If you follow me on Facebook or read the Tema’s Travels blog, you’ll know that I’ve recently been discovering a whole new world: what it is like to have a disability that makes walking difficult or impossible. With the aging of the baby boomers, increasing life spans, and reduced stigma, this is a fast-growing market. The global power wheelchair and scooter market is expected to reach $2.40 billion by 2021-22. The US currently accounts for about 40% of that.
Some of us have short term needs for mobility aids like a motorized mobility scooter, but even more have a long term need that comes with the aches and pains of aging. As baby boomers start hitting that stage, more of them will be on wheels, and you’d be crazy to ignore that growing market. The market is also growing because of increases in chronic illnesses and conditions like diabetes, COPD, and severe obesity. And people with these conditions are living longer than ever before. Many are not too poor to afford your products or services.
Baby boomers and the others in this growing market aren’t going to put up with being housebound, nor will they calmly accept bad customer experiences. And a lot of them have money to pay for “luxuries” like mobility scooters.
I Have a Confession to Make
Like many of you, I used to think of catering to people with disabilities as something one “ought” to do, rather than something that made financial sense to do.
Even though I’ve made the case for accessible web design (see, for example, How Better Web Accessibility Can Boost Your Sales and Web Accessibility Isn’t Just a “Nice to Have”, I have to admit that I hadn’t generalized that belief to things like wheelchair access.
But since having to use a mobility scooter, I’ve started digging more into the business case, and it is a strong one.
And, like web accessibility, making physical spaces accessible helps more than just folks in wheelchairs. People pushing strollers or riding bicycles will also benefit. Think also about the adult children of the elderly, who are likely to be pushing those wheelchairs. They will not be happy with organizations that don’t serve their needs.
Disabled Access Customer Experience Problems (& Advice for Businesses, Governments & NFPs)
I’ve been in London, UK, since breaking my leg and renting a motorized scooter. (I wasn’t about to limit myself to places I could reach on crutches!) So the examples below are from London, but I’d be willing to bet that the situation isn’t much different in most cities. And I have been a tourist, rather than going to work in offices, but these lessons apply equally to workplaces. I will use the word “wheelchair” to refer to both wheelchairs and mobility scooters.
So here’s what I’ve been experiencing:
Most People Are Nice — Once They See You
Unfortunately, when you are at wheelchair level, most adults don’t notice you. Children do, and they are often the ones who pull their parents out of the way. This lack of visibility is made even worse by the huge numbers of people rushing along the sidewalks reading their phone screens. Not only are they oblivious, they tend not to walk in straight lines. Drivers are particularly dangerous, since a collision with them will have much more serious consequences. Amazing how many don’t stop for someone in a wheelchair even at crosswalks!
Implications for Organizations:
Think Access When Building or Renovating
We’ve had legislation since the 1980s (in Canada, at least) saying that new buildings should be built with wheelchair access. But what does that really entail? I understand that it can be challenging to retrofit old buildings, but there’s really no excuse for new buildings to be designed with poor or no wheelchair access. But I routinely see the following needless mistakes:
Using stairs instead of ramps. Why?? Ramps can easily be made as beautiful as stairs (if not more so) AND they are way easier to shovel! Yet architects keep on putting in stairs at the entrance of buildings. Amazing how often you’ll see just one or two shallow steps. Not much for an able-bodied person, but enough to prevent wheelchair access.
Design Handicapped Toilet Facilites Right. Having a room that is slightly bigger than a normal cubicle and slapping a wheelchair sign on it does not make a toilet accessible. At one place I naively opened the door of the handicapped stall, rode my scooter in, only to realize that there was no way I could close the door. There was simply not enough room to get the scooter out of the way. Then I tried to back out (because there was no room to turn around) and found myself trapped between the door to the stall and the hand drier, which was on the wall directly opposite. Again, not enough room to maneuver. And the placement of both was such that I was blocking access to the exit, so nobody could get out. Eventually some other patrons got together and lifted the back of the scooter to get it into an angle where it could be backed out of the room. How embarrassing!
Ensure Proper Maintenance & Procedures
Elevators / Lifts. I’ve been going out every day since renting my scooter. So far I’ve been to only one facility that had all its elevators working! (Thank you Victoria & Albert Museum!) That includes museums, performance spaces, libraries, and retail stores.
The British Museum was a nightmare. I saw a lineup of people having their handbags and backpacks examined for security before going in. It looked wheelchair accessible, so I joined the queue. Indeed, this temporary structure was built with a ramp, so no problem; I got waved into the Museum. But as soon as I went in a very apologetic security guard came up to tell me that the lift wasn’t working, so I couldn’t access the Museum from here. He told me that if I went around to the other side of this enormous building, there was a lift there that could take me in at the correct level.
There was indeed a glass handicapped lift installed near the grand main entrance. It was a bit tricky to open from a scooter, but I managed. Got in, closed the door, pressed the up button, rose about a foot and then it stopped. Wouldn’t go further up, nor back down. I was trapped.
There was an emergency intercom, so I tried that. Got an automated answer. I couldn’t make out what it was saying over the noise of the crowds of tourists. I pressed it several times, hoping to get a person, but no luck. Eventually a security guard above noticed me and was able to get it the rest of the way up.
This time I was able to get in. The tourist hordes were making it difficult to get around, but there was an exhibit on the 3rd floor that looked interesting, and would probably be less crowded, so I fought my way to the elevator. Guess what? Out of service.
Frustrated, I decided to leave. Went back to the glass lift. Couldn’t possibly open the door the way it was positioned, but luckily someone offered to help me, so I was able to get in. (Why no handicapped door openers? Mind you, even the fracture clinic at the hospital didn’t have any! You can read more about health care and customer service here: Urgent Care in Canada, the US, Sweden & the United Kingdom) This time it did go all the way down, but when I got there the door remained locked. Nothing I could do would budge it. Trapped again.
Again I tried the emergency intercom. Again, just an automated message. This wait took longer; about 20 minutes before a security guard noticed and came. Even he had trouble getting it open, although after trying various random combinations of buttons he did finally manage to unlock it. He commented, “I believe we’ve been waiting for some parts for that lift.” They knew it didn’t work properly, but there was no warning, and nobody with the responsibility of checking for trapped visitors!
Emergency Intercoms. Make sure they work! See above.
Remember Sidewalk Access
Be Consistent. This is more of an issue for urban planners, but several times I’ve gone up the ramp at the corner of a street, motored along the sidewalk to the next crossing point …. and discovered that there was no ramp at that end! Worse, the sidewalk was too narrow for me to turn around the scooter. So I had to back up for an entire block.
Don’t Block Sidewalks. I have been blocked by sandwich boards that take up so much space no wheelchair could get around. I have been blocked by construction debris or barriers that gave no warning of a closed sidewalk. I have been blocked by garbage bags put out for collection. Take a moment to think about access before you put something on the sidewalk.
Keep Sidewalks Clear of Snow & Ice. This is a biggie in northern climates. I remember being frustrated by it even in my days as a mom with a baby in a stroller. Especially aggravating was trying to cross a street when the plow had not cleared the snow at the corners. Having to lug a baby over an icy mountain of snow when you are going to the doctor 2 weeks postpartum is both difficult and scary. For wheelchairs, even that’s not an option.
And last, but not least …
Don’t Lock Handicapped Washrooms. I’ve had this barrier in airports, parks and in regular buildings. Why have it if you keep it locked? Where am I supposed to get the key? How long will I have to wait for someone to come, even if I do have a way to ask for someone to unlock it?
Advice to others who need handicapped washrooms: Don’t wait till the last minute! You never know how long the wait will be.