Mike Paravente used to start his day by breezing down to his corner news shop, grabbing a coffee and a copy of the New York Post for his Yankees updates, and then getting on the road to manage his investment real estate.
That was three years ago, before a fall on icy January steps left him with crushed vertebrae and partial paralysis. The recovery and rehabilitation were painful, but he says the more difficult aspects are now, when he tries to negotiate a walker or mobility scooter through his favorite stores. Shopkeepers that he has known for years freeze up at the sight of him, he says. “It’s either that they see me and don’t want to make eye contact, or, worse, they’re just ignoring me,” says the 62-year-old. “It hurts either way.”
The Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990 aimed to improve accessibility to the nation’s public spaces and establish standards for including everyone. Yet, people with physical or mental impairments still report struggles in the day-to-day encounters that many take for granted. They are stymied by awkwardly high countertops in retail establishments, e-commerce sites that lack visual or hearing enhancements, or staffers unaccustomed to the effects of Parkinson’s disease, cerebral palsy, or multiple sclerosis.
“I’ve had some very interesting conversations with counter and desk clerks, including being told the phrases ‘Right over there,’ ‘Right by that mirror,’ when I’m standing there with a white cane in my hand,” says Steve Hoad, a Windsor, Maine management and sales consultant who has been blind since birth. “I wish they knew what a white cane means.”
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates one in five Americans have some form of disability, or will experience one in their lifetime. Put another way: 20 percent of potential customers could walk away from your small business because of an inability to effectively engage.
Below are some situations and issues that people in the disabled community believe could improve engagement for everybody:
Hearing Have you seen this symbol? It indicates the presence of an audio induction loop, a form of assisted listening that works by connecting with a hearing aid or cochlear implant via an electromagnetic field. More companies are installing the systems at service counters, to engage people with hearing loss. By communicating through a built-in microphone, a person with residual hearing can hear the sound directly in their hearing aid or other device when they switch their hearing aid to the T-switch, which engages the wireless antenna (known as a telecoil) that connects to a sound system. The hearing aid regulates the volume. There’s also the lowest-tech solution: For the simplest of transactions, the ADA’s website recommends just pencil and paper to communicate via written notes when there’s no other alternative.
Visual Hoad says he wishes all Web developers adhered to World Wide Web Consortium standards—the protocols set by the Internet’s international governing body, commonly known as WC3. Specifically, there’s Section 508, which lays out rules for designers to adapt their sites for everything from screen-reading devices for the blind to contrast controls for people who are colorblind to guidance on controlling video flickers that may trigger epileptic seizures in those who are susceptible to them.
Physical access Start with Washington state architect Aaron Murphy’s suggestion: Grip a tennis ball and then stuff your hand into a sock. Can you still manage to open your front door? That’s what someone with severe arthritis would experience at the entrance to your shop. That and mobility is something to think about now, as America’s huge Baby Boomer population enters their senior years, he says. Murphy specializes in Aging in Place residential design and has worked on more than one-million square feet of ADA-compliant space. He says people with mobility issues wish businesses would think about their “paths and maneuvering in a space, what type of clear area they need to change direction or turn around, and that flooring materials and transitions can be a burden or an outright ‘no go’ for access.”
Autism spectrum You know that squeak in the automatic doors, or the flickering fluorescent bulbs that are on the repair to-do list? What may be merely annoying to some can be torture for people with highly attuned sensory systems, says Marie Porter, a Minneapolis cake designer, food stylist, and blogger who has Asperger syndrome. “There is a grocery store nearby that’s convenient for location, price, and offerings, but I will usually drive well out of my way just to avoid shopping there,” she says. Why? “The checkout conveyor belts are not well maintained and emit a constant high-pitched squeal. For people with sensitive hearing—like many on the spectrum—this can feel like someone is digging a sharp knife into the brain, via the ear.” Says Porter: “I wish businesses knew that a few simple repairs or general upkeep can make the difference in where we choose to shop.”
The best suggestion? Hoad says the simplest solution is to just ask how you can help. “The first question should be ‘Do you need help?’ I’ll give anyone an A+ who takes that approach,” he says. “It seems like the easiest business question in the world. If they never take that step, they never learn.”