An inclusive service environment is more than ensuring an accessible building, providing a sign language interpreter or creating large print documents. It is more than refraining from illegal interview questions or violating confidentiality. Rather, an inclusive service environment
- welcomes all people, regardless of their disability.
- recognizes and uses their skills and strengthens their abilities.
- is respectful, supportive, and equalizing.
- reaches out to and includes individuals with disabilities at all levels.
We know that if we want service to be successful and if we want to retain committed individuals in volunteer programs, we need to facilitate experiences that are rewarding and meaningful. The easier it is to serve, the more likely one will continue to serve.
What is an inclusive service environment?
Creating an inclusive service environment is challenging, thought provoking, and rewarding. It is a continuous process, one that evolves and responds to changes in the environment or in policies. It becomes an integral part of all that you do, from kick-offs to celebrations, from recruitment to retention, from policy to practice. It impacts team-building and participant development. It is an integral part of strategic planning and meeting planning. It benefits individuals with disabilities and those without. It guides those who are served and those who serve, those who direct and advise, and those who lead.
An inclusive service environment starts with the actions and attitudes of the individuals who are already in that environment. A program that thinks first about what someone can do is sure to be more inclusive than one who thinks about an individual’s limitations. A program that uses “people first” language is already aware that individuals with physical or mental limitations are people before they are disabled. A program that leads by example, provides training in disability awareness and sensitivity, and works to ensure equal expectations and contributions will be more successful in creating an inclusive service environment than one that does not.
Elements of an inclusive service environment
An inclusive service environment ensures the respect and dignity of individuals with disabilities. It does not pry into medical histories or diagnoses, and it guards against the casual exchange of privileged information. It speaks and listens to the individual with a disability. It understands that personal preference in accommodation is often a personal need. It is flexible when necessary.
The built environment (paths, doors, rooms, restrooms, kitchens) of an inclusive service environment meets current accessibility standards to the greatest extent possible. Accessibility is considered when planning events, seeking program or meeting space, and evaluating placement sites. When you move desks or serve refreshments, give consideration to ensuring the continued ability of persons with mobility, hearing, visual, and cognitive disabilities to continue to use the space independently.
- Ensure background noise in meetings is minimized
An inclusive service environment willingly and proactively provides accommodations. When requests are made and questions arise, the individual making the request is asked for clarification first before anyone else. In an inclusive service environment, the first considerations are ensuring access, opportunity, independence, and dignity; not cost or inconvenience.
- Maintain a 36-inch wide path to all areas
In an inclusive service environment, persons with disabilities are welcomed and are valued for their contributions as individuals. The presence of a disability is not seen as a detriment. Rather, disability is valued as part of the range of diversity that exists in the human condition. In some cases, a disability can present challenges that allow program staff and participants to grow and to enhance their knowledge and skills. In an inclusive service environment, staff and participants work with the goal of ensuring full inclusion and participation of an individual with a disability. Everyone is aware that excusing an individual from activities (e.g. “It is okay if you don’t come to the meeting because it is in an inaccessible location.”) or denying information (e.g., “Never mind that you cannot hear the training, it is not that important anyway.”) are exclusive actions. In an inclusive service environment, full participation is not the goal- it is the action.
- Provide accommodations to assist in full participation
An inclusive service environment understands that every individual is just that- an individual. No two people experience disability in the same way. Two individuals with the same disability may have very different perspectives, attitudes, interests, backgrounds and skills. An inclusive service environment sees individuals, not stereotypes.
Evaluate Your Progress
Environment: Spirit of Inclusion:
- Are participants with disabilities full participants in the program and service activities?
- Are they treated as peers?
- Are the expectations for participants with disabilities the same as for other participants?
- Are events planned with accessibility and accommodations considered?
- Is an accessibility survey conducted at least annually?
- Do all events, including retreats, trainings, and celebrations held in accessible sites?
- Do staff know how to provide documents in alternative formats?
- Are participants with disabilities actively engaged in a discussion about their needs for accommodations?
Administration and Management:
- Is all information related to an individual’s disability (including medical records and accommodations) confidential and kept in a secure file separate from all other records?
- When interviewing, are the same questions asked of all applicants?
- Is regular training on disability awareness and sensitivity provided?
- Is regular training on Equal Opportunity Employment policy provided?
Collateral material (brochures, flyers, applications, and websites)
- Are there images of persons with disabilities in brochures and other materials, including your website?
- Is your website accessible to persons with disabilities?
- Is disability included in your statement of non-discrimination?
- Are there clear instructions on how to request accommodations?
- Are materials available in alternative formats?
- Are individuals from the disability community asked to review your materials?
- Do you track the number of questions you receive regarding the inclusion of persons with disabilities in your program?
- Do you track the percentage of number (not the name) of applicants who voluntarily self-disclose disability?
- Do you tract the number of participants with disabilities in your program?
- Do you track the number of requests that you receive for accommodations?
- Do you track the number of participants with disabilities who successfully complete service?
- Have you developed relationships with disability organizations for the purposes of recruitment, technical assistance, or training?
- Have you asked leaders with disabilities in your community to assist you in evaluation efforts?
- Do you conduct service activities in conjunction with disability organizations?
These are just a few questions you can ask to help ensure your evaluation progress is successful. Remember these are simply suggested indicators for you to use in developing an evaluation plan around inclusion.
Creating an inclusive environment is designing space with everyone in mind. It is known as a design-for-all or universal design. If the environment works well for people across the spectrum of functional ability, it works better for everyone.
To learn more about standards of universal design, contact:
Sadelle Sweet, Program Inclusion Specialist
Phone: 601.432.6377 / TTY: 601.432.6970 888.
Send Sadelle an email.