Prioritizing Accessibility in Public Spaces Is Better for Everyone
How seemingly minor design choices can make a big difference
When I say “inaccessibility,” what’s the first thing you think of? You might envision something like a set of stairs, a broken elevator, or a car that’s been carelessly parked in front of a ramp. These do create accessibility barriers for people with mobility challenges such as spinal muscular atrophy (SMA) or other disabilities.
These large obstacles can be pretty easy to spot. They’re so big that they often demand to be seen, even if only for a brief moment of recognition.
There are also much smaller accessibility barriers that many people wouldn’t notice without experiencing their effects firsthand. We may only become aware of them once they’ve been brought to our attention by someone else.
When I asked what comes to mind when you hear “inaccessibility,” I’m guessing you probably didn’t think of speed bumps. Surprisingly, they’re a perfect example of subtle inaccessibility in a public space. At most, you might consider them to be an annoyance, but for me and many others in the disability community, they’re more problematic.
For people like myself who lack upper body strength, head control, or balance, driving over a speed bump is quite jarring. Driving over multiple in a row is a nightmare. Even when crossing with extreme caution, my body is typically tossed around like a rag doll.
My head bounces off all five of my head supports as if it were trapped in a pinball machine. My shoulders are knocked to the side in an uncomfortable slouch. My hips are jostled into an awkward angle on the seat. Despite my wheelchair’s best efforts to hold me in place with its myriad supports, cushions, and straps, I’ll need to be fully repositioned once we’ve reached our destination, if not before.
This experience is so hard on my body that my family makes a point to avoid speed bumps whenever possible, but sometimes, there’s no way around them. Some locations offer no alternate routes, and while we can choose not to visit establishments where this is an issue, there are some places — like the pharmacy — that we must get to, even if it means I’ll be bounced around in the back of the van.
I do understand that speed bumps can be an important safety measure, but some parking lots seem to contain an excessive amount. It would bring me immense joy to see a majority of these impediments torn out throughout my city.
If you’ve never noticed how speed bumps or other design features create accessibility issues, don’t worry. I don’t expect anyone to notice every single detail. It’s still important to talk about, though, because once we’re aware of these issues, we can work together to build better spaces where everyone can be both accommodated and welcomed.
In a column titled “What the Ancients Greeks and Architecture May Tell Us About Accessibility,” my friend and fellow SMA News Today columnist Sherry Toh notes that one possible reason why ramps were a component of certain public spaces in ancient Greece could be because they created easier access for all people. She goes on to question why we don’t always consider accessibility in modern construction.
In the U.S., the Americans with Disabilities Act legally requires businesses and other public buildings to meet and maintain certain accessibility standards, yet many people only do the bare minimum that the law demands from them. Creating a place that allows for a fully accessible (and enjoyable) experience isn’t a priority to them.
What would happen if we, as a society, went the extra mile to ensure that the little details of accessibility were also covered during construction, renovation, and design? I think we’d find that everyone would benefit.
Disabled people and their families would have greater opportunities to be an active part of the community. Businesses would get more clientele who would spend money there and share their impressions with their friends. Able-bodied people would also be able to use accessible spaces without hindrance.
And do you want to know something else that’s cool? Going above and beyond the mandatory accessibility standards often costs little to nothing extra. It’s as simple as being mindful of the furniture arrangement, hanging doors that swing away from the ramp instead of toward it, or opting to build a ramp in place of stairs. Or choosing not to install quite so many speed bumps.
Being inclusive in design takes practice (and maybe some help from an accessibility consultant), but when we put in the effort, the world becomes a better place. When we’re intentional about accessibility, everybody wins.
Note: SMA News Today is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of SMA News Today or its parent company, BioNews, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to spinal muscular atrophy.