15 June 2008

Fixing Access at the Front Door

The post below is just an angry rant unless I follow it up this way...

How do you make your office, whatever your office is, accessible from the start? That is, how do you offer real access from the moment people walk in your door?

This will mostly be about access to information and communication - which is where my knowledge base is greatest, but...

Obviously physical accessibility is essential, and sensory accessibility is essential. Your car park needs to be properly designed so that spaces for those with mobility issues are located logically near the ramps which get those visitors into your building. The ramps must be in place, and the ramps must be better than any "legal minimum" if it is at all possible - especially if this ramp might sometimes have ice or snow on it. The ramps must have ridged markings at the curb (kerb) points for the canes or guide dogs of those with visual limitations. Signs must be clearly visible, indicating the way in. The doors must be electric, or at least very easy to open and constantly monitored for those who might need assistance (buy yourself a $50/£25/€30 USB camera linked to your receptionist's computer if need be).

And please, make sure the reception desk contains at least one significant area set at wheelchair height. At a university where I previously worked/attended, the disability services office featured a uniformly high reception desk which made it impossible to converse with anyone in a wheelchair. Like the experience I described in my last post, that said everything.

But all right... on to the discussion of ensuring information and communication access...

Let's start here: Picture Menus and Braille Menus. Is your office/reception area less accessible than the McDonald's down the road? Why would that be? Have picture menus and braille menus available, and by menus I mean directories, lists of names (faces on the picture menu) and common issues (say, a symbol representing homework in a school office). Back when I lived in New York my favourite Chinatown restaurant was a tiny noodle shop on Mott Street named "Gim Beck." Gim Beck had no English-speaking staff at all. I can neither speak nor read Chinese. But ordering was never a problem. The menu had pictures surrounded by words in both Chinese and English. We communicated largely by pointing. And service was as good as the food. That's a lesson I've never forgotten - the power of non-alphabetic and non-verbal language to allow communication across all sorts of barriers.

Next... Make sure you have a publicized (on your web site) and posted (in the office) mobile phone number that people who are deaf, or people with verbal communication issues, can text-message. This can often be the most effective way to communicate. You could spend $1700/£875 /€1110 on a UbiDuo set up, but a simple mobile phone will accomplish the same thing and allow people who need this system to phone you from anywhere. The text-message has levelled the communications field for not just the deaf, but for those with dysgraphia, and, via tools like Jott.com and SpinVox, for those with limited dexterity. It is an essential communication technology in your office.

Now you need a publicly accessible computer. Yes, you need this. It need not be a great, hot-shot, brand-new machine, but you need to have one. Preferably a Windows PC (if you want to save money). You could either have a desktop on an adjustable height table or you could simply have a used laptop which can be moved to where the user needs it. But it needs to be equipped with (a) headphones, and (b) a mouse or trackball other than a touchpad if it is a laptop. It must also be set up with access software, starting with a desktop shortcut that allows the user to alter the Windows Accessibility Settings (you can set this so that altered settings expire in a certain amount of time or upon user log-out).

Why do you need this computer? You need it because every document you have in your office right now is in accessible form if you allow it to be manipulated. It has been years since I've seen any print item which did not originate as some form of digital text. And if it is digital text, users can make it any size they want, they can make it any font they want, they can make it any colour they want. They can use WordTalk to have it read to them (or the speech function in Adobe Acrobat Reader, or NaturalReader, or - if you want to maintain control over the document - Microsoft Reader). They can even convert it to Braille if you want to go that far. We need to stop blocking access which already exists. When we print something out we immediately limit the number of people who can read it, and we waste paper. Print forms and information as needed, and otherwise keep them in accessible digital form.

In addition, the user can fill out forms (in Word or in PDF) even if they struggle with handwriting. And if you have installed Click-N-Type this can be done even by a user who might really struggle with typing. Filling out forms is where this whole "issue" began. Not only do digital forms make life easier for many users, they sure make life easier for the staff which would otherwise struggle with handwritten words.

So, for the cost of a computer you might have been ready to trade-in or throw out, a headset (steal one on your next airline flight if money is that big an issue), and a collection of free, downloadable software, you have opened access dramatically. Of course you will have to develop folders on this computer filled with your documents, but that's not really difficult, is it?

What's next? If there is essential information on your website, make sure that computer is not just on-line, but is equipped with Firefox, with Click-Speak, with gTranslate. (Your website should also, at a minimum, direct people to free, on-line text-to-speech software (such as SpokenText), though it really should be speech enabled. If you don't want to spend money on that link a blog off your homepage and put everything essential into blog posts which are speech-enabled through Odiogo (this site uses this system).

This is all so basic, because your business, institution, organization can not really be, in any true way, accessible, or in any way compliant with laws regarding access, if people can not get in the front door, and can not interact with necessary "entry" information.

- Ira Socol

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Sharon Eilts said...

It seems so simple, so logical, yet why is it so incredibly difficult for folks to understand, let alone implement? I will never understand why my special needs students have to "require" accommodations, assistive technology, and it has to be documented in their IEPs. Whatever happened to the concept of "Universal Design?"

Sharon Eilts

Anonymous said...

Home Depot has a sign in four or five different languages saying that people who need assistance in a language other than English can use a special phone at the customer service desk. Plus all their asile signs are in English and Spanish. If you want to pull in customers, you have to reach them in the language they are most comfortable in. Universities are always trying to market themselves and pull in more students. They are missing an important group if they ignore students who are disabled in some way/ need non-traditional forms of physical/educational access.