by Judy Skinner, Manager Special Needs Committee, Associate Fellow
Reprinted from Usability Interface, Vol 6, No. 2, October 1999
Who is it that designs the so-called wheelchair access areas in public buildings? From my experience, I’d say nobody in a wheelchair, or at least nobody in a wheelchair who has disabled arms. Let’s start at the beginning.
Most, but by no means all, buildings in the U.S. today have entry ramps, but usually there is a seam or lip between the ramp and the sidewalk. Wheelchairs have two pairs of wheels. The smaller wheels are in the front. If the lip is too high or the seam too wide, it is hard to get across going forward and hard to see where you’re going when backing up.
I bless the person who invented automatic doors. I, for one, have never mastered opening, and holding open, large, heavy doors. Some doors, even the automatic kind, have sills. Some are hard to get over. If there has to be a sill, why can’t it slope up? That would prevent my coming to a screeching halt. If the door closes too quickly, it can be dangerous.
In most public buildings, one must use an elevator. I was in a rehabilitation hospital, of all places, in which the elevator car stopped off level to the floor. Able-bodied people tripped, and so did my wheelchair. Also, the door closed too quickly. Fortunately, it was set to re-open on contacting any sort of obstacle. That door wasn’t heavy enough to knock over a wheelchair. It was, however, heavy enough to seriously unbalance people using a walker or crutches. In some elevators, there is a gap between the edge of the floor and the elevator car. It’s a booby trap for small wheels, crutches, and canes.
Elevators should have buttons low enough for a person in a wheelchair to reach. They should also have Braille floor-number markers.
Public restrooms and hotel room bathrooms can be nightmares! There are guidelines for bathroom design, but implementation varies widely. There must be two grab-bars beside the toilet, one alongside and one behind. I have no idea why there must be grab-bars behind in women’s restrooms. In some, the bar simply isn’t long enough to be useful. People with balance problems must hold on with both hands. A tissue dispenser mounted above the bar makes maneuvering difficult.
The ideal public restroom has at least one lowered sink with faucet handles long enough to grip. Towel dispensers need to work properly. Towel fragments are not very useful.
Newer hotels have roll-in showers. They are wonderful. Tubs and showers need two or more grab bars. One long bar should be mounted horizontally along the side and one or more bars mounted vertically at the showerhead end. Grab bars in tubs must be placed where a person can reach them. Again, one or more bars should be mounted horizontally along the side and one or more bars mounted vertically at the showerhead end.
Older buildings are more difficult. Access has been retrofitted. Sometimes bathrooms are simply too small to allow for wheelchair maneuvering. There may not be a fix for that, but call it handicap equipped, not wheelchair accessible.
There are some easy fixes for some access problems. If you can’t lower the light switch, get one of the extender devices sold in children’s departments to make it easier to operate. Be careful when arranging furniture to allow a passageway.
Make sure doorways, including bathroom doorways, are wide enough. When placing coffee makers, be sure they aren’t placed to block anything, such as a switch or tissue dispenser. In the U.S., fear of getting sued makes building owners and maintenance people very receptive to complaints. However, many of the problems would not exist if a person in a wheelchair had performed usability testing of the area.
Creation of the Special Needs Committee
A group of your Society colleagues and I have formed a Special Needs Committee. Our charter is to help members with special needs achieve their potential by making available to them information about products and services that can assist them in career activities. To do this, we are contacting chapter presidents and asking for help in identifying how many people have special needs and what those needs are. “Special Needs” includes, but is not limited to, deficiencies in mobility, hearing, speech, and vision. Then we want to identify managers and instructors of such people and find out if and how they meet those needs. We also will identify helpful products and services.
We plan to establish a database and act as a clearinghouse for technical communicators with special needs and spread the information. Members of the committee are: Judy Skinner (Manager), Linda Bell, Andrew Malcolm, Jodie Gilmore Mark Hanigan, Lynn Mcmanus, Cynthia Lockley, Suzanne Lowing, Daniel Voss, Fabien Vais, Anke Harris, and Carolyn Watt.
Wheelchair access and voice-recognition software are examples of products and services that meet special needs. There are many more. One common need is for all of these products and services to be tested by the people who will use them. Speaking personally as a communicator with mobility limitations, I know that the right tools make a world of difference.