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!