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Section 5. Increasing Access for People with Physical Disabilities

Tool #1: Disability Quiz for the Non-Disabled

This quiz can be distributed as part of a staff development exercise on disability issues, or you can just take it yourself to get an idea about how much you do and don't know about disability issues. It's a good exercise to do at the beginning of training on disability issues, as it gets people's misconceptions out in the open and can stimulate dialogue.

True or false (circle one)

1. Using a wheelchair limits one's capacity for having a fulfilling life.

 T     F

2. Slow speech is a sign of a slower-than-average mental process.

 T    F

3. When you are introduced to someone who has an artificial arm, you should not offer to shake hands.

 T    F

4. Most people who are deaf read lips.

T     F

5. Being blind means a person lives in total darkness.

T     F

6. Deaf people can have excellent speech.

T    F

7. People who have a visual disability make up for it in part with more highly sensitive senses of smell, taste, hearing, or touch.

T    F

8. People paralyzed from the waist down cannot have children.

T    F

9. Someone who has a disability may be mistaken for a person who is drunk.

T   F

10. Most blind people read Braille.

T   F


1. False. Using a wheelchair means that person gets around in some way besides walking, but people who use wheelchairs can and do have lives just as fulfilling as anyone else's.

2. False. Slow speech can be caused by a variety of disabilities, such as cerebral palsy or other neurological disorders, and does not mean that a person has any sort of slowed mental process.

3. False. Use the same social courtesies with people with disabilities as you would with anyone else. If that person is unable to shake hands, he or she will let you know.

4. False. Research has shown that less than 30% of spoken English sounds are visible , and 50% of spoken English sounds look like another sound and can therefore easily be mistaken. Therefore, lip reading cannot be relied upon as the only method of translation for people who are deaf or hearing impaired.

5. False. Many blind people have limited sight capability and can make out shapes , light, and colors. Some may have only peripheral vision, while others may only be able to see things directly in front of them. The term blind refers to a variety of severe visual impairments.

6. True. Many deaf people are able to speak, either through being taught or because they became deaf at some point in life after learning how to talk.

7. False. They learn how to make better use of their other senses, but those other senses are no more sensitive than anyone else?s. People who are blind do not, for example, have super-sensitive hearing.

8. False. Spinal cord injuries that cause lower body paralysis impact the feeling and mobility of those parts of the body, but they do not stop the reproductive system from working. Many people who are paralyzed from the waist down go on to have children after their injuries.

9. True. Communication disabilities may cause speech to become slurred or difficult to understand, and some disabilities can cause people to walk in an unsteady way that makes it look as if they are drunk.

10. False. The use of Braille has declined considerably in the past few years, mainly due to the increased use of computers for the communication needs of blind people . According to the American Foundation for the Blind, only 85,000 out of 1 million legally blind people in the United States use Braille. This means that your organization or initiative should consider using more alternative formats than just Braille to get information out to people who are blind.

