The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) regulations are undeniably intimidating and seem so expensive to implement, but disabilities activist Mary Lester says there are simple ways to make your office and program sites more accessible without busting the bank. Mary offers the following six easy and affordable ways to dramatically improve your accessibility for people with disabilities. Four for visitors and two for staff:
For clients, patrons, visitors
1. Put up signs, darn it! So many nonprofits have an entrance somewhere that's wheelchair accessible, even if their front door isn't. But there isn't a sign on the front door that tells visitors to "Go around to the left side of the building for a wheelchair accessible door" or "Press this bell for assistance with the door."
Similarly, if your main bathroom isn't accessible, but the one down the hall is, let people know. Hang a sign on the bathroom door that says, "There's a wheelchair accessible bathroom down the hall to the right."
2. Post on your website that your facilities are disabled-accessible; say it in your outreach materials, in your brochures, and registration forms. In one study of 18 community libraries, 16 were accessible but only two said so on their websites!
If you don't say you're accessible, people will assume you aren't. So they won't come to your programs. And then, in turn, you'll think "we don't seem to need accessibility since we don't have people asking for it." It's so easy to break this ridiculous cycle.
3. Do a 10-minute training at the next staff meeting on appropriate interaction with people with disabilities. Making some small changes in staff behavior can make create a huge leap in your accessibility. Here are the points to make (if you have a secret acting gene, act these out with a partner):
Don't: Walk up to a low-vision or no-vision person and take him by the arm to lead him somewhere.
Do: Walk up and introduce yourself. Ask how you can help. If he asks for help getting to the conference room, say, "Let me walk you there. Would you like to take my arm?"
Don't: Escort someone who is blind to the workshop room and then leave.
Do: After getting the workshop participant seated, say, "I'm going back to my office now. If there is anything you need during the workshop, Alice here can help you."
Don't: Speak to the sign language interpreter accompanying the deaf art gallery patron or the attendant of your client with cerebral palsy.
Do: Look at and speak directly to the art patron: "Is this your sign language interpreter?" Look at and speak directly to your client: "How can I be of help to you?"
Don't: Pet a service dog or animal accompanying a person who is blind or has some other disability.
Do: Talk to the person and ignore the dog. If you really want to pet the dog, ask: "I know your dog is working. Is it okay to pet her?"
Don't: You feel awkward and can't find anything to say to a person with a disability, so you don't say anything.
Do: If you see a person in the lobby, ask, "Have you been helped yet?" or get their attention by inquiring, "May I speak to you for a minute?" and then ask, " Is there something I can help you with?"
4. Ask your webmaster if she is familiar with some of the available open source software that can be safely integrated into a website to increase accessibility (e.g. scalable text and page layout, text-to-speech readers, and high-contrast color options). Such enhancements will create a more inclusive and welcoming environment for your community.
For staff with disabilities
5. Flex time is one of the most requested accommodations by people with disabilities. It could mean an employee comes in a little later because she has physical therapy in the mornings, or takes a two-hour lunch break because he has back pain. Remember that many people have hidden disabilities, or will develop disabilities at some point during their employment. Flex time is often an easy way to help employees stay at their best.
6. Use larger print. Many people with low vision (often simply because they're middle aged or older) need print in at least a 12 point font size. Make sure your brochures, handouts, board packets, personnel manuals, and all written materials are in 12 point or larger. 18 point is considered large print and is easy enough to produce.
BONUS FEATURE: There are many free and low-cost software programs that can be useful help provide computer access for people with disabilities in public settings. Search on "free assistive technology" or a variation on that theme to find many options in just about every software category.
Windows, Mac and other operating systems have built-in features that increase access for people with vision, hearing, and mobility impairments. Examples include: screen enlargement, cursor enlargement, flashing signals, text-to-speech. Learn to use them.
- Access on Main Street: Covers a wide range of mainstream products that make life easier for an elder or a person with a disability. It is well organized and can be searched by disability; function (work, education, entertainment, etc), technology (hardware, software, wireless, etc.) and more.
- BrowseAloud: A software that reads websites out loud and highlights words as they are read, useful for people with dyslexia or related learning disorders. Temporary free trials available, but there is a fee for ongoing use.
- iZoom: Offers a screen magnifier and reading software for the visually impaired. Prices range from $19.95 per month subscriptions to $459+ flat rate.
- e-Bility.com: This website has compiled links to numerous disability software resources and services.
- And a book: Access Aware: a comprehensive (but a little outdated) guide to community organizations on facililities, technology, and different disabilities.
Mary Lester consults to nonprofits in fundraising and organizational development, and to nonprofits, foundations, and government agencies in disability access, community programs, and services. She is former executive director of the Alliance for Technology Access, a national network of technology resource centers for people with disabilities. Mary lives in Sonoma County and can be reached at mllester at sbcglobal dot net. She still denies responsibility for the fact that her boyfriend's white cane went overboard on a dinner cruise in Hawaii.