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Section 5. Increasing Access for People with Physical Disabilities

Learn how to change the environment so people with disabilities can better access goods and services.


  • What do we mean by increasing access?

  • Why should you make your organization or initiative more accessible?

  • When should you make your organization or initiative more accessible?

  • Who can help you increase access?

  • How do you go about increasing access?

With over 54 million citizens making up their ranks, people with disabilities are the largest minority group in the United States. Worldwide, about one in ten, or 650 million people, live with disabilities that affect their daily lives. The vast majority – about 80% -- live in developing countries, are poor, and lack educational and other resources that could help them change their situations.  It's also a group that is always growing because of lengthening lifespans -- as people age, they become more likely to develop a disabilities. In spite of their numbers, people with disabilities continue to experience discrimination and marginalization that are only slowly changing for the better with the help of the modern disability rights movement. One of the biggest battles faced by people with disabilities is the struggle for increased access. Accessibility issues can take many forms. For example:

  • Jamahl had long been interested in doing some sort of volunteer work, and when he heard that the local anti-drug coalition was bringing in a famous author to do a lecture on volunteerism, he was really excited about going. But when he went to the lecture, no sign language interpreter was present. Annoyed that such a large event didn't make it possible for him to enjoy the lecture, Jamahl left before applications and brochures on volunteering were handed out.
  • Katrina wanted her son Ricky to get involved with a citywide afterschool tutoring program. Transportation was provided for students in the program, but none of the buses used to take students to and from the tutoring site were wheelchair-accessible. While Ricky really could have used the help in his math classes, he was unable to participate in the program.
  • When Emilio's wife died, he started attending a local support group for people who had lost loved ones. The support group facilitator always gave out lots of articles and other clippings that the other support group members said were very helpful, but Emilio was unable to use them because he had a visual impairment, and the facilitator never made any copies available in large type. Discouraged, he stopped attending the support group.

Some accessibility accommodations are simple, some are complex, but all are important and add diversity to your organization. We hope that this section will give you enough information to get you started on making your organization or initiative more accessible and enough links and resources to help you find out more when you've finished with this section.

What do we mean by increasing access?

Increasing access means creating an environment that can be used by all people, including those who have disabilities. When we talk about accessibility, people often assume we mean making a building or other space accessible to wheelchair use and don't think beyond that. True accessibility, however, means giving thought to many different types of disabilities and how you can change things within your organization or initiative to make the people who have them feel welcome--not just the physical structure of your office or meeting spaces, but the attitudes and communication styles of people within your organization or initiative.

So when we talk about increasing access, we mean doing it by:

  • Changing attitudes within our organization or initiative;
  • Changing the way we communicate with others, and
  • Changing physical things, such as the structure of the spaces we use and the formats in which we present information.

Why should you make your organization or initiative more accessible?

The most apparent answer to this is that making your organization or initiative more accessible is simply the right thing to do. With the advent of the Americans with Disabilities Act, it's also the law.  (More than 50 other countries besides the U.S. have either passed laws regarding the rights of people with disabilities – many based on the ADA – or have incorporated those rights into their constitutions.) But making increased accessibility a priority in your organization or initiative also makes for a larger pool of potential volunteers, members, and staff. Providing access for people with disabilities is another way you can increase diversity in your initiative or organization. Additionally, it makes it possible for more people to make use of any services or programs you provide.

When should you make your organization or initiative more accessible?

Any time is a good time to work on increasing access, but there are some times that you might not have thought about including accessibility issues in your plans but should:

  • When you are looking to increase your numbers--whether that means people your organization or initiative serves or people who are involved as volunteers, members, or staff.
  • When you are thinking about new spaces - for example, moving to a new office building or finding a new place to hold a weekly public meeting.
  • When you're planning a conference, retreat, or some other special gathering.