Tool #2: Disability Etiquette Tips

Meeting someone                When you meet someone with a disability, offer your hand for a handshake. If someone is unable to shake hands, he or she will let you know, but people with limited hand use or who wear an artificial limb can usually shake hands. Shaking hands with the left hand is perfectly acceptable.
When first encountering a person who is blind, identify    yourself and anyone with you before launching into a conversation: "Hi, it's Judy from the coordinating committee . My boyfriend Bob is to my right. How have you been?" You may have to offer a little information to jog his or her memory, since he or she isn't able to rely on visual cues.
Helping It's okay to offer assistance to someone with a disability, but wait for a response before doing it. Then listen to, or ask for, instructions.
When you do offer assistance to a person with a disability, offer your arm. This lets you guide without pushing or pulling the person around awkwardly.
If you are helping to orient a person with a visual impairment, be very descriptive and be sure to tell him or her what's coming up: "Okay, step up onto the curb here," or "There's a garbage can partially blocking us on the left," for example.
Be specific when giving instructions to a person who has a visual disability: "Then you will turn right and go about a hundred yards," for example.
You might offer to read printed information for a person with a visual impairment : "There is a bus schedule posted here. Would you like me to read it to you? "
If asked to carry, fold, or store a wheelchair or other assistive device, treat it with respect and care. These types of equipment are expensive, difficult to get repaired, and cause real inconvenience to their users when they aren't working properly . Try to store mobility equipment as close to its user as possible, in case it's needed in an emergency.
Conversation When you are talking to a person with a disability, address that person, not his or her companion or assistant or sign language interpreter.
Listen attentively when you're talking with a person who has difficulty speaking . Be patient and wait for the person to finish. If necessary, ask short questions that require short answers, a nod or a shake of the head. Never pretend to understand if you don't--instead, repeat what you understand and allow the person to respond to you. Ask the person to write down a word if you're not sure what he or she is saying.
When talking to someone who is blind or has a visual impairment, be clear about who you are addressing if there is a third person present, when the conversation is over, or if you've moved from one spot to another.
When talking to someone who uses a working dog (either a seeing-eye dog or any other type of service dog), keep in mind that if the dog is on its leash or harness , that animal is working and should not be distracted with whistling or petting. You shouldn't approach a working dog as you would a regular pet. If the dog is off-leash , ask the owner first for permission to pet the dog. Don't feel sorry for working dogs--they love what they do, and they get plenty of time off-leash to play and just be a pet!
When talking to someone who is deaf or has a hearing impairment, you may have to get their attention first with a wave or a tap on the shoulder. Look directly at the person and speak clearly and not too quickly. Use written notes or gestures if necessary, but don't resort to shouting.
Talking with your mouth full isn't just something your mother said was rude! When talking to someone who lip-reads, don't smoke, chew gum, or eat while speaking, because it makes your speech harder to understand. Don't stand with a window, the sun, or any other source of bright light behind you--the glare can make it difficult to see your face.
If you talk to a person who uses a wheelchair for more than a couple of minutes , put yourself at eye level with that person.
For people with hearing impairment or learning disabilities, one-on-one conversation is usually easier than talking with two or more others at once. If you are taking part in a group conversation, lots of interjections and interruptions can be make the discussion hard to follow. If someone asks, "What did you say?" don't answer , "Nothing," or "It's not important" --that is insulting and belittling. Make the effort to fully include the person in the conversation, even if that means taking the time to repeat or explain things.

Don't feel awkward using common figures of speech like "See you next week" or "I've got to run" --folks with disabilities use the same expressions.
Don't touch or lean on someone's wheelchair--that's a lot like leaning on someone's shoulder without asking. The chair is part of the personal body space of the person who uses it.
Relax. Just as in any new situation, everyone will feel more comfortable if you just be yourself.

 Tool #3: Accessibility Checklist

If parking is provided, are there reserved parking places that are clearly marked with the access symbol on a raised sign? Y        N    
Is there an unobstructed path of travel from the parking space to the curb cut to the building entrance or the event area? Y N
Is the entrance to the building at least 32" wide in order to accommodate a wheelchair user? Y N
Is the doorway threshold no higher than 1/2"? Y N
Do entrance doors open easily (with automatic doors, a door opener button, or levered handles and a minimum of force needed)? Y N
Are directional signs in large print and/or Braille present? Y N
Are building corridors at least 36" wide and free of obstructions? Y N
Is the meeting room or event area on the building entry floor or accessible by elevator? Y N
If the event is an open-air event, is it being held on a flat outside surface? Y N
Are any ramped or steep areas sloped 1:10-1:12, with handrails on either side? Y N
Are there Brailled numbers on the elevator control panels? Y N
Are drinking fountains no higher than 48" from the floor? (If higher, then drinking cups should be provided). Y N
Are telephones no higher than 48" from the floor and equipped with sound amplifiers? Y N
Is there an accessible outdoor area set aside where service animals can relieve themselves? Y N
Are TDD's available? Y N

