Many buildings are only partially accessible and making needed renovations can be a long-term project. However, there is often much we can do in the short term to make the most of a partially accessible building.
Sometimes improved access is as simple as putting up signs.
Many buildings have both accessible and inaccessible entrances; but the accessible entrance is only useful when people can find it. There may be a grand front entrance with steep stairs and a plain side entrance with a ramp. Or there may be stairs into the education wing but not the main office, or vice versa. Since many buildings are completely inaccessible, newcomers may not realize that a side or alternative entrance exists. Signage that explains how to get in makes all the difference. Signs should be readable by a seated person at the bottom of any stairs. In addition, when an entrance that looks accessible leads to a flight of stairs, it’s important to put a sign on the door warning that it’s not actually accessible while explaining where the accessible entrance is. Finally, when an elevator isn’t next to the stairs, it can be hard to find. Good signs can solve this problem. (Worth noting: environmental or health exhortations to use the stairs instead of the elevator can cause those people who genuinely need the elevators to feel unwelcome.)
If all the accessible doors are locked, then all of the wheelchair users are locked out. This can often happen inadvertently. A security-based decision may be to lock every door as a way of controlling access to the building, but this inadvertently locks out those who need the accessible side door. When this kind of security is needed, it is much better to use the side door as the main entrance, so that everyone can come in.
This can also happen at events. For instance, if an event takes place in the education wing, it’s easy to overlook the need to unlock the single accessible entrance if it’s on the other side of the building next to the main office. If it’s unsafe or unfeasible to unlock both doors, the unlocked door should always be the accessible door.
Elevators and lifts can also often become inadvertently inaccessible.
If an elevator or lift is locked, no one can use it, and the building is effectively made inaccessible. Unless there’s a compelling safety reason to lock them, leave them open. If they do need to be locked, ensure that there is consistently someone available to unlock them and that their contact information is posted on the lift/elevator. Similarly, if the passenger elevator is broken but there is an alternative (freight elevator, service elevator, another entrance, etc.) post this information along with the out-of-order sign and provide a cell phone number or another way that someone who needs an elevator can obtain help in getting to the alternative elevator or entrance. Sometimes lifts, elevators, or the spaces surrounding them get used for storage. When this happens, they are blocked and the building is made inaccessible. It’s important to monitor this and make sure that the lift and the surrounding area are kept clear. Some Shabbat elevators only stop on some floors. This creates a problem for Shabbat observant people who can’t safely climb stairs. When the elevator stops on every floor, it’s slower, but it makes it possible for everyone to participate.
It’s also important to provide accurate accessibility information.
Make sure your building maps accurately describe your building from the perspective of someone on wheels. For instance, if a pedestrian bridge linking a community center to a parking garage has two steps at the entrance, this should be indicated on the map. If you have a website, it needs an up-to-date description of accessible and inaccessible parts of the building. That enables people to plan and to figure out in advance whether and how they will be able to participate. Provide a phone number or an email address that people can use to ask accessibility questions and make sure the person answering it has accurate information and understands the importance of giving clear and honest access information.
When our buildings are only partially accessible, access will not happen automatically. Good planning and clear communication can make the difference between inclusion and exclusion. We can choose to open the shaarei tzedek – the gates of righteousness – so that all of our people can enter.
Ruti Regan is Matan’s first Rabbinic intern. A 4th year Rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary and a long-time disability advocate Ruti will contribute her own teachings via the Matan blog, webinars, Matan Institutes and new curricular projects.
This article is in support of #InclusiveSpaces, a campaign run through USC Rossier School of Education’s online MAT degree that aims to bridge the gap between research and practice in classroom design.