Sometimes people make the argument that making changes to increase accessibility is impractical, because they've been operating for years with few or no people with disabilities as part of their organization or initiative. The following story, from Joseph S. Shapiro's No Pity: People with Disabilities Forging a New Civil Rights Movement (1993), illustrates why this reasoning is flawed:

The postmaster in a small town was told that he would have to make his post office building accessible to people in wheelchairs. There were twenty formidable steps leading to the only public entrance, and the revolving door there was too narrow for even the smallest wheelchair. The postmaster objected to any renovation for disabled patrons. He sputtered in protest, "I've been here for thirty-five years and in all that time I've yet to see a single customer come in here in a wheelchair." (p. 142)

Clearly, the postmaster is a man who just doesn't "get it", but his ignorance represents an important point: just because you haven't ever had a lot of people with disabilities involved in your organization or initiative right now doesn't mean that it's not a good time for improving accessibility.

Who can help you increase access?

Knowing whom to turn to is very important when dealing with something like accessibility, which can be complicated for those who don't know a lot about it. With some experienced assistance, however, any organization can make itself more accessible.

Your best bet for accessibility advice is to find your local independent living center. Independent living centers (or ILC's) are non-profit, non-residential organizations that are resource centers on disability issues for both people with disabilities and the rest of the community; they are not focused on any single disability or condition. ILC's use a peer approach: at least 51% of the board and the staff of an ILC must be people with disabilities, so they have plenty of personal experiences and insight with regard to disability issues. This makes an ILC a great place to go for practical, useful information on your accessibility concerns.

ILC's can be hard to find in the phone book, but sometimes they are listed under "Disabled Persons Services" (the phone company has yet to start fully using "people first" language!) or "Social Services". You may have more luck calling your local information and referral service, the social work department of your local hospital, or your state vocational rehabilitation agency. There is also a very comprehensive list of ILC's available at Design Linc, and Independent Living Research Utilization.

Another good resource is your nearest Disability and Business Technical Assistance Centers (DBTAC). Funded by the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research, there are ten regional centers that provide information, training, and technical assistance to employers, people with disabilities, and other entities with responsibilities under the ADA.

Many national and regional organizations deal with accessibility issues and there are also several governmental agencies that may have helpful information for you. Here are links to the web sites for a few such organizations and agencies:

There are other places to find assistance with accessibility issues. Many attorneys specialize in disability issues; they may be able to offer guidance and referrals in addition to information on what sort of accessibility changes you may be required to make under the law. If you are working on changes to the physical structure of your building, many architectural firms now specialize in universal design (the concept of designing spaces so that they are accessible to everyone). A lot of architects may claim to have knowledge about universal design who don't, so check with your local ILC to find out what architects in your area have a good record on building truly accessible structures.

Finally, a source of assistance you should not overlook is people with disabilities in your community, and especially those who are already involved in your organization or initiative. Getting together with these folks--informally or in a more structured manner such as a focus group - to get their suggestions and concerns regarding your approach to accessibility can be immensely helpful.

How do you go about increasing access?

Change attitudes within your organization or initiative.

The first step is to change the way you and others involved in your organization view people with disabilities. Of course, this is easier said than done, but there are things you can do to learn more about disability issues, how people with disabilities would like to be treated, and the basics of disability etiquette.

One way to start is to reach out to people with disabilities and simply ask for their help in improving accessibility. Are there any people with disabilities already involved in your organization? Is there at least one person with a disability on your board of directors or advisory council? Ask those people for their input and assistance in bringing about change at your organization; they might want to form a task force or committee on accessibility and accommodation issues. Of course, people with disabilities who are asked to take these types of roles should not just be chosen as tokens or "window dressing", but should really be viewed and treated as equal partners in your organization or initiative.

Another step might be to do some staff training on disability issues. For this, you might want to bring in an outside consultant with expertise in this area; check with your local ILC, as they almost always can provide this type of service. You might also look in the phone book under "professional development" or "diversity training." There are also many agencies and organizations that deal with disability issues. You might want to call the Job Accommodation Network (JAN), a service of the President's Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities, at 1 800 JAN -7234 or the Inclusion Network at (513) 287-6530.

