The Obstacles That Drive Wheelchair Users Crazy

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By Allie Weiss / Published by Dwell
An architect imagines solutions to the accessibility problems in our buildings.

In our upcoming May issue, we visit a barrier-free house in Livermore, California, designed for a couple dealing with muscular dystrophy. The architect, Erick Mikiten, is himself a wheelchair rider. Here, he shares some potential modifications that would make navigating spaces much easier for those with disabilities.

The Obstacles That Drive Wheelchair Users Crazy - Photo 1 of 1 - Check out these examples from our archive on how to renovate spaces with accessible design.

Check out these examples from our archive on how to renovate spaces with accessible design.

Entrances that are easier to navigate.

Mikiten says that doors are a big concern, particularly in terms of width or weight. "They’re sometimes too narrow," he says. "There might be two doors together, but if there’s an operator that opens both of them, you can fit even a large wheelchair through. Even if a door is navigable, the operation of grabbing it with one hand, pulling it, and holding it open, and then trying to push your wheelchair straight, and not in a circle, [is quite difficult]." 

Thresholds are also an issue. "If the threshold is 3/4 of an inch—which you wouldn’t even notice, stepping over it—it can catch that caster, and then the door starts to close [on you]," Mikiten says. Luckily, "there are all sorts of little add-ons that threshold companies make that can make that work."

Uniform enforcement of regulations.

Mikiten explains that despite ADA regulations, there is still a wide disparity between the accessibility levels of different businesses. "[Businesses] have to do what is readily achievable, and the definition of that varies based on the organization, and their capacity," he says. "McDonalds, a chain, has a certain responsibility and they have a lot of resources to retrofit. Their requirement is going to be different than a mom-and-pop restaurant that’s been around for 30 years and might have three steps up to the front door, and they’ve never done any remodels." If there was a better way for the guidelines to be enforced across the board, wheelchair users would benefit greatly.

When making plans to visit a restaurant, Mikiten recommends calling beforehand to ask about the entrance. He also uses Google Street View extensively to get a sense of whether a building—or city—will be accessible. "We went to Puerto Vallarta, and I walked up and down the streets in Google [beforehand] to see whether they have curb cuts and how many streets are cobblestone," Mikiten says.

Centrally located access points.

The location of elevators, ramps, and other features doesn't always make sense. In San Francisco's BART system, for instance, Mikiten says the elevators are often located at the very end of the platform. "The people with disabilities and the families dragging kids and strollers are always the ones who are walking more than anybody else," he says. Another issue is that some spaces will advertise elevators, when the elevators are actually out of service—rendering them useless for those that need them.

Architects trained to understand disability.

It's helpful when the people designing our spaces are sensitive to the needs of wheelchair users. "It’s amazing when people try out a wheelchair for the first time," Mikiten says. "Some architecture schools have a test where somebody has to spend a day in a wheelchair and go to their classes, just to open their eyes to the little details."