Proper Implementation of Accessibility Accommodations
In mainstream discussions about accessibility, people are most familiar with structural accessibility. In other words, it is widely known that wheelchair access ramps are a necessity, and that braille should be present on signage. However, the intricacies of implementing this accessibility are often overlooked.
It’s great if a building installs a ramp, which they are required to do by the Americans with Disability Act (ADA), but do the plans include how steep the ramp can be?
Braille signs should be present in public spaces, but it’s not enough to just have braille displayed. What if the sign is way above a person’s head?
Do you know anyone who walks around feeling above their heads for signs?
The Intricacies and Nuances of True Accessibility
Structural accessibility most certainly includes the presence of adaptations or alterations; however, accessibility needs to go beyond just being present. In fact, even if an accessibility measure is implemented, if it is not user-friendly, then true accessibility doesn’t actually exist. As a completely blind person who works with a guide dog, allow me to share some of my experiences in interacting with inadequate attempts at structural accessibility.
The above example of braille signs being overhead or too high for me to reach is a true story.
In fact, I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve been looking for the women’s bathroom and can’t find the sign that would indicate whether or not I’m walking in on the opposite sex or not. Usually, I have to accost an unsuspecting passerby to ask which door is the women’s, only to be told that the sign is somewhere off in outer space and that I can’t actually reach it to read it. I wonder if people installing the signs realize that people who read braille use their hands, which usually are not groping around above forehead level.
Upside Down Braille
How many times have you walked through a public space, like a mall or a university campus, and seen signs upside down? Have you ever noticed street signs upside down as you drive by? I’m sure it’s happened from time to time in your life, but for me, this is a regular occurrence.
The most widespread epidemic of Upside Down Braille Signs occurred in my last year of university. One of the buildings was receiving a long-overdue face-lift, which included changing signs. The first day it was open to students, I wandered up to one of my classes, and there, on a correctly-placed sign, was a word I couldn’t read.
Thankfully the sign wasn’t above my head, because I stood there for probably a good minute and a half running my fingers back and forth on the braille that wasn’t words. It suddenly dawned on me that it was upside down and backward. With this epiphany, I walked around the building after class and read more braille signs than I have ever read in my life and for everyone that was the right direction, there were two that were not.
Clearly, someone who could read Braille wasn’t consulted on which way the signs went before they were posted. Sure, the signs were present, which may suggest to some that the structural accessibility box was checked, but they were certainly not readable. Accessibility attempt fail.
Providing Accommodations Does Not Help if They are not Installed Properly
As you can see, it’s not enough just to have the adaptation present. Crosswalks, for example, can be one of the most abysmal attempts at accessibility. Since crosswalks are generally available to pedestrians as a measure of safety, it is even more important that they are designed with all users in mind.
I cannot keep track of how many times I have located a crosswalk pole only to realize that the crosswalk is so far away that I won’t have time to push the button and get to the curb before the light cycle changes. There have been numerous times in my life where I’ve been stranded on one side of the street, listening to the audible signal telling me it’s safe to walk.
The adaptation of the beeping/chirping/talking signal is present, but I am still stranded because the button is too far away from the curb. If I can’t get there in time, despite being an athlete, how does someone using a mobility aid such as a walker reach the crosswalk in time? If you are someone who drives, picture the worst traffic jam you’ve ever been stuck in. All of that frustration and worry is exactly what I feel every time crosswalks are inaccessible.
Consider Baille in Elevators
Structural accessibility even applies to entities that can be considered an adaptation in and of themselves. Similar to the crosswalks, elevators often pose a mobility barrier, despite their intended purpose of improving the mobility experience. As a person with a visual disability, I require an elevator to do two things, and both things need to be present at the same time.
First, the buttons need to be labeled in braille or tactile numbers, so that I know which button I’m pushing. I have been known to get on an elevator missing any such indicators and pushing every floor button so that I can count which floor I am going to. Not only annoying to me, incredibly annoying to everyone else attempting to use the elevator. It’s also a huge time waster.
Second, the elevator needs to have an auditory signal that indicates floor changes. This can range from a beep at each floor, to an announcement of the floors out loud.
If only one or the other of these adaptations is present, it still renders the elevator inaccessible for a person with a visual disability. It’s great if the elevator talks, but if the numbers aren’t labeled then how do I know which button to press and vise versa? Full tour, anyone?
This doesn’t even take into consideration the elevators that require the patron to swipe their room key to either summon or activate the elevator.
The worst experience I ever had was when I was visiting a new city by myself. I was there to run a marathon and found that when I tried to go up to my room, that the elevator talked; however, I couldn’t summon the elevator myself because it was a touch screen that also required the user to swipe their room key. My weekend was constantly interrupted by me having to call someone from the front desk to come rescue me off of my floor. Annoying for me and them.
Accommodations can be Present but Still Insufficient
In the end, the fact that the elevator talks, or that the street crossing has an audible signal, is not enough to create accessible spaces. As with most things, the user experience needs to be taken into consideration. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if I could not only cross the street efficiently in order to make my business meeting, but if I could also reach that meeting independently, because the elevator talks, is properly labeled, and the meeting room is indicated by a braille sign that is not upside down or located above my head?
People without visual disabilities do this exact thing every day, because the tools they need to perform such mundane tasks are not only present, but are user-friendly. The entire purpose of accessibility, regardless of type, is to provide all people with the tools they need to live independent and productive lives.