Disability etiquette is a concept based simply on treating people with disabilities with courtesy and respect. At the end of this section, under Tools, we have some basic disability etiquette information, but here are some things to keep in mind:

  • Treat adults like adults, and treat people with disabilities like you would treat anyone else.
  • Don't make assumptions about people with disabilities. If you have a question about what to do, just ask. People with disabilities will generally appreciate your honesty and would rather have you ask about their needs and wishes instead of making assumptions.
  • Understand that two people with the same disability may have very different access needs. People with disabilities should be viewed as individuals, and their needs should be addressed accordingly.
  • Not all disabilities are immediately apparent. "Hidden" disabilities--such as hearing impairment or a chronic medical condition like diabetes  -- may cause a person to not respond when you speak to him or her, or act in a way that may seem odd or inappropriate. Again, don't make assumptions. If someone behaves in a way that seems unusual at first, wait to find out more.
  • Treating staff members or volunteers with disabilities the same way you would non-disabled people also means that you should evaluate them the same way as anyone else (this is something that is discussed in the example interview at the end of this section). Non-disabled folks can sometimes be too reticent to be honest with disabled folks about their shortcomings on the job. This usually comes from good intentions, but it only does a disservice to a staff member or volunteer who has a disability. Be up-front with all of your staff about areas in which they can improve their performance.

Change the way you communicate with regard to disabilities.

The language we use when talking about or with people with disabilities is closely tied to disability etiquette. Some basic things to consider about how we communicate:

  • Use "people first" language. This means referring to the person first before referring to the disability: "a woman who is deaf" rather than "a deaf woman". It's sometimes considered okay to say the disability first in conversation, as people first language can become very wordy, but don't ever just refer to the person as his or her disability (for example, calling someone "a paraplegic"). The emphasis should be on the fact that this is a person and his or her disability is one of many things about him or her; a person's disability does not define him or her as a human being.
  • Don't point out disabilities, but don't ignore them either. If someone's disability isn't pertinent to the conversation, don't discuss it unless the person with the disability brings it up. If it is relevant, though, it isn't impolite to bring it up. Hesitating to address a person's disability can imply that the disability is something wrong or bad--that it's an uncomfortable or unpleasant topic. It shouldn't be. A disability is something that person has and deals with every day, and it's fine to acknowledge that.
  • Many words associated with disabilities in the past are now recognized as loaded and biased and should no longer be used because of their negative connotations. For example, the word "handicap" comes from the British image of a beggar with his "cap-in-hand" held out for money. People with disabilities were long portrayed as needing charity and pity. Other words to avoid: referring to people with disabilities as "crippled" or as a "victim" of his or her disability, saying someone "suffers from" his or her disability (say he or she "lives with" it instead), and referring to nondisabled folks as "normal."
  • Find out how the person with a disability communicates best. For example, while many people who are blind can use Braille, the majority of people who are blind do not. By the same token, not all deaf people can lip-read, and even when they do, it is only 30% to 50% effective, because so many words look similar (for example, "Friday" and "fried eggs" look almost identical to a lip-reader). Lip-reading has to be supplemented with gestures, facial expressions, and written notes. Some people who are deaf are able to speak; others are not. When in doubt, just ask, "What way is best for us to talk with each other?"

A good resource on how to communicate about disabilities is a brochure called "Guidelines for Reporting and Writing about People with Disabilities" from the Research and Training Center on Independent Living.

Change the physical structure of the spaces we use and make information available in alternative formats.

Changing attitudes and language are very important, but if people with disabilities can't actually make it into your building or meeting spaces or use your services, those things aren't very meaningful.

