Embracing accessibility – good for you, good for your business

Today I went for my first run since the Ottawa Half Marathon last Sunday.  I was trying to run mindfully, but as usual I often found my mind wandering.

While idly speculating on what my life would be like if I just stopped running (the reason why you should always have a target race!), my mind meandered down a side road.  I thought about how much I enjoy being able to run, and gradually landed on the challenges of people who cannot get around well at all.  That reminded me of the accessibility program I was part of before I retired, working towards making our workplace welcoming and accessible to everyone.

Accessibility is achieved by eliminating barriers to your services and products due to physical impairments of your customers, employees, and the general public.  Ensuring your business is accessible isn’t just a good idea, it’s the law.  My own learning experience came from being involved in establishing an accessibility committee on our campus to plan and implement comprehensive accessibility improvements on our campus.

Our campus suffers from several impediments to access for people with mobility issues. We sprawl up a steep hill; in fact, when my cousin came to take a genealogy course, she called it “that mountain you call a campus.”  We are an old campus (the oldest English-speaking university in Canada), which provides a very rich history and lots of old buildings, including an historic building constructed in 1827.  Substantial front steps and majestic staircases abound; elevators and easily-accessible ground-level entrances not so much so.  And, like most universities, money is always tight.

As we developed a comprehensive itinerary of building improvements required to provide an accessible campus, I was made aware of the enormous challenge the university faced, both financially and logistically, as renovation projects caused significant rescheduling of classrooms and other space.  In a world of insufficient funds and many worthy competing priorities, placing elevators and ramps above library acquisitions or lab enhancements on a priority list was a tough sell.

However, I was also made aware of the array of people positively impacted by such changes.  It was a revelation.  I had been thinking that these changes were needed for people who were restricted to a wheelchair.  Of course, that was a remarkably uninformed view, but one possibly shared by many well-intentioned but similarly uninformed decision makers.

Ground-level entrances, ramps, automatic doors, and elevators are needed by:  people in wheelchair; people on crutches or walking casts; people with strollers; people with walkers; people with MS and other neurological disorders, heart conditions, arthritis, back pain, and weight challenges; people waiting for hip or knee replacement surgery; people with reduced lung capacity due to health issues; and many others.  One can never know who will have mobility issues next.

People in these situations may be your students, your customers or clients, your employees, or senior management. They may be people looking to do business with you in a variety of ways.  As I mentioned in a previous post (Integrity – good for you, good for your business), treating your customers and employees with respect is important for success in business.  Providing an accessible environment for everyone who might interact with your business is one aspect of showing respect.

You can think of these building requirements purely as an expensive burden and decide to shoot for the minimum required accessibility provisions.  Low-end solutions to accessibility requirements find your customers or employees using back door access to get in with a wheelchair, having to work in a location at a distance from others in the same department, or having to ask to be let in to browse or have a meal. This may meet your legal obligations, but not your ethical ones, and wouldn’t be your best business decision.

Such an approach might save you money in the short term, but it negatively impacts your reputation and also limits your customer pool.  By showing a less welcoming face to those with mobility issues, you are sending a poor message to a lot of people.   Statistics show that close to 15% of the population has a disability.  That’s a large percentage of the population, and that is before you include their family and friends.  Some of these people may become your best employees, your best customers, or your best students – if they feel welcome.  Working towards having a welcoming, accessible environment is good for business, and it makes you feel good at the same time.  Be a leader in providing an accessible workplace, not a reluctant follower.  Who knows, maybe the day will come when you have your own mobility issues – your workplace will be ready for you!

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5 Responses to Embracing accessibility – good for you, good for your business

  1. jane tims says:

    Hi Jane. Having just completed my BA on the ‘mountain you call a campus’ and having arthritic knees, I’ll share my thoughts on what accessibility issues I faced:

    Most of the programs on campus tend to be on levels… for example, history courses are all in the same building and on the same level with anthropology courses. Science courses all seem to be one ‘level’ down. This helped a lot with getting to class, since I stayed with the arts classes.

