How Accessible Is Our World?
- Why the Term “Accessible” Is Too Broad
- Architectural Accommodations
- How the Law Can Bring Equality and Benefits to People with Disabilities
Exhibition Thematic Section: How Accessible Is Our World?
Why the Term “Accessible” Is Too Broad
Alexander Maggio, Student, Fitchburg State University
What classifies as being “accessible?” Fully defining this word is hard if you’re trying to not be too broad. This causes a problem when we talk about the accessibility of our world. There can be places that claim to be accessible that don’t offer full accessibility. There are even places where there is a severe absence of accessibility in our world. Too broad of a definition for “accessible” can cause a lack of accessibility everywhere today.
One example of such broad definition for the word “accessible” lies within public transit systems. In big cities around the world, local subway stations and other transit lines can show several signs claiming to be “accessible,” but not being fully accessible to all. One such example is Downtown Crossing station in Boston, Massachusetts. On the website for the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, this station is listed as being accessible, with elevators and up only escalators. Many people would take this as the station is fully accessible, however that is not the case. The station, in reality, has a glaring problem in the switch between the two subway lines that stop there: there’s no direct elevator service to switch between the lines. As of April 2020, the Orange Line platforms cannot provide direct elevator connections to the Red Line platforms excluding one elevator leading from Orange Line northbound trains to Red Line northbound trains. If you want to switch to the Red Line southbound from Orange Line northbound, you need to exit the fare area, go down the Summer Street concourse, and re-enter a fare area to access elevators to the red line. If you’re on Orange Line Southbound and you want to access the Red Line at all, you need to travel down the Winter Street concourse to Park Street station and board Red Line trains there. This shows that, while Downtown Crossing may be referred to as an “accessible” station, it doesn’t mean it provides full accessibility to all components of the station.
In the past, Fitchburg State University has shown signs of lacking accessibility for all (see description of FSU accessibility). Prior to 2005, the University had several outdoor and indoor chair lifts for its buildings, with only one building having an elevator. These lifts were noisy, faulty, and had constant breakdowns, yet the buildings they serviced were considered “accessible.” To add on to this, the only building with an elevator, Thompson Hall, had a raised section on the second floor that could not be reached by students with disabilities. This caused problems with professors and students, as the Registrar and university Disability Services would have to relocate classes so students with disabilities could get access to their classes. Along with the buildings, the university had asphalt paved wheelchair ramps that were too steep to be ADA approved and were dangerous come winter time. Despite these problems, the university was still seen as an “accessible” campus, which brings more light to the idea the term is too broad. However, starting in 2006, the university strived to improve upon its problems with accessibility. By 2018, almost all of Fitchburg State University has been made fully accessible; every building has an elevator, a bridge was built to provide easier access to the dining commons, and many of the dangerous ramps have been redone and fixed. To add on to this, about two years later, the spring semester of 2020 became the first semester where no classes had to be relocated due to accessibility concerns (Maki).
The information mentioned here is only the beginning of a world where “accessible” has too broad of a definition and a lack of accessibility can be common. Even in most recent times we can run into situations where there isn’t a full amount of accessibility. For example, I interviewed a friend of mine with MG who has constant problems getting up and down stairs. Earlier this year when I hung out with him and other friends for a weekend, we had to carry him up nine flights of stairs to get into a restaurant. He also commented that it was hard to get around Boston unless he used public transportation due to how hilly the terrain is and how bumpy the sidewalks are. Even in today’s world, there is a problem with accessibility. However, it doesn’t mean that we can’t improve upon accessibility. Fitchburg State improved its accessibility since 2005 up until now, and the MBTA announced a project to renovate the Downtown Crossing elevators to make them more accessible by 2024. While the term “accessible” may be taken too broadly, there is still hope to rethink the term and help make a world that is accessible to all.
Abbruzzese, Jason. “College Building Bridges.” Sentinel and Enterprise, 1 Sept. 2006, www.sentinelandenterprise.com/2006/09/01/college-building-bridges/.
Maki, Julie. "Disability Services - A Historical Perspective." Honors English II , 30 Jan. 2020, Fitchburg State University. Class Presentation.
Joshua Frazier, Student, Fitchburg State University
One of the most significant hurdles for a person with a physical disability is movement within buildings and other structures. Most buildings, until as recently as thirty years ago, were simply not designed to accommodate the devices used by many people with physical disabilities. However, within the last few decades, a change has been slowly moving through building design with accessibility for all becoming a primary factor in public works and projects as well as many private areas which are open to the public (facilitating this change in Fitchburg was the Citizens to Remove Architectural and Attitudinal Barriers).