This is the stage at which you're most likely to hear naysayers who protest, "But it's too expensive!" This is often said before anyone has even looked into the costs. Many accessibility adjustments are less expensive than you might think. Some changes are very simple and easy, such as moving copiers to areas where people who use wheelchairs can get to them more easily. Furthermore, grantmakers and funding partners are often very willing to provide funds for improving accessibility, or you might be able to find further financial assistance through additional sources. Again, your nearest ILC is a good place to start seeking this information.

According to June Isaacson Kailes, whose A Guide to Planning Accessible Meetings is a good practical guide, you should consider making a formal policy regarding accessibility. This policy should show a commitment that all meeting places your organization or initiative uses will be accessible, no matter how few or how many people are expected to attend.

For example: "[Name of organization] will not hold any meeting, conference, or professional gathering where the facility has barriers which exclude persons with disabilities from attending and participating." (Kailes, 1998)

This means you may have to sometimes make changes. If the hotel where you've been holding your annual conference for the last 15 years isn't accessible, you may just have to choose a new facility. Before you do that, though, try to use your clout as a repeat customer to convince the management that increasing accessibility would be a good business policy.

If you are in the process of building a new facility or making changes to an existing structure, consider using Universal Design. Universal Design is a method of designing buildings, rooms, and other spaces with the following principles in mind:

  • Equitable use: The design is useful and marketable to any group of users.
  • Flexibility in use: The design accommodates a wide range of individual preferences and abilities.
  • Simple and intuitive use: Use of the design is easy to understand.
  • Perceptible information: The design communicates necessary information effectively to the user.
  • Tolerance for error: The design minimizes hazards and the adverse consequences of accidental or unintentional actions.
  • Low physical effort: The design can be used efficiently and comfortably.
  • Size and space for approach and use: Appropriate size and space is provided for approach and use.

Even if you don't go with Universal Design, there are many resources available on making structures accessible. Building and Facility Design Guidelines from the Access Board has loads of specific guidelines for measurements, placement, and other details you will need when getting down to the nitty-gritty of designing a space to be accessible.

When you're looking outside your own offices for facilities for meetings, training sessions, retreats, or other such gatherings, it's important to be sure that the places you use are accessible. The most important rule to remember here is never assume a location is accessible just because the owners or personnel say it is (hotels, especially, are notorious for this). This doesn't necessarily mean these folks are being dishonest; they simply don't always understand all the things accessibility encompasses. To be considered truly accessible, the structure must be in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act Accessibility Guidelines (ADAAG).

So how do you get around this? If you have the resources, it's best to check the facility out yourself. If possible, having people with disabilities who have a firsthand knowledge of accessibility needs is preferable, but if you don't have a disability yourself or are unable to find someone who does to help you with this, then get a good accessibility checklist and a tape measure and go investigate.

The Americans with Disabilities Act Accessibility Guidelines (ADAAG) is perhaps the most comprehensive checklist you can use. We also have a more simple accessibility checklist included in Tools at the end of this section.

Another tool you may want to use when trying to judge accessibility is the ADA Accessibility Stick II. This is a portable yardstick-like device marked to help you measure various ADAAG minimums like threshold height, ramp and curb slopes, doorway widths, and so on. It expands from 17 inches collapsed to a 32 inch ruler and also has an air-bubble level indicator. For more information on this tool, write Access Inc., 416 Nancy Court, Lawrence, KS 66049-4601; you can also call (785) 841-0321 or email

If you are absolutely unable to check out a building or facility yourself, send a letter and a checklist to the possible facility requesting specifics about their accessibility.

Before any meeting or event, be sure that any announcements, invitations, or advertisements include a statement about what sort of accessibility arrangements have been made (i.e., whether the site is wheelchair accessible, whether any alternative formats of written or spoken information will be available, etc.). Announcements should also include any information about accessible parking or accessible public transportation. More suggestions on what to include in your meeting or event notices are included in the Tools at the end of this section.

A contact person should be designated and included on any announcements for questions or information regarding accommodations. If you have a registration form for your event, be sure the form includes a space for persons with disabilities to make their needs known.

