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Pretty hazards: the accessible built environment

I received this picture on my Facebook page recently. It was one in the morning and this sight overstimulated my brain. The picture from came with the comment “Neat design of stairs with the incorporation of a wheelchair access ramp.” I was tired but not too tired to think, wow, this is an idea of beautiful accessible design that is hazardous to anyone’s health.

My accessible built environment buds and engineers all pitched in comments about this picture. Many hoped it was just a picture and could not possibly exist. A researcher pointed me to a similar version of this stair ramp at the McCormick Tribune Campus Center in Chicago.

If you look at the stairs on that campus, there is only one handrail and it is flush with the wall. Floor materials are high gloss and, without personally viewing the materials, it looks like it would be slippery after cleaning. I woefully read on how almost 13,000 people liked the photo, and after reading a few comments, it was obvious people consider this an innovative use of space. I worry when people fall in love with something this pretty. Even if you can walk, the errors should be obvious. There is so much wrong with this picture that I’ll only focus on a few important features.

Once I learned the stairs exist, I could not understand how the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) “Accessibility Guidelines for Buildings and Facilities” would allow this structure to be built, and how it could pass inspection. A major missing element is handrails. While this stairway has handrails for people using the stairs at the edges, it has none for people who use manual mobility devices when they get tired and need handrails to help them rest or move on. Handrails also act as a safety feature that prevents slips and falls.

The ramp guidelines of the ADA, section 4.8.5 (2), state:

If handrails are not continuous, they shall extend at least 12 in (305 mm) beyond the top and bottom of the ramp segment and shall be parallel with the floor or ground surface.

When it comes to handrails on ramps, there should be no if’s. On a slope of this magnitude, there must be continuous handrails on both sides of the ramp, from the bottom to the top of the ramp.

So first we have the law that allowed this architect’s dream to be built. It is considered an innovative method to save space. As a bonus, it is eye candy with its Salvador Daliesque look, and people cheer and call it a win-win. If you look at the placement of handrails in this picture, they are primarily to aid ambulatory people from hurting themselves if they become dizzy with the structure. Ramps can be a complicated topic if you are not a built environment expert, but it does not take an expert to see this ramp has too many errors in design and construction.

If I had to fix this accessible route, handrails would be installed throughout the ramp area making the stairs useless.

As for the floor of the ramp; in the Chicago example, there is pretty stair edging to stop wheels from falling over the stairway, but it is not continuous or even in height. I would have riser edges installed the length of the ramp with the exception of where there is a wall.

Look at the platform areas for turning the mobility device, and there are no edges to stop a person from sliding off each platform. I could continue with the problems but let me move on to who can get hurt.

Designing and installing a beautiful tripping hazard

First, I came up with a list of people with varying disabilities who would avoid this route as if it were the plague. Then I realized that everyone who is not paying attention could trip and fall. This accessible design is a tripping hazard for everyone.

Why should we care?

Where do we go from here when there are real barriers to remove and new ones continue to be built? In the name of providing accessibility, over the years technical requirements have had to be improved because well-intentioned people did not think first about safety and usability. This is why people with disabilities and accessibility consultants need to be part of the consultation process. Knowledge about the needs of people with the widest variety of disabilities is necessary to successfully innovate.

The province of Ontario

We have a massive job ahead of us and the province of Ontario has not released the new accessible built environment standards. In the meanwhile, construction continues, architectural designs need only to meet existing laws, and it will be a long time before we get this right. As a person who laboured on the built environment standard committee, I am anxiously waiting to see what the government will do with our recommendations. We emphasized the new standards should not wait for a building code update but become law as soon as possible. Now it is a moot point; the completed proposed standard paperwork has been sitting waiting for two years, and in the meanwhile, the building code update is complete without our new accessibility standards. The province gave orders that we were not to discuss retrofitting and of course, with that topic on hold too, an accessible built environment by the year 2025 is not realistic.

Is accessibility too expensive?

Projections undeniably state that companies across Ontario will enjoy significant profits as the province becomes accessible. In the interim, if we proceed to make accessibility a primary goal, many more people will find work. Those who are thinking about short-term profitability are going to realize that by ignoring accessibility they will build structures that few will use or visit.

A different angle

Let’s consider a few sobering statistics about our beloved province of Ontario:

Ontario facts

  • As of July 1, 2011, the population of the province of Ontario is over 13.4 million people
  • 39 percent of the population of Canada resides in Ontario
  • The average life expectancy of males in Ontario is 79 years of age
  • The average life expectancy of females is almost 84 years of age
  • 37 percent of the Canadian economy is due to activity in Ontario

The numbers above are from the Ontario Ministry of Finance “Ontario Fact Sheet June 2012.”

