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Accessibility Fixes Can Be Easy

By Allen Smith  1/14/2014
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Access barriers—including ones permitted by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)—may not be readily apparent to those without health concerns but are obvious to people with disabilities.

Consider someone with a mobility impairment who goes to a cineplex. The law may not specifically require indoor seating in its lobby, but it could make a world of difference to an amputee. That moviegoer might find standing to be a challenge after being dropped off to wait while his companion finds a parking space and makes the long schlep into the theater.

A bench or chair doesn’t sound like too expensive an accommodation, does it? Nondisabled patrons may sit there, but most would give up their seat to someone who needs it because of a disability.

Many other simple ways exist to make workplaces and public accommodations accessible.

True, workplace accommodations typically are done on a case-by-case basis, with HR professionals collaborating with facilities staff and managers, while public access usually is left to facilities employees.

But Anne Hirsh, co-director of the Job Accommodation Network (JAN), outlined some quick, simple upgrades that can make both workplace and public spaces more accessible for all:

  • Ensure there is seating and space for wheelchairs in common areas and waiting areas where employees or customers gather.
  • Provide accessible websites, especially those that job applicants use to apply for a position, and internal websites that employees use to access HR systems for actions such as requesting time off. JAN has tips on providing accessible websites.
  • Create an accessible path from the parking lot to the HR office, and include accessible parking spaces in public lots based on the ADA Accessibility Guidelines (ADAAG) and for employees based on workers’ needs.
  • Make sure that television, video and computer monitors used for announcements in common areas are audible for those who cannot read the monitors.
  • Provide visual announcements if there are audible announcements made via phone or public address systems.
  • Make sure restrooms that visitors to HR may use meet ADAAG standards.

Employee Training

Provide basic disability-etiquette training to staff to help them handle access problems when they arise, Hirsh added. Consider establishing disability-awareness or reasonable-accommodation-policies training for all employees.

And while facilities staff are responsible for bringing public accommodations up to code to comply with the ADAAG, other employees can be trained to go the extra mile. Jane Jarrow, president of Disability Access Information and Support, which serves disabled-student services providers in higher education, shared her experience with this and related stories about her daughter, Cottie, who uses a wheelchair.

At a multiplex near their home in Columbus, Ohio, stanchions and ropes are used to show people where to stand in line before entering the theater.

“For Cottie, in her wheelchair, it was never a big deal,” Jarrow recalled. “I could generally go to the usher on duty and point out that standing in the line was rather fruitless on our part, since we knew where we would be sitting—in the wheelchair seating—and since rushing the door with the rest of the mob when the time came could be uncomfortable and potentially problematic, since she sat at waist level to the people flowing in around her. So they generally let us stand to the side, and when the theater opened up, they would let us take our seats first, then let others in.”

Jarrow added that “sometimes access is destroyed when people don’t understand how something is accessible and thus don’t realize they are screwing it up. My local grocery store has public restrooms that have no outer—heavy, difficult-to-open—doors. Rather you go through an open corridor and around a privacy wall to get to the stalls and sinks.

“Great—except that the mounted paper towel dispenser is placed at just the point where you turn the corner to get in. Not a problem in itself, except that the maintenance staff keeps moving the huge wastebasket under the paper towel dispenser, thus blocking access to the bathroom for someone in a wheelchair who can no longer make the turn. After trying to point this out to management several times—and getting no response—I took some masking tape and put a huge “X” on the floor where the wastebasket should be and then wrote,  ‘Wastebasket goes here. Do not move under towel dispenser’ in bold letters on the tape.

“It doesn’t show—unless they move the wastebasket! It was an easy fix, and it worked for as long as the management didn’t know what I had done and thus left the tape in place. The first time I walked in and found the wastebasket in the wrong place, the tape had been removed from the floor. I am thinking of replacing it, just to be ornery!”

Signage can be a big issue, too. “If there are some entrances to a building that are accessible and some not, the inaccessible entrances should be marked with some indication of where the accessible entrance is,” Jarrow said.

And “from the perspective of good public relations and public service, it might be a good idea to have an international accessible symbol clearly visible at information desks, from public lobbies to library help desks,” she suggested. “You want people to know where to ask questions of someone who will be sensitive to their disability-related issues.

“Of course, that means you also have to give training to the people who man that desk,” she added. “If someone in a wheelchair asks for directions, do you know how to give directions to an accessible route from point A to point B? How do you give information to someone who is deaf? How do you give directions or explain information to someone who is blind and cannot follow the map or see the brochure you normally hand out?”

Seeking Help

HR may want to seek help on making facilities more accessible. Organizations representing people with disabilities may have members who are willing to visit a site and point out where access is missing.

Organizations to contact include:
Amputee Coalition, (888) 267-5669,

American Foundation for the Blind, (212) 502-7600,

National Association of the Deaf, (301) 587-1788,

Paralyzed Veterans of America, (866) 734-0857,

Another good resource is JAN, which is a grant-funded project of the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy. JAN can be reached at (800) 526-7234 or

Allen Smith, J.D., is the manager of workplace law content for SHRM. Follow him @SHRMlegaleditor.

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