Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Looking for the next curb cut

While at the hospital last week waiting for a family member to come out of surgery, I had a lot of time to just sit, read, and think. I staked a claim in a comfy chair right outside the coffee shop. The door to the shop was rather noisy, but only in "automatic" when someone hit the big rectangular button for disabled/wheelchair access. Manual operation made essentially no noise. So I was distracted a bit whenever someone hit the button.

After a few minutes of traffic, I noticed something. A lot of people were using the button. I mean a lot. I needed a mini-project anyway, so I did my best to multitask, reading while informally keeping track. No formal tallies, but over the two hours I sat there, more than half the people approaching the door used the button. Many had hospital badges or were in scrubs, but quite a few were "civilian" visitors such as myself.

I tried to figure out why this would be so. Yes, I'm aware that many people have invisible disabilities, but I also frequent public libraries and other spaces with the same doors, and this usage was over the top of any other location I'm familiar with. (Exception might be little kids messing around until a librarian or security guard comes along to shoo them off.) Here are several theories:

  • It's a hospital. Of course there are a lot of people who need the button.
  • It's a hospital. Staff are trained not to touch things, and the button minimizes contact. (Though this would seem to be offset by the sheer number of people who smack the button with bare palms.)
  • People who do a coffee run several times a day have picked up on a way to save effort.
  • Employees are used to swiping cards in slots for access, this is just a natural extension of that.

Whenever advocates do presentations on accessibility or universal design, they almost always mention "curb cuts," those slopes on corners that allow people in wheelchairs to cross streets without assistance. Someone usually also mentions closed captioning, which visually displays the audio portion of TV programming. (The last time I heard both were in a presentation by the Sonoma State team on Universal Design for Learning.) These examples are de rigueur in presentations as they support the theory of unintended consequences in a good way.

The target audience for the above examples is people who may wonder "what's in it for me" when it comes to accessibility, besides bare-bones ADA compliance, which translates to "not getting sued." There is no need to reiterate this with an informed audience. So the presenters describe how curb cuts have come to be used by young mothers (never fathers) with strollers, skateboarders, inline skaters, and so on. And they describe the joys of closed-captioning in loud bars and restaurants, serving the raucous hearing population as well as the hearing-impaired.

I think the automatic button-activated door is the next cultural curb cut. Watch for it.

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