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  • Writer's pictureSteve Wright

Accessibility is at the Intersection of Employment

BARRIERS HINDER EMPLOYEMENT OF PEOPLE WITH DISABILITIES


As a writer/planner/educator/activist focused on the intersection of urban design and universal design, I often get into heated debates with architects, engineers and planners that create designs that segregate people with disabilities.


I cannot stand it when a brand-new building, built decades after the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) became law, has poor design that places a series of steps in the front, then hides the wheelchair access ramp in back of the building.


An image of a concrete and glass building with no wheelchair accessibility.
Florida Department of Health Miami Main Office

The Florida Department of Health Miami-Dade County main office does this. Clients and workers with mobility disabilities cannot use the main entrance. I thought about my career and how sometimes lunch with the boss, or just chatting in the hallway on the way to run an errand – has resulted in an opportunity to pitch myself for a key project that led to a promotion. If I had to roll the opposite direction, to the ramp segregated by design, I wouldn’t have that opportunity. If I used a manual wheelchair, I’d have to race and huff and puff just to catch up to my lunch companions.


All main entrances should be level with the ground. When topography or flood plain issues (a rapidly increasing issue in my home state of Florida) and the entrance must be raised – a ramp for all is the only solution.


Secondary entrances tend to get locked or blocked. In high traffic areas, retailers and restaurants don’t want to have to watch two doors for thieves and those dashing out without paying. The ableist “solution” to lock or block the accessible entrance. Not only does this cut out the opportunity to serve customers with disabilities, but it also discriminates in making it impossible for a person with a mobility disability to ever become an employee.


Outdoor lifts segregate and rarely function. I’m not talking about enclosed, full elevators. I’m talking about those open-air lifts meant to go up a half story or less. Virtually all of these require a key to operate. The key gets lost. At best, the wheelchair users have to shout and beg for the key holder to come out and operate the lift.


Imagine being the newest hire, trying to fit in and learn the corporate culture while climbing the ladder – but being reduced to a beggar to get in the building in the morning, leave for client appointments and head home after a long workday.


When I complain to architects about lifts, they say “it meets the code and passes inspection.” This is a horribly disingenuous answer. Would they design a roof that passes inspection then collapses within six months of the building opening? Because at least nine out of 10 times, outdoor lifts are not functional less than six months after installation.

If architects, engineers, planners and the city officials who regulate them truly cared about inclusion and equality, they would change the code and do away with an accessibility device that fails to provide access. The bottom line is there are more qualified workers with disabilities than one can count. Too many are unemployed or under-employed. This is not because of their disability; it is because the built environment – including buildings designed and built long after the ADA was the law of the land – literally blocks their access to the workplace.

This must change. Architects, engineers, planners and other designers have a gift. They must use that gift to create truly inclusive Universal Design.


So, as businesses get prepared for a lot of activity in October for Disability Employment Month, I would encourage all businesses to assess their environments and identify the barriers you have that keeping people with disabilities from full participation.


Steve Wright is a keynote speaker and Universal Design consultant. He has presented on designing a better built environment for people with disabilities at the national conference of the American Planning Association and at the International Making Cities Livable forum in Paris. He blogs daily at http://urbantravelandaccessibility.blogspot.com

Contact him at stevewright64@yahoo.com

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