Tuesday, May 7, 2013

New Comments Feature

I have switched the comments feature to an application called Disqus. At the bottom of each blog post, you will find a link that reads "Click here to add a comment". You can comment as a guest, or create a free Disqus account of your own. Either way, I will still review comments before publishing, so you won't see your comments immediately, but I think this new application will make it a little bit easier to add your two cents to the discussion.

Accessibility Downtown

wheelchair - steps photo
I'm the sort of person who would like to support downtown businesses, but I don't. Why? Because locally-owned restaurants and shops downtown are not as accessible as the soulless chain restaurants and box stores outside the city.

I don't even use a wheelchair, and still my relatively minor difficulties walking cause me to avoid charming little stores with their charming little steps, narrow doorways, and other architecturally interesting, functionally uncomfortable features. I like driving up to a nice wide parking space in a dedicated lot, and walking a few steps to a ground-level door that's easy to open. For non-disabled shoppers, the difference is trivial, but for me, doing business downtown is at least twice as exhausting as doing business at a strip mall. There are exceptions. A few downtown places have been properly and creatively remodeled to be more accessible, and you can still find buildings put up yesterday that somehow still have pointless, unnecessary barriers. But, the pattern is pretty clear. For people with disabilities, good old-fashioned business districts are a pain in the ass at best; for many, they are complete no-go zones.

wheelchair - steps illustration
It's easy to think of reasons why this problem persists … the difficulty and expense of renovating old buildings, lack of available space for ramps, hilly areas that just can't be made flat, ignorance or apathy of business owners, poorly enforced accessibility standards, simple procrastination … but the ease with which we pin blame fools us into thinking we know exactly what the problem is, and I don't think we do. I'm sure the answer varies from place to place, and involves all of the above reasons and maybe others, but what are the most significant reasons why downtowns seem to have missed the accessibility trend? More importantly, which reasons are amenable to change? Is education the answer? Legislation? Lawsuits? Or, is there a technical fix or technique that could work wonders? Should we work on business owners? Their customers? What can city and town governments do? And just how much of an impact would better accessibility have on the businesses themselves. It makes sense to say it would help them, but how much? Do accessibility improvements really pay for themselves? Does it matter?

The talking points and statistics most often quoted on this subject seem to be the same ones I heard back when the Americans with Disabilities Act passed 23 years ago. I'd like to see a really rigorous study and analysis done by a disinterested third party … not by a Chamber of Commerce, and not even by a disability advocacy group … to produce up-to-date data on the relationship between retail business success, downtown revitalization, and accessibility.

There are also ideological barriers to deal with. Business people tend to resent and resist anything like regulations, even if compliance would be beneficial to them. Local governments tend to cater to businesses, because they are the economic engines of their communities. Disability advocates may downplay the cost and difficulty to businesses of accessibility, especially in downtown areas which tend to house businesses with less capital, business expertise, and time for long-term strategic improvement. Disability rights laws, themselves, assume that the expense for accessibility should be borne by businesses. Neither government nor non-profit agencies are anxious to fund accessibility improvements directly ... apart from some rather feeble tax credits. A few years ago, did anyone seriously consider using economic stimulus funds to help businesses become more accessible?

Meanwhile, I'm going to try to do my part by entering my own accessibility observations into the online reference AbleRoad. It's a great online tool to find accessible businesses, but it's only as good as the information we add.