agree that such advancements will benefit people with and without disabilities by providing more hands-free capabilities. Hopefully, such advances will become more readily available in the next few years.

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