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The Accessibility Angle: How to Make a Commercial Property Safe for Those with Sensory Overload




Example of a room not suitable for those with autism and other sensory overload syndromesManaging commercial properties can be a juggling act of rules and expectations, and it can seem like there’s an infinite list of requirements. While accommodating for accessibility, fire safety, style, and ease is a lot to juggle, there’s a reason the rules are in place and with a basic understanding of why the properties need to meet these requirements, you can make sure you meet all expectations without great cost or effort on your part.

One of the lesser known keys to accessibility is making changes to help those with sensory overload. This is a symptom of a wide range of neurological and sensory disorders that make things like noise, bright lights, and other design features difficult or even painful to process. This hypersensitivity is often a symptom of a larger disorder or diagnosis like chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS) or autism spectrum disorders (ASD), and if a property is not effectively prepared for people with SODs, it can open you up to liability for failure to comply with accessibility laws. 

What is Sensory Overload?

Sensory overload is a state in which someone cannot process all the stimuli they are being presented with visually, aurally, or otherwise, and can cause severe emotional distress, restlessness, angry outbursts, and many other behavioural symptoms. The triggers and symptoms vary in type and severity from person to person, but there are several larger disorders that can make people more susceptible to sensory overload.

Autism is a relatively well known developmental disorder, which often causes some social impairment, and affects how people perceive the world and the information in it. Autism is on a spectrum, with some autistic people able to have regular jobs, maintain relationships, and function in social life. Others, however, are easily upset or overwhelmed, are nonverbal or have difficulty communicating, and keep to highly focused interests or consistent routines. ME/CFS is another condition that can can cause sensory overload. Myalgic encephalomyelitis, also called chronic fatigue syndrome, is a disorder that causes exhaustion, muscle and joint pain, and other severe fatigue symptoms. Many other common illnesses and disorders, like anxiety, fibromyalgia, post-traumatic stress disorder and attention deficit disorder can also make someone more susceptible to sensory overload. While not all of these symptoms can be managed entirely by a landlord, making sure to use materials and design strategies that are easy for people with sensory perception issues to cope with is an important part of making your building accessible.

How to Prevent Sensory Overload

The most basic rule to help reduce sensory overload is to reduce clutter. This can mean physical clutter like rubbish or boxes, visual clutter like bright lights and colours, or auditory clutter like music, alarms, and ringing phones. The cleaner and more organised you can make a space, the better. It’s also good to reduce the intensity of lighting features, and make sure music and TV is kept to a low volume when being played in public places. If you can’t make the whole building clutter free, it can also help to have a designated area that is quiet and not overstimulating. Whether it’s a booth in a restaurant away from the bar, and changing room that doesn’t play music, or a room in an office building away from the traffic noise, making small changes can have a huge effect in making someone feel welcome and cared for.

The changes you make to your commercial property to increase accessibility are incredibly important, but aren’t difficult or expensive. Swapping bright colours for neutrals, turning down the tunes, and cleaning up rubbish are all things that can make a meaningful difference for someone prone to sensory overload, and don’t take huge amounts of your time or money. In creating a more diverse, accepting, and accessible venue, not only will you be able to accommodate a wider range of people, but you might find other benefits you never expected!

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