By Lana Ruvolo Grasser
A little under 30 years after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 was signed into law (United States Department of Justice—Civil Rights Division). Yet as with many other pieces of civil rights legislation, the ADA is still overlooked and under enforced in our country today. Just two years ago, three Seattle men with disabilities sued the city for its lack of accessible sidewalks, which lacked curb ramps and made crossing the street very difficult (The Seattle Times). On our campus here at MSU, we are a model for accessible pedestrian travel. Our crosswalks have recorded signals to tell pedestrians when it is safe to cross, and our Resource Center for Persons with Disabilities offers interactive multi-sensory maps to assist individuals in learning the topography of campus. Unfortunately, however, even the busiest cities in our country do not have the necessary infrastructure for accessible pedestrian travel. In many cases, as with Seattle, local governments are discouraged from making their cities more user-friendly due to high construction costs. However, if local governments appropriate more funds annually for creating accessible and eco-friendly city spaces, the revamp in infrastructure will be able to be supported and will also provide thousands of job opportunities, potentially even widening the population and thus increasing the tax base to support such projects.
Accessibility should not only be thought of in terms of how one navigates to and through an environment, but also how one navigates within a space. Anyone who has had an injury to the lower half of their bodies knows how hard navigating buildings can be, especially those that have not been updated to the most recent codes that have persons with disabilities in mind. The difference is that we get off our crutches or out of our boots; those who are permanently disabled deal with issues fully-abled individuals take for granted every day. You probably have considered emergency exits in passing before—take the stairs, not the elevator; don’t go out the door if it’s hot or you see smoke coming through, etc. But what about an individual who relies on the elevator? At Wayne State University, Student Disability Services is taking strides not only to make their buildings more accessible, but also to make them safe for all community members. One such effort includes adding special evacuation chairs to assist individuals in getting down and out of buildings. The university is also expanding its thinking by making not just the learning spaces accessible, but also the way individuals get to those spaces, by connecting students and faculty with services to assist in barrier removal (i.e. snow and other natural obstacles). James Cherney, Communications Professor at Wayne State, couldn’t have summed it up better: “Accessibility is more than it states; it’s about diversity and opening doors to all who may want to join and sharing each other’s outlooks on different situations” (The South End).
By challenging our communities to expand definitions of accessibility, we can make every aspect of our environments more inclusive—from commuting to working to standard safety. If you’d like to learn more about improving our communities and designing with accessibility in mind, please read this article from earlier this year.