Accessibility refers to the design of products, devices, services, or environments for people with disabilities. The goal is to make as many things usable by as many people as possible. Accessibility helps ensure that all individuals have equal access to environments, information, and opportunities regardless of their abilities. Creating accessibility can also benefit non-disabled people, such as those with temporary injuries or older adults.
Physical accessibility refers to the design and layout of buildings, outdoor environments, and products to make them usable by people with disabilities, particularly those with mobility impairments. It includes providing ramps, elevators, automatic doors, curb cuts, accessible parking spaces, and other features to allow people with disabilities to access buildings, streets, and other public areas independently and safely.
Accessibility is important because it promotes inclusion, helping to ensure that all individuals, regardless of their abilities, can participate in life fully. Providing physical accessibility is a moral responsibility and a requirement to comply with laws and regulations, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
What follows is a discussion of common means of providing physical accessibility and how each can benefit those with disabilities and the general public. This is not an exhaustive list, but it includes examples you will likely encounter in everyday life.
Ramps and elevators
Accessible ramps and elevators provide access to buildings for people who use wheelchairs or have mobility impairments. Ensuring that buildings have accessible ramps and elevators allows people with mobility impairments to move freely and independently within the building and access all the services or facilities that are provided.
Ramps are inclined planes that allow people using wheelchairs or mobility scooters to enter a building. The construction of accessible ramps, including width and slope, must meet specific requirements to be safe for people with mobility impairments.
Accessible elevators or lifts provide access to different floors of a building for people who use wheelchairs or have mobility impairments. In addition to having door widths and internal dimensions that meet accessibility standards, they include features such as voice announcements, raised buttons, and Braille to ensure usability for people with visual impairments.
Automatic or push-button doors
Automatic doors and door push-buttons make it easier for people with mobility impairments to enter and exit buildings without requiring assistance.
Automatic doors use sensors to detect the presence of a person and open powered doors automatically. This eliminates the need for manual door operation, making it easier for people who have difficulty using their hands or arms, such as those who use wheelchairs or have mobility impairments.
Push-button activated doors, also known as power-assisted doors, are also an option for accessibility. These doors use a large button that, when pressed, will open the door automatically for a short time, allowing the person to pass through. This can be helpful for people who use wheelchairs or have a physical impairment that prevents them from opening a manual door.
Additionally, door handles and related hardware should be easy to use, with lever handles instead of round knobs, require minimal force, and provide adequate clearance for grasping and turning.
Braille and large-print signage
Braille and large-print signage provide information for people with visual impairments, allowing them to navigate spaces and find the information they need independently and without assistance.
Braille signage incorporates embossed or raised symbols and can be read by touch. It provides information such as room numbers, directions, and emergency exit information in buildings. Braille signage allows people with visual impairments to navigate a building and find the information they need independently.
Large print signage uses text written in large font sizes. It provides information such as room numbers, directions, and emergency exit information in buildings. Large print signage allows people with low vision to read and understand the information provided.
Transit announcements and displays
Audio announcements and visual displays on public transportation provide information for people with visual or hearing impairments, allowing them to access public transportation independently and confidently and obtain the information they need to reach their destination safely.
Audio announcements in public transportation can include spoken reports of stops, transfer points, and other important information. These announcements are made through speakers on buses and trains or via a personal device such as a smartphone app. Audio announcements let people with visual impairments know when to get off at their stop and any other important information.
Visual displays on public transportation can show information about a route, upcoming stops, and other essential details. These displays can be found on buses and trains, as well as at transit stations. Visual displays allow people with difficulty hearing to know where they are on the route and when to get off at their stop.
Accessible parking & curb ramps
Accessible parking spaces and curb cuts provide access for people who use wheelchairs or have mobility impairments so that they can access buildings, streets, and sidewalks easily and independently. Accessible parking can also benefit older adults and people with temporary injuries, allowing those with mobility impairments to park close to the building and access the entrance.
Accessible parking spaces are designated stalls typically located close to a building’s entrance. They are wider than regular spots to accommodate wheelchairs and mobility devices. They include signage indicating they are reserved for people with disabilities. Some are van-accessible spaces, large enough to accommodate a transport van. Accessible parking spaces are connected to the building entrance or exit by an accessible path of travel that must not be obstructed or interrupted.
Curb ramps are small ramps cut into the sidewalk’s edge at intersections, crosswalks, and the path of travel from a parking area. They provide a transition from the sidewalk to the street or parking lot, allowing people who use wheelchairs or other mobility devices to move between the two areas. They also make it easier for people with strollers, shopping carts, and other wheeled devices to move around. Curb cuts are essential because they allow people with mobility impairments to move around the streets and sidewalks independently and safely.
Accessible toilet facilities and baby-changing stations support people with disabilities in restroom areas, allowing those with impairments and parents with young children to access these facilities safely and independently. This promotes inclusion and equal access for all people, regardless of their abilities.
Accessible toilet facilities are designed to be used by people with disabilities, such as those who use wheelchairs or have mobility impairments. They typically have wider doorways, grab bars, and lower toilets to accommodate wheelchairs and other mobility devices. Some accessible toilet facilities also have a small ramp or lift to provide access for people who use wheelchairs.
Baby-changing stations in public restrooms provide a safe and convenient place for parents to change their baby’s diapers. They come in both floor-mounted and counter-mounted versions and have fold-down or flip-up options. Accessible baby changing stations are mounted lower and have a horizontal fold-down feature to accommodate people in wheelchairs.
Counters and tables
Adjustable height counters, tables, and other surfaces support people who use wheelchairs or have mobility impairments, enabling them to access and use these surfaces comfortably and independently. They can also benefit people of different statures, the elderly, children, or those with temporary injuries.
Adjustable counters and tables are designed to be set to different heights to accommodate people who use wheelchairs. They can be adjusted using a manual or electric mechanism to be usable when seated or standing. These counters and tables are typically found in public spaces such as schools, libraries, and office buildings.
Assistive technology includes physical devices, electronic devices, screen reader software, voice recognition software, and alternative input devices. They provide support for people with visual, auditory, or motor impairments and are essential to making technology accessible for people with disabilities.
Screen readers are software programs that convert text on a computer screen into spoken words, allowing people who are visually impaired to use a computer and access information.
Voice recognition software allows people to control their computer and input text using their voice, which can be helpful for people who have difficulty using their hands or arms.
Alternative input devices are hardware devices that can be used to control a computer in place of a keyboard or mouse. Examples include head pointers, joysticks, and sip-and-puff devices. These devices are designed to be used by people who have difficulty using their hands or arms.
Assistive technology devices allow people with visual, auditory, or motor impairments to access information and use technology independently and safely. This promotes inclusion and equal access to technology for all people, regardless of their abilities.
Physical accessibility is essential to creating inclusive and equitable environments for people with disabilities. It can significantly improve the quality of life for people with disabilities and offer them equal opportunities to access information and participate in society. Furthermore, it can benefit a wide range of people, from older adults to people with temporary injuries.
We all have a role to play in promoting physical accessibility, from government officials and business owners to architects and designers. Let’s work together to create a more inclusive and accessible world for everyone.