Basic Logistics:

  • Print materials to be used at the event/meeting should be available in advance, on request.
  • Seating space should be set up with intermittent seating for wheelchair users (remove chairs so that space is available for wheelchairs to fit in).
  • Aisles and hallways should be wide enough for two people using wheelchairs to pass one another.
  • When doors that are difficult to open can't be adjusted or propped open for the duration of the event, assistance should be provided at the door during the event.
  • Films and slide shows should be captioned, whenever possible.
  • Microphones, speaker's table, podium, stage areas, and the paths to those places should be accessible.
  • If you will be presenting any information in alternative formats (see below), be sure you've planned far enough in advance to have these materials ready.
  • If sign language interpreters will be used, they should be provided an advance copy of the materials presented at the event/meeting, whenever possible.
  • Many hotels, convention sites and event areas have sound enhancement systems available for your use. Check with them. Also review with them the physical accessibility and event logistics checklists.
  • On the day of the event, be sure that any temporary access arrangements, such as portable wheelchair ramps, have been put in place.

Multiple Chemical Sensitivity -- also sometimes called environmental illness -- is a condition in which the sufferer can get sick from chemicals in things like fragrances, cleaning products, inks and dyes, food additives, tobacco smoke, etc. MCS is now recognized as a legitimate disability by many agencies, and people with MCS are now protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act. To be accessible to people who have MCS, you should strive for a scent-free environment; ask the facility not to use air fresheners or harsh cleaning materials, and ask in all written materials for your event that people not wear colognes, perfumes, or scented toiletries, and that they refrain from smoking at the event.

      You can learn more about MCS at the following sites:

Alternative formats for information

Many people with disabilities need to receive information in alternative formats. The following are a few of those formats and how you can accommodate people who need them.

Sign language interpreters translate spoken words or audio into sign language. They can be found in the phone book under "Translation Services"; you may have to check in the nearest large city. They usually charge about $25 to $40 per hour with a two hour minimum, but some will donate services to nonprofit organizations. If a meeting or event will last longer than 2 hours, hire two interpreters so they can take breaks. You might have someone volunteer to provide sign language interpretation for an event, but if that happens be sure the person is really fluent in sign language and has experience in interpretation; sometimes well-meaning people who have a little sign language experience think they can translate for an event, and their skills just aren't adequate for this big a job.

There are sign languages for virtually every language group.  In the U.S. and Canada, for example, you’ll find American Sign Language, or ASL, which is, like most sign languages, a true language, with its own grammar and internal structure, neither of which is based on English.  British Sign Language, in fact, is entirely different from ASL, and users of one don’t understand the other.

Audiorecordings of meetings and printed materials should be available for people with visual impairments or people whose disabilities prevent them from easily taking notes. Many meeting facilities provide taping services, or you might wish to hire a professional taping service. Look in your phone book under "taping services" or you might find one at Yahoo's page on recording services. If you're going to make audio recordings of printed materials available, be sure that whoever records the materials reads at a moderate speed, speaks clearly, identifies him or herself at the beginning of the recording, and identifies the document and page numbers where he or she is reading.

Large print versions of printed materials should also be available. In this format, print is enlarged for persons with visual disabilities and persons with learning disabilities. On a computer, a font size of 18 to 24 point will produce large print. For directional signs and door markings, raised letters and numbers 5/8" high or larger should be used. Materials should be formatted so that people with disabilities can read them easily. Use narrow text columns with ragged right margins. Simplifying the formatting to include as little centering or columns as possible is also helpful. Double or triple space between lines to make it more readable, and use black lettering on off-white or pale yellow matte paper (colored paper or shiny papers can be harder to read).

Braille versions might also be made available. Braille is used for people who are blind; it translates printed letters into raised dots, which can be read by fingertips. To find a Braille transcription service, check with local organizations for blind or visually impaired folks, your nearest ILC, or The New York Institute for Special Education's "Braille On the Internet" page on the web.

