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?

News Articles: "College building bridges," "Crew builds bridge to FSC dining hall"; Blueprint: Map plan of bridge construction

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. 

C.R.A.A.B. (Citizens to Remove Architectural and Attitudinal Barriers): Mini Notes January-February 1985 Progress Update Notice

Architectural Accommodations

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.

Action Plan For Buildings (or Parking Lots): Community Access Monitor Rights and Responsibilities

How the Law Can Bring Equality and Benefits to People with Disabilities

Chris Morales, Student, Fitchburg State University

Throughout history people with disabilities have been discriminated against for their differences. People would receive unfair and prejudiced treatment in many different and important aspects of life, including employment, transportation, public education, health care, voting, and more. However, over the years, the United States has created laws to limit discrimination against people with disabilities and help to reduce the inequalities that exist. Many of these laws make it illegal to treat someone with a disability lesser than another person in aspects of life like employment or public education. Other laws compensate for their disabilities and give them benefits to aid them in their everyday life to help close the economic difference due to their disability, which could prevent them from actively participating in work. Other accommodations are made, such as handicap parking or priority seating on public transportation vehicles like the city bus. These rights were created when the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was signed into law on July 26, 1990, by President George H.W. Bush. The ADA “prohibits discrimination and guarantees that people with disabilities have the same opportunities as everyone else to participate in the mainstream of American life” (“Introduction to the ADA"). 

Public Accommodations

The Community Access Monitor is a state program that trains people to survey building accessibility and advocate compliance ("Community Access Monitor Training"). According to the Americans with Disabilities Act’s (ADA) Title III regulations, there needs to be specific accommodations to public and commercial facilities to make them easily accessible to individuals with disabilities.. Along with the ADA the Architectural Access Board (AAB) has rules and regulations designed to make public buildings accessible, functional, and safe for use by people with disabilities. The Community Access Monitor enforces both the ADA’s and AAB’s regulations to make a more accessible and safe public environment for those with disabilities. As Yahssyniah Pitts notes in the artifact entry about the Action Plan For Buildings (or Parking Lots), general public accommodation regulations include:

  1. Parking lots - Measuring the distance between handicapped spaces to be sure there is enough room for the van and the levitation device inside the van that lowers the wheelchair, along with a ramp on the sidewalk
  2. Door accessibility - Measuring the door width, is it wide enough to fit a wheelchair, along with the threshold of the door (the bump or seal that meets the door), including a low level button to open doors
  3. Ramps - Ramp width, handrail height, the steepness of the ramp, is it accessible and easy to use
  4. Stairs - Measuring the radius and angle of stairs for those who use crutches
  5. Public bathrooms - Clear floor space in handicapped bathroom stall, hand railing height and placement. Sinks, height, space underneath sink for legs, soap dispenser height, paper towel dispenser height, same goes for unisex bathrooms as well
  6. Elevators - Measuring button heights, width of the elevator door, and space within the elevator
  7. Public - Payphones, water fountains, sidewalks, especially sidewalks with bus stops, no grassy area, handicapped port-a-potty, restaurants (Pitts)

Without these accommodations, many people with disabilities would struggle to fully enjoy the services or privileges of public facilities, so these regulations help play a huge role in their everyday lifestyle and limit discrimination. 

Employment Rights

One huge aspect of life that can be heavily impacted by a disability is job employment. There are some people whose disabilities are major and leave them unable to work, but for most they are very capable of getting a career. However employers will tend to avoid hiring people with disabilities and, this is nothing less than discrimination. That is why in 1990 the Americans Disabilities Act was legalized to help increase employment rates within the population and reduce discrimination. Title I of the ADA strictly “prohibits private employers, state and local governments, employment agencies and labor unions from discriminating against qualified individuals with disabilities in job application procedures, hiring, firing, advancement, compensation, job training, and other terms, conditions, and privileges of employment” ("Facts About the Americans with Disabilities Act"). As long as one can perform the essential functions of a job then they are considered a qualified employee or applicant. Even if a person with a disability needs some accommodations to work, the ADA requires the employer to give them those accommodations as long as they are reasonable. For example, if a diabetic needs to take scheduled breaks to make sure they are monitoring their insulin and blood sugar levels properly, then the employer must give them that accomodation ("Facts About the Americans with Disabilities Act").  “Reasonable accommodation" may include, but is not limited to:

  • Making existing facilities used by employees readily accessible to and usable by persons with disabilities.
  • Job restructuring, modifying work schedules, reassignment to a vacant position;
  • Acquiring or modifying equipment or devices, adjusting or modifying examinations, training materials, or policies, and providing qualified readers or interpreters”( Facts About the Americans with Disabilities Act).

If an employer fails to meet these standards with an applicant or employee, they can be charged with discrimination. If you are someone with a disability, it is necessary to know what rights you are entitled so you are not treated unjustly.

As time goes on more and more people with disabilities are finding jobs, but there is still work to be made. Of the over 20 million people of working age in the U.S with a disability, 7.5 million are employed in 2019 (“2019 Report on U.S. Disability Employment Rate by State”). This is not even half of the population. Compared to the average U.S. employment rate of 60.8%, this shows that people with disabilities are still not getting the same chance as other people when it comes to getting a job. As much as the law does to reduce unequal treatment in employment, there is still more that needs to be done to increase the odds of getting a job as a person with a disability. 

Handicap Parking

The law enforces handicap parking for the benefit of people with disabilities. Handicap parking is made, according to my artifact entry, to “ensure that there is enough space for the person with a disability to enter and exit the vehicle comfortably and with ease” and allow the driver or passenger to obtain a close, designated parking spot where they can get to the facility without difficulty." To achieve these goals the spots have specific requirements that include:

  • Handicapped spaces must be the closest spaces in the lot to the entrance.
  • Handicapped spaces must be at least 12 feet wide or 8 feet wide with a 4 foot center aisle painted or striped yellow.
  • The sidewalk must provide a curb cut.
  • Handicapped spaces must be identifiable by a sign 5 feet to 8 feet above the ground to the top of the sign.
  • The total number of handicapped spaces must be sufficient to the lot size. 

This allows a person to save time and energy since they would not have to park very far away from the facility. A person who has to walk on crutches or has another walking disability would find it more difficult and take more time and effort to get to their destination than a person who is completely able, so it is only fair they receive parking benefits. Handicap spots also save frustration of finding a parking spot with enough space for themselves and whatever accommodations that they need according to their disability when entering and leaving the vehicle. For example, a person who uses a wheelchair will need more room than others to take the wheelchair in and out of the vehicle along with getting in and out of the wheelchair. Something as simple as a close and spacious parking spot benefits the everyday life of people with disabilities greatly.

With laws like the Americans with Disabilities Act and programs like the Architectural Access Board, people with disabilities receive the attention they need in an attempt to reduce discrimination and accomodate for their disabilities with benefits. They help bring equality to a population that needs it due to the unfair treatment that they receive. People with disabilities deserve equal treatment in all aspects of life and it will take more than laws to achieve equality fully, but, hopefully, it is only a matter of time.   

“2019 Report on U.S. Disability Employment Rate by State.” Disabled World, 16 Feb. 2019, www.disabled-world.com/disability/statistics/2019-chart.php.

“Community Access Monitor Training.” Mass.gov, www.mass.gov/service-details/community-access-monitor-training.
“Facts About the Americans with Disabilities Act," www.eeoc.gov/eeoc/publications/fs-ada.cfm.

“Introduction to the ADA, ADA, www.ada.gov/ada_intro.htm.