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When Buildings Are Barriers to Accessibility

July 26, 2021

Most of us go about our daily lives in offices, stores, venues, attractions, and other built environments without ever considering the ways those systems affect the quality of life of their users. Elevator out of service? It’s a pain, but we can take the stairs.

In my job in facilities management software at AkitaBox, I’m constantly pushing the upper limits of how buildings can be improved through technology. But as the parent of a child in a wheelchair, my family is forced to confront basic design limitations in buildings daily. The elevator being out, for instance, sometimes means going home or skipping something that was planned.

Our daughter Norah has Rett syndrome, a rare genetic neurological disorder that affects 1 in 10,000 females (and even more rarely in males) and begins to display itself in missed milestones or regression at 6-18 months. Rett syndrome leads to severe impairments, affecting nearly every aspect of life: ability to speak, walk, eat and breathe easily. The hallmark of Rett syndrome is near constant repetitive hand movements while awake. Cognitive assessment in children with Rett syndrome is complicated, but we know that they understand far more than they can communicate to us, evidenced by their bright and attentive eyes, and their ability to express a wide spectrum of moods and emotions.

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Preventing Building from Being Barriers

The plain fact is that buildings can be barriers to children like Norah. But they don’t have to be. Considerations can be made in their design and maintenance to enable every kind of user – from the fully able, to the disabled, to the vision and hearing impaired, to the elderly.

Here are a few ways to help enable our buildings be more accessible to all:
  • Include disabled access in the front of the building

    Accessible entrances are often pushed to the rear of the building. Sometimes they’re located in back-of-house areas that make those with disabilities feel less-than and like an afterthought. Those are places our family avoids.

    Allowing disabled people to enter through the front of the building as intended is a small nod to normalcy and equality in their lives.

  • Design accessible buildings from multiple points of view

    Simple things like railing heights can end up being barriers to my daughter’s experience. For example, a railing right in my daughter’s eye line could prevent her from viewing, for instance, the animals at a zoo.

    While it’s understood that some railings need to be of code height, allowing for viewpoints at different heights can make a huge difference in enjoyment of an attraction or experience. 

  • Build for the minimal functional requirements

    Public bathrooms are mostly designed with the minimum legal requirements, not the minimum functional requirements for accessibility. Very few buildings or venues provide stalls or bathrooms with adult changing stations for older children or adults that need more help.

    ADA stalls are not large enough for a chair and additional person to assist in the stall. Providing a large enough stall or family restroom improves accessibility not only for wheelchair users, but also for parents with children or adults with other special needs.

  • Clear the wheelchair ramp first for accessibility during winter

    In our home state of Wisconsin, snow is a common winter challenge for us. Often we see stairs getting shoveled before the ramp. While everyone can use a ramp, the additional wait for the ramp to be cleared can prevent a family like ours from accessing the building because stairs are not an option. Clearing building ramps first allows all users to access the building.

  • Provide details about building accessibility on company websites and search engine listings

    Planning for a day out for our family is much more involved because it is never a given that a location will have what we need to have a successful day. It takes an extra layer of searching and usually phone calls, as the information we need regarding building accessibility is not readily available in most cases. 
    While a generic icon is used to indicate a building is accessible, the wide range of needs versus the minimum legal design requirements to qualify generic accessibility can mean the building is not actually in line with our needs for access. This means extra pre-planning is a necessary step for anywhere we go. 
    Having more information on building accessibility means efficiency for all users both before and upon arrival at an unfamiliar location.

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The Path Forward for Accessible Buildings

These are just a few of many barriers that, if removed, could help improve the quality of life for a child like Norah. That future of all-accessible buildings is part of what drives me in my work at AkitaBox. I believe that in the future, our technology can be used to highlight accessibility deficiencies and drive better decision making, or even suggest how to make buildings more accessible for occupants and visitors.

If you’d like to learn more or get involved in disability advocacy, this page has some links to national organizations. To learn more about Rett syndrome, visit here.

Josh Lowe

Co-Founder and Chief Solutions Officer for AkitaBox. With over 15 years of experience in the facility management industry, Josh is passionate about helping building management professionals make data-driven decisions that impact operational efficiency and success.

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