Businesses should be accessible to wheelchair users via their main entrances, but in older construction that is not always practical. The Americans with Disabilities Act and other building codes require businesses to provide an accessible entrance, as well as an accessible path of egress that is free from barriers that might impede a safe evacuation.
A wheelchair ramp that is not accessible
This past weekend, while visiting The Bar With No Name in St. Augustine, Florida, I noticed staff purposely blocking both ends of the access ramp with heavy trash cans. When I inquired about this practice, I received a terse reply from the doorman who defended his “right” to block the ramp, as long as access was ultimately provided. He added that the ramp was blocked so that “young kids can’t sneak in” to the 21+ establishment.
Take a look at the trash can above. While it may block a wheelchair user from entering, it would do nothing to stop an able-bodied teenager from limbo-ing their way under the ramp’s railing. So much for that excuse.
In fairness, the 2010 ADA Standards do allow businesses to classify certain entrances as a “restricted entrance” (see §206.4.7) meant to be operated by security personnel only. Designating an entrance as such loosens some of the ADA design requirements, but the exemption pertains only to secure entrances that are protected by a locked door or gate, not a trash can.
While doors and gates can be opened, trash cans blocking the accessible evacuation route would render that route inaccessible to wheelchair users. Since the ramp is The Bar With No Name’s only accessible means of entry or exit, the business cannot continue to block it with trash cans. That’s the law.
It’s just a trash can, what’s the big deal?
The answer to that is a simple question — How would you feel when an illegally placed trash can prevents you from escaping a fire or, God forbid, a mass shooter?
My wake-up call to the threat of violence came in November 2015, when wheelchair users were specifically targeted during the Bataclan theatre massacre in Paris. I vowed to be more aware of my surroundings and to know where the nearest emergency exits are. This is important whether danger comes from a fire, a crazed gunman or some other life-threatening situation.
Is the tradeoff really underage drinking vs. safety?
While I recognize the need to keep under-21s from consuming alcohol, there are better ways to do it than blocking a ramp and trapping disabled patrons in a nightclub.
Here are a few ideas:
- Check the ID of every person purchasing alcohol before making the sale, every time.
- Issue wrist bands to patrons upon verification of their age, limiting alcohol sales to those with the proper band.
- Relocate the access ramp to the main entrance (with construction, there is space).
- Hire an additional doorman to assist in monitoring the bar’s perimeter.
Of course, the first step in preventing underage drinking is to check everyone’s ID. The Bar With No Name’s staff checked only a small fraction of IDs and allowed numerous people to pass without a check. Why would teenagers sneak up the wheelchair ramp if they could potentially walk through the front entrance uncontested?
I’m writing this article not to attack a single business, but to push back on the tendency of business owners to either intentionally or unknowingly exclude people with disabilities.
We shouldn’t have to ask for permission to enter a business, and our right to evacuate without assistance should never be challenged or subjugated in favor of any other interest.
But equal access must extend far beyond one’s right to enter and leave at will. Accessibility should be a consideration in every aspect of a business venture — including in the design of the built environment, the development of products and services and the ways those services are delivered. With nearly 20% of the population having some form of disability, businesses of all sizes will benefit from accessibility improvements. Why discriminate when there is a better way?
UPDATE: In an e-mail sent to WheelchairTravel.org, the bar’s general manager stated that “After meeting with the city of St Augustine Code enforcement officer and Fire Marshal all matters concerning the ramp being blocked have been settled and resolved so that it doesn’t happen again.” This progress on accessibility should be celebrated.
An earlier version of this article stated that staff allowed “numerous underage girls to pass without a check.” This has been edited to read “numerous people” in the interest of clarity.
Have you encountered issues with the accessibility of business entrances?
What should companies do to court your business?
Let me know in the comments below!
Featured image courtesy Google Maps/Street View.