When Something Isn’t Accessible:
Tips for Making Your Community More Accessible
You and your son want to eat out at the new restaurant in town, but when you get there, you are blocked by three small but insurmountable steps. Not only that, but you can’t even find out if the restaurant is accessible through a back entrance without leaving your child in a wheelchair on the sidewalk by himself. Instead, you simply leave and both of you end up missing out.
How can you make sure this situation doesn’t happen to anyone else? In this article, we will go through the steps you can take to help make your community more accessible.
Tip 1: Call Ahead and Ask
While you shouldn’t have to do it, always call ahead to an establishment to make sure they can meet your needs. Some of the questions you might want to ask include the following:
- Are there any steps?
- Is there enough space to bring in a wheelchair?
- Are your bathrooms accessible?
- Can I bring an attendant or nurse without any additional charges?
- Do you have a gender-neutral bathroom where an adult of the opposite sex can assist a child?
- Do you have any area where an older child can be changed?
- Is there any rough terrain?
- Can those with hearing and vision disabilities be accommodated?
Even if it turns out the location is not accessible, just by calling them and forcing them to realize their location does not meet the needs of many children with disabilities may help them take steps to improve accessibility.
Tip 2: Make Suggestions
Sometimes it is very easy to make an inaccessible facility accessible, but the proprietors simply don’t recognize there is a problem or how it can be fixed. For example, if a front entrance is inaccessible but the rear entrance is ramped, posting a simple and inexpensive sign at the front door can make all the difference. Similarly, a small business with just a few steps could keep a portable ramp inside that can be used as needed. Another inexpensive option is to simply install a doorbell on the outside that allows a person with a disability to signal for assistance.
Even larger businesses may be open to suggestions. Museums and zoos are often willing to listen to suggestions about making a bathroom gender-neutral or adding an adult-size changing table. They may also be willing to install automatic doors and other accessibility features. Many are willing to have a discussion about the need to allow attendants or nurses to accompany paying patrons at no charge.
Before making any formal complaints, it is always worthwhile to try to have a polite conversation, send a carefully-worded email, or write a letter. You might be surprised when businesses go above and beyond to meet your family’s needs.
Tip 3: Know Your Laws and Make Them Better
In the United States, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) guarantees accessibility. Similar laws exist in many other countries. Unfortunately, these laws tend to set minimum standards that many of us know don’t actually meet the needs of our children. Moreover, older and smaller facilities may be exempt from the regulations.
It is critical for you to know the regulations well enough to determine if an inaccessible location is violating the law. This includes knowing both national laws and local/state laws, which may be more specific or detailed than national laws. You can find the regulations for the ADA in their Law/Regulations Sections.
Most of us have found that the national laws simply do not meet the needs of children with medical complexity. In that case, your best option is to fight for stronger local laws, as well as changes to national laws, to improve regulations. For example, families in the UK have had great success in getting fully accessible bathrooms with hoists and changing tables through their Changing Places campaign. This campaign has also spread to the US, and advocates have had success in getting laws changed in California to increase the availability of these sorts of truly accessible facilities in large venues.
If you see a change is needed, make sure to contact your city, state, or national legislators to let them know your child’s needs. Working with existing advocacy organizations can help improve your rate of success considerably.
Tip 4: File a Complaint or Lawsuit
What do you do when you know a business is violating laws regarding accessibility? If you have already tried speaking to the proprietor, it may be time to file a complaint. While you can simply file a lawsuit, we recommend first filing an ADA complaint with the US Justice Department, especially for larger businesses or systemic problems. You can find out how to file a complaint on the ADA’s Complaint Page. Complaints may be made electronically, by mail, or by fax. Note that the Justice Department does not have the manpower to investigate every complaint, but will make an effort to pursue large-scale actions, especially when multiple complaints have been made.
It is also possible to file your own lawsuit using your own lawyer. We highly recommend working with a local advocacy organization if you intend to go this route, as there are many predatory ADA lawyers who will attempt to use your case to earn themselves a fat settlement instead of actually addressing the problem. Each state has a dedicated Protection and Advocacy organization for people with disabilities who should be able to help you.
Tip 5: Use the Media
Businesses are very sensitive to their portrayal in the media, and seeking media coverage is another option to influence a reticent business to become more accessible. People are often shocked to see how inaccessible certain facilities are, and the media is usually willing to cover these issues.
Tip 6: Get Out There!
One of the greatest ways to be an advocate for accessibility is to simply be seen. The more we take our children to all sorts of businesses, museums, performances, and similar venues, the more these venues are likely to realize that they need to provide accommodations that go beyond the minimum standard. Get out there and have fun!