Monday, February 15, 2016

Adventures in Universal Design: That Viral Picture of Ramps set in Stairs

Many of my friends on Facebook and elsewhere kindly sent me a cool picture of a ramp that zig-zags through a set of stairs. As the picture permeated Facebook, though, I noted an important phenomenon - every single one of my wheelchair-using friends reacted negatively. 

Description: A set of stairs with a ramp moving diagonally through the middle.
If you need this image description, this stairs/ramp would be very difficult for you.
Thanks to a number of my friends in the disability world, I saw this great essay on "the problem with ramps blended into stairs" from Nicolas Steenhout, an expert on accessibility (and a wheelchair user).

The ramp in question is in Vancouver:
The first set of stairs/ramp is at Robson Square in Vancouver, BC. It is a design I’ve used in the past to illustrate potential failures of Universal Design...
Wheelchair users
People using canes or crutches
People with low vision
People who are blind
People who are distracted
Parents with prams
People on skates/bikes/etc
It is very difficult to distinguish where one step ends and the other begins. If you have less than perfect vision, this could quickly become dangerous. There are no contrasting strips to signify the edge of the step...
There are very few handrails. It is good that there are some, but more handrails would be better. If you are able to walk, but unsteady on your feet, you have to either walk to one end of the stairs, or the other to find handrails....
It’s difficult to tell from photos exactly how steep the ramp is...The point is here that a steep slope requires quite a bit of strength to go up. And a good amount of control to go down. This is true of wheelchair users in manual wheelchairs, of people using canes or crutches, but also of parents pushing prams, or kids on skates.
The whole post is a great example of the challenges of effective universal design.

To me the lesson is this - before investing lots of money building some cool universal design installation, you'd better talk to actual disabled people, and let them test it. The fact that every wheelchair user I know, at a glance, could see the problems with that ramp/stairs is telling.