On Tuesday, I attended the LivABLE Luncheon as part of the Cincinnati ReelAbilities Film Festival. This session featured a short film called The Commute about a man’s attempt to travel across New York City in his wheelchair. The film was followed by a group discussion about solving the everyday challenges facing people with disabilities as they navigate the world.
My favorite line from the luncheon was quoted from the cartoon on the right, “But if you shovel the ramp, we can all get in!” I love this saying because it illustrates that the majority of time, if you make a space more accessible for people with disabilities, it also makes it more accessible to people with typical function.
In this short 3 minute film, you see hours pass in the man’s life as he desperately tries to make it home in time for his daughter’s 8th birthday. Her present is wrapped and on his lap. It falls multiple times. He is refused service by a cab driver unwilling to help him get himself and the chair into the vehicle. Curb cuts are often not flush with the ground making it hard for him to transition from the road to the sidewalk. Even the subway is torturous to watch him try to navigate as he’s faced with flight after flight of stairs and very few elevators.
His journey looked like it started early in the day. However, it took him so long to get home that he missed his daughter blowing out her candles. He missed her opening her presents. He even missed saying goodnight to her.
After the film we learned that only 86 out of 468 subway stations in New York are accessible to people with disabilities. Less than 20%. Can you imagine the level of frustration that brings?
Everyday situations = Huge challenges for some people
To inspire the discussion after the film, there were postcards on the table illustrating everyday design challenges. These challenges were identified as part of a research project completed by students at University of Cincinnati College of Design Architecture Art & Planning (DAAP). The students interviewed people about what slows them down, and then designed solutions to address the challenge.
Did you know the following every day items and activities are challenges for people with disabilities?
- Parking Meters: Quote from a person using a wheelchair, “When I drive downtown, I have a hard time finding a place to park on the street. When I finally do find that spot, I cannot reach or see the parking meter in my wheelchair. I have to find someone nearby to help me insert money.” A woman at our table was shorter than your average human (but not using a wheelchair), and said some newly designed meters with the screen and money slots on top have given her this same challenge.
- Crossing the street: Quote from Allison, “It takes me time to cross big intersections. I’m constantly scared that the light is going to change and that a car going too fast isn’t going to stop or isn’t going to notice me, especially at night.” I have experienced this with my own daughter. I want to encourage her to walk to build her stamina, but it takes extra time. Even when crossing a parking lot, my eyes dart around like a wild cat while gently encouraging her to continue taking big strong steps.
- Lack of places to sit and rest: Dorothy is 81 years old and broke her hip a few years ago after slipping on a patch of ice. She still walks, but has limited mobility. Her quote was, “It’s hard to walk long distances, especially with few places to sit down and nothing to grab onto for support.“
- Height of benches: Quote from Rebecca, “Most public benches are too low. It is difficult for me to stand up from the bench.”
- Bikes that protrude out onto the sidewalk: Quote from Claire (who is blind), “Sometimes, bikes locked up on the bike racks protrude too far into the pedestrian walkway. This slows me down, especially when the street is heavily populated.”
- Limited bus routes: People with disabilities often cannot drive and must rely on public transportation if they want to travel independently. One woman at our table shared that it takes her son (in a wheelchair) nearly two hours to take the bus from her house to his college campus. She can drive him there in 14 minutes.
- Mulch on playgrounds: Mulch is nearly impossibly to roll over with a wheelchair or walker. If you are a parent, think of trying to push your child in an umbrella stroller across the mulch. Wheelchairs and walkers simply get stuck. You can even clog up the wheels so bad you need a repair-person’s assistance in order to leave the playground. When Lily tries to cross a mulch surface by herself, she uses every single ounce of her energy to simply get to the slide. I’d rather she use that energy to SLIDE down the slide. Let’s hear it for rubber-floored playgrounds!
The students had great ideas for improvement … everything from sensor activated “light up” crosswalks and canopies that deflect sound a certain way to alert people who are blind to protruding objects, to straightforward solutions like making our parking meters shorter.
What can you do to make our world more LivABLE?
If you are in charge of or on a committee to design anything (a building, a playground, a parking lot, decorating the dining room at your place of work, etc.), ask someone with a disability to review your plans/be on your committee. If you don’t know someone with a disability, go meet someone!
Another approach is to do your best to put yourself in the shoes of someone who has a disability. Think through the different types of impairment (wheelchair user, walker user, using canes or crutches, blind, deaf, etc.). Look at the plans you’re putting together and assess them for their accessibility. Below are some thought starters.
- Flooring & Outdoors: Is the surface smooth? Are there enough paved surfaces to allow wheelchair or walker users to access all areas? Mulch, pebbles, and sand are nearly impossible to wheel over. Are you designing the floor on multiple levels (step up here, step down there, sunken room) so that it looks cool? Could you make it look cool while being accessible too (ramps, graded floor instead of steps, different color flooring but not different level, etc.)? Do you have benches periodically placed along long stretches of walkway so that someone with limited mobility can take a few moments to rest?
- Parking Lots: Do you have handicapped spaces that can accommodate vans with ramps (wider spots)? Where are the curb cuts in relation to the handicapped parking spaces – can the wheelchair user get to them without having to wheel through traffic? Where are the handicapped spaces in relation to the door and/or elevator (hopefully close by and connected by walkways)?
- Entrances: If there are steps into the building, are there ramps as well? If you have to choose one, the ramp would let everyone get in. Are you stretching the truth and saying your building is accessible because someone in a wheelchair can access your building through the back by coming through the kitchen or boiler room? I think you can do better. Let’s focus on letting people with disabilities enter through the main doors.
- Inside Buildings: Are the doorways wide enough for wheelchairs? Is there an accessible bathroom (wide door opening, space for a person + wheelchair + personal aide, grab bars)? Are there enough ramps and elevators so that someone in a wheelchair could access every part of the building?
- Restaurants / Meeting Rooms / Classrooms: Are there tables with open sides and removable chairs that would allow a wheelchair user to wheel up to the table and sit with others? Booths and high top tables are inaccessible to someone in a wheelchair. How much room is between each table? How big and heavy are the chairs – could someone with limited strength move it out of the way?
- Theater, Stadium, or Event hall: Do you have places in the seating area where people in a wheelchair can sit with their friends or family (ideally with everyone else’s seating, not just behind the seats)? Do you have at least some (ideally all) areas of seating that are accessible by ramp rather than stairs? Are there ramps, elevators or lifts so that people in wheelchairs can access the stage/field?
- Streets & Sidewalks & Public Transit: Do you have enough curb cuts? Are they flush with the ground? Are there objects protruding into the walkway that you could fix by redesigning the space before you construct it? How many of your buses have ramps and lifts to accommodate wheelchairs and strollers? Are your subway cars flush with the platform? Are all of your subway stations accessible by elevator or ramp? Are your elevators maintained so they remain in working order all the time?
- Playgrounds: What are you using to cover the ground of the playground? Rubberized flat surfaces are fantastically inclusive. Mulch & sand are not. If there are multiple levels of play, do you have ramps to connect the levels? For play forts, are they only accessible by ladder? Ladders are difficult for kids with a wide variety of impairments – regular stairs are better, ramps are best. Is there a swing that can accommodate people with disabilities (this would be a big plus and would put a smile on many parents’ faces).
By the way, nearly all of these accommodations ALSO help families with strollers. It makes the space more accessible to everyone.
What did I miss? Tell me in the comments so I can create an accessibility checklist!