Computer diskettes, CD-ROMs or DVDs can be utilized by visually impaired individuals, and those with certain learning disabilities, who have access to computers with voice output and/or text enlargement capabilities. Be sure all written materials are saved in ASCII text format. You may have to do some reformatting with things like tables, tabs, and indentations.

Assistive listening devices are devices that make sound louder. They're slightly different from hearing aids in that hearing aids usually amplify all the sound in a particular environment, where assistive listening devices usually amplify a specific, desired sound (a lecturer's voice, for instance). There are several different types of assistive listening devices available; check with your local ILC or the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association for further information to help you figure out what type will best suit your needs.

Captioning provides written text on the lower portion of the screen of films, videos, slides and public service announcements, and any other audiovisual programming, or on a screen for people attending events. There are three types of captioning styles generally used. Realtime captioning is provided mainly for programs that are live, where there is little or no advance information provided on what will be said. A trained stenographer types the words as they are spoken so that they're shown almost instantly. Video productions that have been closed captioned require a separate decoder unit (in the United States, all television sets are manufactured with closed captioning receivers in them). Open captioning places the text at the bottom of the screen, at all times, often in a black reader box. Subtitling differs from open captioning in that it allows for the printed text to be placed anywhere on the screen in a variety of print fonts and colors.

Telecommunication Device for the Deaf (TDD), sometimes called TTY, is a telephone communications unit that an individual uses by typing words in place of using voice. The caller and the receiver of the call should both have a TDD to communicate with each other. However, if one party does not have a TDD, an alternative is to use a telephone relay service where an operator is available to translate for the party without the TDD. By law, every state in the U.S. must have a relay service, so look in the front of your phone book under "Special Services for the Hearing/Speech Disabled." Your staff--especially receptionists or others who often use the phone--should be trained in how to use a TDD.

In Summary

More and more, people with disabilities are being recognized, understood, and valued. People with disabilities are not only as a population your organization should strive to serve, but also a valuable pool of potential staff, volunteers, and contributors. For anyone who is looking to increase accessibility for people with disabilities, we hope that this section of the Community Tool Box has given you a good start as well as some ideas for where you can go for further assistance.

Chris Hampton

Online Resources

The Curb-Cut Effect by Angela Glover Blackwell. Laws and programs designed to benefit vulnerable groups, such as the disabled or people of color, often end up benefiting all of society.

Disability Social History Project.

Dot Nary: Holding events that welcome all is a column from the Lawrence Times that addresses disenfranchised groups, such as people with disabilities and chronic conditions, whose needs for accommodation to participate at the tables are often overlooked, misunderstood or, worse, ignored.

The Inclusion Network.

Job Accommodation Network.

The City of San Antonio, Texas Planning Department and the Disability Advisory Committee. (1997). Disability etiquette handbook.

U.S. Department of Labor Office of Disability Employment Policy.

The Virtual Volunteering Project's article on Working with Online Volunteers Who Have Disabilities

What You Should Know About Medical Examinations video produced by Able South Carolina presents information about how to ensure equal access to health care for people with disabilities.

Print Resources

American Friends Service Committee. (1997). Guide to etiquette and behavior for relating to persons with disabilities.

Kailes, J., & Jones, D. (1993). A guide to planning accessible meetings. Houston, TX: Independent Living Research Utilization.

National Organization on Disability (1997). That all may worship: An interfaith welcome to people with disabilities. Thornburgh, G. (Ed.). Washington, DC: National Organization on Disability.

Paraquad, Inc. (1999). Disability etiquette. St. Louis, MO: Paraquad, Inc.

Rife, J., & Thornburgh, G. (1996). From barriers to bridges: A community action guide for congregations and people with disabilities. Thornburgh, G. (Ed.). Washington, DC: National Organization on Disability.

White, G., Froehlich, K., & Knight, V. (1997). Youth Volunteer Corps training manual for working with youth volunteers who have disabilities. Lawrence, KS: University of Kansas Research and Training Center on Independent Living.