Just a Small Step…

Being a wheelchair user posed safety issues for me when I was confronted with a step or an uneven surface. The tray on my wheelchair could block my view of a step or other physical barrier and could become literally a life or death situation.

Years ago when I attended college, a large number of building exits had one step from the doorway to the sidewalk. I remember the day I brought this to the attention of a college official. It was obvious that he wasn’t particularly interested in my concerns. Hoping to put closure to our discussion, he said, “John it’s just one small step,” and politely excused himself to go to a meeting. His response did not address the issue that one small step can be a big obstacle to accessibility.

To help this college official understand the major obstacle that one step is to a wheelchair user, I decided we needed to discuss this matter further. I scheduled a meeting with the college official at one of the entrances that had “just one step.” My attendant brought along a wheelchair and a large bag of hockey equipment, including a helmet with face protection and shoulder and leg protective pads. 

I explained to the college official that I wanted to explore the topic of accessibility, including the need for accessible entrances and exits. I suggested that sometimes one of the most effective strategies to help someone understand the importance of accessibility is to experience the problem from the point of view of a person with a disability.

At my request, the college official put on the hockey helmet and pads and strapped himself into the wheelchair. “Now,” I said, “we are going to exit the building. As you say, there’s just one small step.” Of course, being the polite person that I am, I added, “After you.”

The college official hesitated, and then there was a sheepish response, “Okay. I get it!” In the years to follow, significant improvements have been made to the physical accessibility of that college.

I am not alone. Every day, people who have a disability encounter barriers, and not just physical barriers such as “just one small step,” but also attitudinal barriers, technological barriers, information and communication barriers, and barriers stemming fromlaws and rules.

What barriers exist in your workplace, school or community that prevent it from being a place or an experience that is inclusive of everyone? What are you doing to eliminate the barrier(s) and create a world where everyone belongs?