There are three prevalent types of structural implements which help those with disabilities. The first and most common of these are handrails. Handrails are most commonly seen on ramps or stairs, but can also be found in bathrooms, or can be installed in a home to aid mobility. Handrails primarily serve to prevent someone from falling from a ramp or staircase, but also allow someone to use their arm to help lift their body weight and provide a source of balance while scaling a slope. For some forms of disability, mainly those which hinder a person’s sense of balance, handrails provide a third point of contact, other than the person’s feet, which can help support them so as to prevent falling. This is the most important on staircases, which can be hazardous to anyone, regardless of ability, but falling is also a potential danger on ramps or in public bathrooms, as people with disabilities and the elderly may be hurt or struggle to get up if they were to fall on those surfaces.
Another device that assists people with disabilities is a ramp. Ramps are commonly included in buildings now and are often seen next to steps to the front of buildings. However, that was not always the case, forcing those with disabilities to use a side entrance that was at a different elevation or barring them access entirely. Ramps are fairly simple, but very effective. They allow a person with a disability that prevents them from using stairs to ascend or descend with less or no difficulty. There are regulations to the rise and run of a ramp, as well as where landings are to be placed along its length, that ensure that a person using a wheelchair will be able to climb an upward ramp without too much difficulty and go down a ramp without gaining too much speed (see the Community Access Monitor Rights and Responsibilities).
But what about inside a building? While ramps can be installed wherever necessary, both inside and out, in many instances they are too long and cannot ascend at a steep enough angle to reach another story like a staircase can. In these instances, a lift would be the most useful device. The most common variety of life would be an elevator, which is intended for use by anyone, with or without a disability, to go up or down a building through a vertical shaft. While most elevators are public, there are some lifts that are designed or designated specifically for people with disabilities or those who use wheelchairs. These “wheelchair lifts” are typically smaller than an elevator, with only enough room for a single rider in a chair. Because of their smaller dimensions, these lifts are better for smaller vertical shifts where a ramp would not fit horizontally but a typical elevator would be too large, in vans and buses to allow people with wheelchairs to access transportation, or even used in a residential setting. Beyond elevators, another form of lift that is more commonly used in a residential setting is a chair lift. These lifts are normally installed into an existing staircase, and consist of a seat which is mounted to a track attached to the wall, which can be operated by the person in the seat to ascend or descend the staircase. Each of these structural aids are required to be built within certain parameters outlined in the building code, and while the national requirements are minimal, many states and cities require more stringent standards.
One place these structural aids are available is Fitchburg State University, in Fitchburg, Massachusetts. Fitchburg State takes pride in the fact that every building on campus is at least partly wheelchair accessible, with 90% of the administrative and academic areas being open to people of all abilities. Most of these buildings are accessible in their entirety, while only a few are not entirely accessible, such as the second floor of Thompson Hall, due to it needing stairs in the center to span over the high ceiling of its main lobby. Beyond the buildings themselves, the campus grounds have also been modified to allow access for people with disabilities. Ramps are commonplace and easy to find outside buildings and up hills. The largest and most noticeable addition in the name of accessibility, however, is the bridge that connects the Holmes Dining Commons with the Quad, the central open area around which the majority of academic buildings are located. The bridge spans a small gap between the Dining Commons and the Quad, which, before the bridge was installed, would need to be traversed by going down the stairs on one side, and up the other. Because of this, a person with a physical disability who could not use the stairs would instead have to circle around part of the university an extra quarter mile, which included going up or down a steep hill on Pearl Street next to the university and crossing North St, a busy road that travels through the middle of the campus. Now, though, the bridge allows for a person with a disability to instead travel about thirty feet directly across the gap.
Accessibility is not something that most people think about in their daily lives. Those of us who are able-bodied never have to worry or wonder if they will be able to go somewhere or do something. But for those who don’t have the ability to navigate our increasingly built-up environment, being able to get somewhere is often a major consideration. While there are still improvements to be made, structural aids for people with disabilities are more prevalent than they have ever been and give people with disabilities the access and equality that they deserve.
“Accessibility of Campus Facilities.” Fitchburg State University, www.fitchburgstate.edu/offices-services-directory/capital-planning-maintenance/accessibility-of-campus-facilities/.
“Assistive Technology.” Family Caregiver Alliance, 2005, www.caregiver.org/assistive-technology.
Dougan, Jeffrey. “Requirements for Ramp Dimensions under the Massachusetts Architectural Access Board Regulations and the Americans with Disabilities Act Design Standards.” Massachusetts Office on Disability Blog, 12 Jan. 2018, blog.mass.gov/mod/access/requirements-for-ramp-dimensions-under-the-massachusetts-architectural-access-board-regulations-and-the-americans-with-disabilities-act-design-standards/.
Sisson, Patrick. “The ADA at 25.” Curbed, 23 July 2015, www.curbed.com/2015/7/23/9937976/how-the-americans-with-disabilities-act-transformed-architecture.
How the Law Can Bring Equality and Benefits to People with Disabilities
“Introduction to the ADA,” ADA, www.ada.gov/ada_intro.htm.