Are there accessible restroom facilities near the meeting or event? In order to be accessible, a restroom facility should have the following factors:

  • Signs that indicate accessibility
  • Entries free from obstructions
  • Doorways with 32" minimum clearance width
  • Doorway threshold no higher than 1/2"
  • Easily opened door(s)
  • Restroom stall doors that swing outward; at least 32" clearance width.
  • Stall at least 56" wide, 60" deep
  • Grab bars in stall
  • Raised commode 17-19" from floor
  • Faucets with lever type handles
  • Basin with 30" clearance underneath and wrapped pipes
  • Towel dispensers and mirrors no higher than 40" from floor

 Tool #4: Information to include on meeting and event notices

  • These are suggested ways of wording information on accessibility in notices, invitations , press releases, etc.:
  • Sign language interpreters will be present.
  • A sound enhancement system will be available at the meeting/event.
  • Minutes of the meeting will be available in large print/audio form and/or readers upon request. If you require the use of a reader, please contact ___________________ at ________________, at least 72 hours in advance of need.
  • To allow individuals with environmental illness to attend the meeting/event, individuals are requested to refrain from wearing perfume or other scented products.
  • The meeting/event will be held at ______________________. The closest accessible bus station is located at ___________________. Accessible subway lines serving this location are ______________________.
  • There is accessible parking available at the following location: _____________________.
  • Accessible integrated seating for persons with disabilities (including those using wheelchairs)will be available.
  • For additional information about the meeting/event prior to the meeting, people who are deaf or hard of hearing can contact the office on the following TDD (Telecommunications Device for the Deaf) phone line at _____________ or by using the local relay service at ____________.

Tool #5: SOAP Assessment

Periodically reviewing your accessibility efforts can really help you see how well you're doing. The SOAP model (which stands for "Subjective, Objective, Assessment, Plan") is a strategy that has been used for a long time by medical professionals to record an individual patient's history, present situation, and future possibilities .The Youth Volunteer Training Corps Training Manual for Working with Youth Volunteers Who Have Disabilities suggest using SOAP as follows:

Subjective: What people who receive your services, staff, volunteers, board members, funding partners , and other involved parties say about your efforts in their own words. For example : Kyoko is a volunteer who has a disability. She really likes volunteering for our project but sometimes feels left out. She says, "I hate that I can't attend the annual planning retreat. I'd like to go but it's an all-day thing and the restrooms at the campground where we have the retreat aren't accessible. That really makes me angry!"

Objective: What these folks think are the positive and negative elements of the program. They may assess the program's quality, size, longevity, inclusivity, diversity, etc. For example: Kyoko is a smart and committed volunteer who uses a wheelchair. She is unable to attend the annual planning retreat because the retreat facility doesn't have accessible restrooms.

Assessment: What the leadership of the organization sees to be as the strengths and weaknesses of the program, based on the above observations. For example: Knowing that Kyoko's absence from the annual retreat is contrary to the organization's goals of diversity , inclusivity, and team spirit, team leader Calvin measures Kyoko's wheelchair and then goes to the campground and measures the restrooms, doorways, and halls to get an idea of what might be done to remedy the problem.

Plan: What plan of action will be taken to address weaknesses or enhance strengths, and how this will be evaluated. For example: Calvin plans to talk to his local ILC to find out what sort of change the campground would need to make to become ADA compliant, meet with the campground management to request that they make their facilities more accessible , set a date by which such changes should be completed, follow up to see if they have made those changes, and decides what should be done if the facility hasn't made the requested changes (such as finding a different location that is accessible). He also plans to meet with Kyoko and other volunteers with disabilities to find out if they're satisfied with these actions.

Using the above model and example as a reference, you can use the worksheet below to map out solutions to accessibility problems using the SOAP method:

SOAP Component

Brief description of your strength or weakness

Additional Comments