When disabled people contact businesses to inquire about accessibility, they often receive positive assurances that ultimately prove to be false. There are many differing perspectives on what constitutes accessibility and as such, disabled people can and should be suspicious of terms like “fully accessible.” Such claims raise a red flag for me, as I believe that “full,” “complete” or “total” accessibility is difficult if not impossible to achieve — and people who use those terms to describe a place of business do so with an inadequate understanding of accessible design.

In attempting to understand what being “accessible” truly means, one might start with the dictionary definition — here’s what Dictionary.com says:

the quality of being easy to approach, reach, enter, speak with, use, or understand; the quality of being usable, reachable, obtainable, etc.; the quality of being suitable or adapted for use by people with disabilities

While this definition identifies important components of accessibility, true accessibility is all of those things and more. Specifically, I believe that accessibility should be understood according to the following three principles.

Accessibility is closely integrated and enables equitable use

Truly accessible environments are just that — accessible. When accessibility is an afterthought, as it often has been, wheelchair access must be “bolted on” after the fact in ways that are often unreliable and raise additional barriers.

True accessibility is integrated, meaning disabled people achieve access in the same way their nondisabled peers do. In the most simplistic example, disabled and nondisabled people would enter a building or place of business in exactly the same manner — through the front door or primary entrance.

Recently, I visited the original North End location of Boston’s acclaimed pizzeria, Regina Pizzeria. My mom was visiting and I wanted to treat her to a bit of old Boston. The restaurant’s historic building can only be accessed via stairs, but a sign posted at the side entrance reads “We are pleased to provide you with a ramp and assistance.” There was no way to request said assistance from outside, so I sent my mom in — she requested the ramp, but one employee said there wasn’t one, and another said that the ramp was broken. Needless to say, we ate elsewhere.

The solution to challenges like this is integrated accessibility — providing an identical means of entry and use for all customers, including those with disabilities. At Regina Pizzeria, a barrier-free entrance is needed, an accessibility imperative that could be achieved with a permanent ramp erected at the building’s front entrance.

Accessibility must promote independence of use to the greatest extent possible

“We can lift your chair.” I giggle every time I hear that — my wheelchair weighs 450 pounds in its own right and together we weigh more than 600 pounds. Some wrongly assume that, so long as they can provide access in some way (such as carrying a person and their wheelchair) that they can identify as being “accessible.”

Disability challenges a person’s independence, but environments that are truly accessible maximize one’s own agency to the maximum extent possible. Although I have only one hand and cannot walk, if an environment is accessible, I’m largely self-sufficient.

The failure to recognize the duty to promote independence is particularly visible in the aircraft cabin, where wheelchair users who are perfectly capable of moving with the aid of their mobility device, using the bathroom, and transferring onto surfaces like chairs and beds, are forced to surrender their independence upon boarding — their wheelchair is stored in cargo, they must board using an aisle wheelchair, and they must be pushed to their assigned seats by assistance staff.

Business class airplane seat blocked by walls and set back far from the aisle.
Photo courtesy JetBlue Airways.

As airlines install “innovative” cabin interiors, business class seats with doors and ever-smaller lavatories, what little independence disabled people had maintained is being eroded. Take JetBlue’s new business class seat — where lateral transfers are no longer possible due to the seat’s configuration and angle. Even wheelchair users with exceptional upper body strength must now submit to being physically lifted by poorly trained staff or, even in the best case, must rely on additional aids such as a sliding board to reach their seat. The carrier’s attack on the independence of disabled travelers is an appalling affront to human dignity and it is surely evidence of reduced accessibility.

Accessibility is transparent

I often tell airlines, hotels and destinations that they could put WheelchairTravel.org out of business if they simply disclosed the true nature of their accessibility offering.

Transparency is critical to enabling disabled people from taking advance of accessible products and services. With so few providing this information, disabled people are forced to assume inaccessibility.

Roll-in shower.
Roll-in shower at The Ritz-Carlton, St. Louis that is not ADA compliant.

Let’s take hotels as an example. While we know that hotels are required by law to provide ADA accessible hotel rooms for disabled guests, my research has shown that nearly 90% of hotels have major ADA violations. While hotels provide photos of their standard guest rooms and suites, it is rare to find photos of accessible hotel rooms and features like roll-in showers, sinks with wheelchair clearance, and toilets with grab bars.

This lack of transparency prevents disabled travelers from making informed decisions about where to stay. By forcing wheelchair users and people with disabilities to make room reservations without confirmation of accessibility, hotels increase the likelihood of guest dissatisfaction and deny customers one of the most critical components of true accessibility: information.

To achieve true accessibility, we must adopt Universal Design

The future of accessibility and the regulations that govern it will be based upon the principles of Universal Design — a design philosophy that considers the needs of every potential user of a product, service or physical space. The concepts of universal design are deeply rooted in the social model of disability, which contends that disability is the result of inaccessible environments, rather than an individual’s limited physical capacity.

Businesses that adopt Universal Design will benefit from greater access to disabled consumers and the opportunity to build loyalty with those customers, while also jumping ahead of the curve of future government regulation. Those who subscribe to this paradigm shift — from accessibility adaptions to universal design — will gain a fuller understanding of the true nature of what it means to be accessible.

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