Health Care/Joan Retsinas

What Ever Happened to Universal Access?

A tumble on the ice was my blinding moment en route to Damascus. Hours later I set forth from the emergency room, duly splinted and casted, to wonder: What happened to all the transformations promised 15 years ago in the Americans with Disabilities Act? Where is "accessibility"? Sensitivity? Inclusiveness?

The ADA began from a flawed premise: namely, that the country cleaves into two groups, the robust majority of the "able-bodied" and a slim minority of the "disabled." And it behooves the able-bodied to help the disabled &emdash; a variation of religious charity, tinged with self-interest. (After all, it makes economic sense to include the disabled in the workforce.)

What an absurd premise! Lots of Americans have some disability, and not all conspicuous. And as the population ages, more of us will discover that something &emdash; our limbs, eyes, ears, maybe our memory &emdash; isn't up to the snuff of our youth. Even if we emerge from aging unscathed, our spouses, siblings, neighbors and friends may not.

So after a few consciousness-raised weeks, let me propose that we re-think the ADA &emdash; opening up the public space not to two cadres of people, but to everybody. In fact, we can take a lesson from Retail America, which reaches out zealously to everybody as a customer.



Wal-Mart's wide sliding glass doors open up as soon as something &emdash; a foot, a wheel, even a carton &emdash; touches the floor-mat. How wonderful! If you are corralling toddlers, wheeling a cart topped with stuff or inching forward in a walker, you enter and exit by the same easy portals.

Compare this to the entrances to public buildings. The main entrance to my local hospital has a revolving door. Admittedly, it is wide and automatic, but it evokes the tryst scene in romantic Manhattan comedies as trysters swing past each other. There are also non-revolving side doors, which you must push. Some buildings on my wanderings have button-activated "wheelchair-access" doors. That presumes the person can easily push a button. And even if he can, why the button? Are buildings saving on electricity? Then there is the etiquette of the entrance: Can an able-bodied person use the disability-access door? Is it rude for the disabled person to take up time navigating the "main" entrance?

As for elevators in public spaces, good luck finding them. Generally, the operational (you hope) one is tucked discreetly out of the main flow of traffic &emdash; making people who need it (including parents with strollers) traipse and traipse.



Caravaggio inspired the shadowy feel of many public buildings' entrances at night. Outside there are weak lights placed just at the point of entry &emdash; lighting that is both lover- and mugger-friendly. Inside, the weak wattage casts a dim glow. Since schools, city halls and libraries are used at night mostly for the occasional public meeting, the evening chiaroscuro doesn't hinder the workday routines. But the "public" cautiously walking into communal space wonders, why the gloom? Is it to save on electricity? Compare the bright wattage of your favorite big box store. I'm not commenting on how environmentally friendly or unfriendly those behemoths are, just pointing out that they are disability-friendly &emdash; which should give their critics pause.



People go by foot, by wheelchair, by walker. Some tread cautiously; some jog. Why not make transit easier for everybody? Must every threshold have a few stairs? How about painting the edge of curbs a bright, reflecting yellow to minimize tumbles? And curb-cuts are a low-tech feature. Surely we can integrate them into all crossings. Right now the cuts' haphazard placement turns a stroll into a trek.

Public transit is essential for people who cannot drive. Unfortunately there is not much of it. And some of it is barely consumer-friendly, let alone disability-friendly. Try finding the elevators in city subway stations (they exist). When the "up" escalator is out of service, trudge upward, carrying a suitcase.

In a few weeks I'll be unsplinted, uncasted, thrust back, temporarily, into the world of the able-bodied. Statistics suggest that if I make it to senescence, I'll need help. I hope that before then the architects of public policy, and of public buildings, look to Retail America for guidance.

Joan Retsinas is a sociologist who writes about health care in Providence, R.I. Email

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