    The first years, I had a hard time finding parking, but discovered parking at the edges of the campus was possible (during the day, there is lots of parking in the residence parking area, for example). Again, on the same level, so although the distance was hard, at least it was not combined with going up and down (walking ‘down’ with arthritis is much worse than walking ‘up’).

    The last few years, I had a disabled parking permit. I always found parking near to where I wanted to be.

    At the graduation ceremony itself, there didn’t seem to be an accessibility plan. So I made my own plan and took the elevator rather than climb the flights of stairs with the younger students.

    Overall, I found the campus to be accessible. The extra walking I did helped my overall fitness! Jane

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Thanks for sharing your experiences, Jane. I didn’t even know you were working on your BA – while working F-T, writing and drawing, I might add. Congratulations on a very good outcome (I happen to have the Encaenia programme!). I’ve been giving a BA some thought myself.

      I was pleased to read about your experiences. This was a big part of my life for a while, during which time we got more disabled parking spots put in, accessible water fountains (with mixed results), elevators in Carleton and a plan for the now completed new Student Services, allowing for an accessible Health Centre. But I learned that if there isn’t someone to champion the issue at all times, these needs fly under the radar. It’s not because of bad intentions, but it would be so easy to do things right the first time if someone thought about it. An accessibility plan for events like graduation is a good example. Now I can put a flea in the right person’s ear about that, at any rate! Sharing insights can help. As my son would say, “one step at a time.” Jane

  2. snowbirdpress says:

    I am disabled. I have also seen that a great deal of accessibility if passed by well intentioned people but then carried out by others who have no idea about how to impliment it effectively, efficiently and for the most value for the dollar. Just for an example…our town spent a great deal of money for side walks. Many of these sidewalks begin and end quite mysteriously here and there with huge gaps of no where to walk but the road. In the winter time the streets are plowed onto the side walks heaping up piles of snow or leaving icy layers forcing any pedestrian into the street. Yes, there are many afflictions we live with. I’m glad you mentioned breathing impediments too. Many disabilities are not visible to others.

    But we are moving into an economically restrained period and I would only hope that any accessibiltiy be thought out and carried out so it fulfills its purpose. I understand completely that there are limits to what others can do to make our lives accessible. We learn to create our lives within the bondaries we are given and strive for as much independence as possible.

    Thanks for thinking of us.

    • Jane Fritz says:

      My experience in this area was one of the most rewarding of my career, and sometimes the most frustrating. I think I am going to do a series on different aspects of accessibility, although I may be preaching to the converted. You make the two biggests points that need to be forced into the minds of the people who can make a difference: having the implementation be done by different people than the planners and having the best of intentions be inadequate, leaving EVERYONE frustrated; and, my fear as well that as economic struggles continue, the good intentions of ensuring a fully inclusive world will fall by the wayside. At least it gives me something to write about! I am so glad you replied; I was afraid I was going to turn off my readers by being too serious!
      Take care.

      • snowbirdpress says:

        Hi, Jane, Human topics need not be too serious…even serious topics have lightness and hope in them. First place, it’s hard to change the world we live in. Disabled people understand that better than able bodied people. We change what we can. Sometimes there are more ways to be accessible than to change the world. I can’t drive and when groups I belong to have events, it would sometimes be great if there was someone going by my place that could pick me up and take me to the event.
        Sometimes it’s the pace of life around us that makes things inaccessible.
        Sometimes it’s poor planning of the event itself.
        And sometimes it is just something beyond my strength to do. I will never be able to dance “Swan Lake” before breakfast…. It’s just a fact of life. 🙂 That does not stop me from enjoying ballet immensely.
        Sometimes it may just be someone going to the play I can’t go to but jotting off an e-mail to tell me all about it that makes it accessible.
        So just do great with small things. Every small act makes the world better…little by little and bit by bit. Thanks a million for your post.

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