Sunday, March 25, 2001

Alive and well

There's more to accessibility than physical changes

        Digging through file drawers and book shelves, trying to unearth a tactile map I collected at a conference last year, I smile to myself about the multiple meaning of "accessible buildings.” Letters from readers ask how to make an office building or restaurant “disabled friendly.” Architects drop knowledge of “ADA requirements” into conversations.

        Some accommodations have become commonplace in the last decade, easily recognized by most as strides toward access. “Handicapped parking” spaces, certainly, are ordinary occurrences, as are automatic doors and sometimes a single gigantic stall in public rest rooms. Braille on elevator panels and some office doors, amplification buttons on public telephones, and pictures in addition to or in lieu of directional signs are also familiar.

        But what are some details that make up an overall picture of a truly accessible environment?

        The answer to that question is unique to each type of disability experienced, but here are some examples of universal design that address specific needs while ultimately benefiting everyone.

Useful amenities

        Obviously, entrance to the building in the first place for people with physical disabilities means a flat or gradually ramped entrance.

        Elevators that are centrally located (rather than a service elevator in the back 40), rest rooms on every floor of a multilevel building, and at least one unisex rest room for individuals being assisted by partners or assistants of the opposite sex are essential.

        Lowered elevator buttons and door handles (levered handles are easier to operate for everyone than the old-fashioned circular doorknob), and furniture that can be rearranged if necessary are all positives for everyone.

        For people with visual impairments, an excess of mirrors or roaring fountains can be disorienting at best. Wall sconces, planter boxes and other abruptly protruding objects can be hazardous. Stairways should be announced by visual and textured contrasting material, so that they will be detected by people with limited or no vision or those with cognitive disabilities. Use of varied floor coverings as directional cues can be extremely useful — for example, carpet in north-south corridors and tile for east-west ones.

        Alerts that are both visual and auditory will ensure that all occupants of a given building are aware when an emergency arises, and providing amplification on all phones is a low-cost initial accommodation that benefits many who are unaware of hearing difficulties.

        Having a TTY connected at all times to one phone line ensures that potential customers with hearing or speech disabilities can access information via telephone about the products or services being offered.

Accommodating attitudes

        Of course the list goes on. Still, the formula for making any public facility welcoming to people with and without disabilities is a complicated one that can be made simple.

        The tactile map I was looking for was one given me by the conference coordinators at a California hotel. The floor plan is indicated by raised lines and symbols, with an accompanying Braille key. Reviewing that map made finding meeting rooms, exercise facilities, and coffee shops a less stressful experience for me as a visually impaired guest, and the ability to review it again before returning will underscore the level of comfort. But the map is not the most important ingredient to encouraging repeat business — any more than automatic doors, amplified phones or unisex bathrooms are.

        Accommodating staff, welcoming attitudes and flexibility in how service is delivered far outweigh the presence or removal of every physical feature of access. Millions of dollars worth of renovation and installation of assistive devices will remain unappreciated if the humans interacting with customers are not able to treat those with and without disabilities with equal warmth and respect. Common sense is free, and awareness training for staff in any public facility can go a long way toward the savvy business decision to market services or products to people with disabilities.

        Contact Deborah Kendrick at 673-4474; fax: 321-6430; e-mail: Cincinnati.Com keyword: Kendrick.


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