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Disability Protests: Contentious Politics, 1970-1999

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Architectural Accessibility

The ability to get into a building and the freedom to move within that building are the essence of architectural accessibility. People with impairments demand the right to get into public, commercial, or governmental buildings, to travel freely within those buildings, and to know where they are traveling within those buildings. Being able to get into a building may involve having a ramped or flat entrance rather than steps, having a doorway wide enough to accommodate a wheelchair, having no thresholds in the doorways, having automatic doors, or having other features (such as handles instead of doorknobs) that permit someone to be able to open them easily.

Once inside a building, other accessibility issues arise. A wheelchair user must be able to go into offices, bathrooms, bathroom stalls, and into all other areas in order to have a level of access equal to that of a person who does not use a wheelchair. Wheelchairs can easily be blocked or hindered by raised thresholds as well as by types of flooring materials that make it more difficult for the wheels to move. Floors that can only be reached by steps, because they have no ramp or elevator, are completely inaccessible to someone using a wheelchair. Height of appurtenances such as countertops in a reception area; faucets, sinks, and towel dispensers in a bathroom; or switches or desks in a work area is a factor that affects the accessibility of inside areas for wheelchair users. Labels or signs are an issue for people who are blind. Braille signs or auditory indicators on items such as bulletin boards, elevator floor indicators, and office labels are needed to give blind people the same information available to sighted people. In an accessible building, then, people with impairments have the same ability to move around as do people without impairments. To the extent that there is a free flow of people, those people may be both with and without impairments.

Transportation Accessibility

People with impairments also demand the ability to use public transportation systems on the same basis as people without impairments. Transportation accessibility has to do not with where people sit on a bus but with whether they can get on the bus at all—and whether they know when to get off. At its most basic level, for transportation to be accessible a person cannot be denied access to it. For people who use wheelchairs, accessibility requires vertical access to the vehicle, station, or stop. Steps, whether into a station, onto a train platform, onto a bus or a subway train, or from the ground to an airplane, prohibit access for wheelchair users if there are no alternative access routes. In addition, accessibility means that there is room inside the vehicle for the person and the wheelchair. Completely accessible transportation would permit people with impairments to go to the same places, on the same schedules, with the same number of choices of times and routes, and with prices that are not higher than those charged to people without impairments.

There are also communication accessibility issues within transportation systems for people who have visual or hearing impairments. If transportation systems are to be accessible to those groups, information about times and places of arrivals and departures, both within stations and within vehicles, must be presented visually as well as aurally. Announcements of upcoming stations, schedule changes, equipment changes or breakdowns, or emergencies must be presented in both modalities. Communications using TDDs must be possible with ticket agents, and recorded announcements must be made available for TDD callers as well as for voice callers.

Communications Accessibility

People who have hearing or speech impairments demand communications accessibility. An environment that has communication accessibility has a lack of barriers to, and therefore access to, visual or auditory communication. Communications accessibility permits people who have hearing or speech impairments to be able to express themselves in the manner they choose with the assurance that they can be understood. Communications accessibility not only includes the removal of barriers that prevent access by the person with the impairment, as is the case with architectural barriers, but it also includes removal of barriers that prevent the flow of information between people with and without impairments.

Communications accessibility requires both proximal and distal accessibility. Proximal communication takes place through written or spoken words, through voice synthesizing equipment, or through the use of interpreters or captioning (either real-time or installed). Interpreters can either be sign language interpreters, who translate from spoken language to sign language or vice versa, or oral interpreters, who relay spoken language that cannot be seen to a person sitting quite close to them. Communications accessibility for distance interactions permits communications to take place through equipment, such as phone amplifiers, TDDs, or FM-loop systems, which permit all parties to send and receive information directly in a modality that they can interpret. Accessible distal communication can also occur indirectly using a telephone relay system, in which a third party can type words onto a TDD for the deaf person or read words from a TDD for a hearing person.