Accessibility is a term that is meaningful to the largest minority group within the United States. This is people who have physical, communication, or cognitive disabilities. To this group, the term ‘Access’ represents ideals such as ‘freedom, independence, and opportunity’ to take advantage of what a community has to offer. This might include going the bank to apply for a home loan, meeting a friend at a movie theater, or shopping at the mall for Christmas gifts for loved ones. The ADA provides for opportunities to people who could not otherwise fully participate in society. However, I hear a surprising amount of push-back from businesses when it comes to fulfilling obligations under the ADA.
On the surface, this resistance seems rooted in costs, inconvenience, and general dismay about restricted choices. But, I believe the real basis is a bad attitude. I realize that running a business is not easy and conforming to statutes and regulations could be a cause for headache. However, I do know that the kind of people who operate a business are resilient by nature and any inconvenience is temporary at worst. The ADA will never require a business to do anything that would endanger their ability to operate financially securely. Also, fundamentally altering the nature of the goods and services it provides is not required. What the ADA requires is to be considerate of others, knowledgeable about access barriers within a business, and to do what you can, when you can, to become more accessible.
Identifying and removing physical barriers to access is beneficial to more people than those who live with disabilities. Ramps benefit families with strollers to patronize businesses and also allow for more efficient delivery of goods from suppliers. Hand rails, non-slip surfaces and grab bars in restrooms help older people who don’t get around like they used to. These aids encourage the view that they can still go out to do things they enjoy. There is a requirement to maintain accessible features. For example, removing snow in the winter months. This encourages most people that weather conditions aren’t so bad that they can’t go out to spend their hard-earned dollars.
There is no objective way to measure the efficacy of compliance. This is another barrier to ADA compliance which manifests in negative attitudes. Like a new safety feature in a car can’t quantify the number of deaths it prevents, you can’t quantify the amount of people who directly benefit from accessibility improvements in a business. The concept of “opportunity to participate” is what is important here and to understand that the ADA is not a building code, it’s a civil rights law.
Some people care a lot more about the access requirements of the ADA when it affects them directly. If you break your leg in a skiing accident or get hit by a driver running a red light (who hasn’t seen that?), then the opening force, maneuvering clearance, and operable parts requirements around doors become a heck of a lot more meaningful to you. No one is immune to fate. At some point, something will happen to each of us, or someone we love, that will affect our ability to interact with the world as we know it. Disability is the only minority group that anyone can become part of in an instant. The built environment will be around for years. And, although it can seem like an inconvenience to figure out how to make a business accessible to the public, those decisions will impact people for decades. To put it in perspective, it is a small blip of time and effort which effect people who aren’t even born yet. Everyone can benefit from the improvements a business can make to their facilities and a small amount of effort will go a long way.