25-year projection from 2011–2036

  • Over the next 25 years, the province projects a 33 percent increase in population
  • The population is estimated to grow from 13.4 million people to 17.7 million
  • In the year 2011, seniors made up 14.2 percent of the population of Ontario
  • By the year 2036, the senior population will increase to 23.6 percent
  • The greater Toronto area constitutes 47.3 percent of Ontario’s population
  • By the year 2036, the number is projected to rise to 51.6 percent
  • It will pass the 50 percent mark in the year 2027
  • Other regions will grow more slowly and eventually decline
  • In Ontario, older age groups will have the fastest growth
  • People aged 75 and over are projected to increase by 40 percent
  • The 90+ group will triple in size
  • Ontarians between the ages 15 and 64 make up 69.3 of the population and will decrease by 9 percent

The numbers above are from the Ontario Ministry of Finance “Ontario Population Projections Update.”

How do statistics help us plan for the present and future?

Why the focus on seniors? Everyone ages, and due to the natural aging process, seniors require many of the same or similar amenities as people with disabilities. With nearly one-quarter of Ontario’s population projected to be of senior age by 2036, it becomes obvious that accessibility is good for everyone.

Presently, service providers in Ontario have a consumer base of 13.4 million people. The province has 39 percent of the Canadian population and Ontario generates 37 percent of the Canadian economy. By the year 2036, service providers will provide all aspects of life to 17.7 million people.

Think about how everyone benefits when meeting compliance

When thinking about all the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) standards, it is important to remember the benefits are not just for people with disabilities. Although the legislation’s focus is people with disabilities, everyone from seniors to pregnant women and parents or guardians of young children will benefit from numerous aspects of the law. If you shop using a cart and need a curb cut to access your home or a vehicle, you are benefitting from a standard originally written for people with disabilities.

It is cost-effective to move full steam ahead and build everything right the first time. Fixing inevitably costs more. None of us should have to navigate a supposedly accessible route like in this picture. Accessibility is serious business, it is not just serious for people with disabilities; everyone requires safe and usable spaces.

Look at the picture again. Remember that many people have worked hard to provide the best technical requirements possible, and if the law is not in force, well-written, or enforceable then expect healthcare costs to increase. Accessibility is a universal issue and I maintain that moving forward even in this economy is the most positive financial and ethical path. Let’s open our doors to persons with disabilities so they can come in and help us out of our financial trouble.

As you prepare your accessibility policies in your organization, you will focus on the needs of people with disabilities. Once you realize the benefits for the general population, you’ll understand the need to do accessibility the right way, the first time. Even with badly written laws, organizations should think about the problems and rise above the law. There are sections in the AODA standards that state you will “take into consideration,” or “not practicable.” I am thankful we have a Human Rights Code that does not allow us to reject accessibility requirements.

Just think accessible all the time. Consider accessibility the default, not simply an option. We need to accept that accessibility is a necessity and we can’t use lower costs as an excuse to avoid buying or building accessible products. When we stop purchasing inaccessible products, service providers will stop selling inaccessible products.

We can still have a beautiful world and incorporate usability factors for people with disabilities, seniors, adults, children, pets, and everyone else I may have forgotten to mention. Accidents do happen, but when you build something like in this picture, when someone is seriously injured, it is not an accident, and it should be expected.

Suzanne Cohen Share, M.A., CEO
Access (SCS) Consulting Services

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Suzanne Cohen Share

Accessibility consultant and author at Access (SCS) Consulting Services
Suzanne Cohen Share holds a master’s degree in Health Policy and Critical Disabilities, including disability law. Suzanne is a well-known cross-disability accessibility expert and consultant, a popular lecturer, trainer, researcher and author. She is the author of Accessibility Standards PolicyPro published by First Reference Inc. Suzanne is the proprietor of Access (SCS) Consulting Services. Read more
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12 thoughts on “Pretty hazards: the accessible built environment
  • Steph says:

    I have never seen this image before, and by gosh, the design is really pretty and HUGELY dangerous for dozens of reasons.

    The only one I can think of right now (as I use staircases and a frequent commuter on the subway) is how quickly people will trample onto each other, either on the way up, or the way down, if this stairwell/ramp had a large influx of people at the same time, whether they wanted to use the stairs or the ramp. With a crowd of people, you won’t be able to see the changes on the stairs, and you’ll follow the person in front of you, assuming a regular pattern of equally-spaced steps follow. For a ramp user, this looks like a trapeze joke. One accidental turn to the side and the person, and mobility device, will go tumbling and crashing down – and will take anyone in its path along for the ride.

  • Shannon Ellis says:

    These stairs are in Robson Square in Vancouver, Canada and designed by Aurthur Erickson – long before the concept of Universal Design and ADA Regulations. Great architecture for the time but not great Universal Design.

  • Thank you Ann, you made me laugh out loud. Everyone has made so many differing and important remarks. I hope decision makers everywhere take note that accessibility is doable, can be beautiful but there are rules that have to be maintained or people can be hurt.
    Suzanne Cohen Share

  • Ann says:

    This looks like the kind of ramp that shows up in my worst anxiety dreams. 🙁

  • I am thoroughly enjoying reading all the comments. This article is gaining momentum globally and I received a lot of great information. I had a good idea the structure was from the 70’s and have information now to say yes, and it is not just in the U.S. but also there is one in a British Columbia University. My problem with this picture is that people are circulating it as a great idea for today, not understanding that the problem that arose from this type of structure have stopped people from installing more. Adam an elevator next door is not the answer because the entire structure can cause accidents for anyone. I don’t know if any of you attended similar schools but at my university we had what we called ‘pits’. They are places to congregate, you sit on carpetted stairs and at times a special speaker would talk from below. Recently I have seen fencing going up around those pits because too many people do not pay attention and have fallen down with serious injuries. History should not be ignored, we have learned so much about human behaviour and the needs of people with disabilities. The combination of the needs of both is in this case, not to build this structure at all because it is a problem for far too many people. A terrific discussion. Thank you everyone.

  • Adam Gorley says:

    I am an eternal optimist.

  • Ronny Wiskin says:

    Sorry Adam, I only disagreed because I have a bad track record with behaviour modifcation of adults 🙂

  • Adam Gorley says:

    My point was precisely that this type of stair ramp would be most appropriate if there is accessible infrastructure nearby, such as an elevator.

    In that sense, I don’t believe this design excludes anybody. Not everyone can access the same things in the same way, and some must take caution (i.e., modify their behaviour) when they use infrastructure that they are unfamiliar with. Or they may choose not to use it.

  • Louise says:

    Great article. The ONLY way this type of structure should have been allowed is if there’s an elevator very close by so people using wheelchairs, or who are unsteady on their feet, will have a choice to use something safer if that’s what they prefer.

    In response to the person who made the comment above about how we should change our behaviour to adapt to something like this or not use it at all, I can only elicit a voice of shock.

    Creativity is great and it should never be stifled. However, when it comes to creating a health and safety hazard, there is a problem.

    The individual not only risks getting hurt or is forced to do without, but there is a cost to society as well. The person who is excluded by a design like this would be less able to contribute to the economy.

    If they get hurt on a structure like this, then there would be an increased cost to our health care system, our social safety net programs, and there would be one less productive person to contribute to our economy.

    Taking this risk makes no sense at all. The goal is to reduce, not increase, the number of people who are no longer able to contribute to the economy and society as a whole.

  • David says:

    Very hazardous. They designed a ramp that snakes through people walking up and down the stairs. Be prepared for collisions. Years ago, I witnessed a crowd of people exiting a stadium. The stairs that every had to ascend had a slight defect. One stair was slightly lower than all the others. One by one, I watched everyone stumble with this one particular step. Each individual had an internal memory (pattern) of the height of the stairs with each step, so when they arrived at the shorter step it interrupted the automatic pattern of ascending the stairs. The motion of ascending did not change, but the slightest change to step was disruptive. With more distractions today (cell phone calls, texting, etc…) Any one not aware of the break in these steps will most likely fall.

  • Adam Gorley says:

    Hi Suzanne! This is a very interesting topic. I think we’re at the beginning of an awkward transition from well-designed and attractive but inaccessible infrastructure, to unattractive (and often separate) infrastructure for accessibility, to (eventually, hopefully) well-designed and attractive integrated accessible infrastructure.

    Your examples are clearly creative, attractive, and integrated, but as you say, they could pose unconsidered hazards for all users.

    However, while I appreciate the call for more effective accessible infrastructure, I’m not sure I agree with your conclusion that this type of thing has no place in public. I think it is a terrific idea that can inspire others to develop better and more inclusive designs.

    I think this design is only really problematic if it is the only point of reasonable access. That is, if there is no other accessible entryway adjacent or nearby, then it is more difficult for people to choose not to use the stair/ramp. At that point, it becomes a hazard because people will use it despite feeling uncomfortable or incapable of doing so safely.

    I think we (whether able or disabled) have to accept a fair amount of risk in the things we do, and users of this style of stair/ramp must understand that. Ideally, that means modifying our behaviour appropriately, e.g., being more cautious while climbing or descending, or not using it at all.

  • Bravo! What a great article. When I looked at the image right away I had a visceral reaction. Being someone who uses devices; cane walker, scooter I could immediately see this is a serious disaster waiting to happen. It is dangerous for everyone not just those with disabilities. It is shocking to think anyone would think this is an acceptable public design. Pretty should be left for decor, infrastructures must be built with safety for universal users.