Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Disability experts or cronies?

Pres. Lyndon Johnson signed the Architectural Barriers Act in 1968 so buildings would be accessible to people with disabilities, and forty years later Washington still can't get it right.
Disabled employees at Department of Transportation headquarters are most unhappy these days with their new digs down by the Navy Yard in Southeast Washington.

Agency officials say the building -- the first entirely designed and constructed for a federal agency since 9/11 -- was built with guidance from disability experts and help from the U.S. Access Board and the General Services Administration.

But dozens of employees with disabilities began to have problems -- some caused by security precautions -- as soon as the 6,000 workers moved in last summer. There were several safety issues, such as fire alarms without blinking lights for the hearing-impaired, and there were doors that required too much strength to open.

Employees were especially frustrated by cafeteria tray slides that are so high that employees who use wheelchairs cannot reach their food, a violation of standards and a constant annoyance.
Who was their disability expert? Michael Heckuva-Job Brown? I bet he/she made sure employees could get to their desks to do their work though. Eating in the cafeteria? Not a priority.

I wonder if it occurred to anyone to ask the disabled employees for feedback and suggestions. Who better to evaluate accessibility than a disabled person?

To make matters worse, Assistant Secretary for Administration Linda Washington sent an e-mail with "an outline of how cafeteria staff and DOT employees needing assistance can work together to provide employees with a positive experience" getting their meals. These were some of her suggestions:
  • When in the cafeteria [employees needing assistance] should let a cashier... know by politely requesting assistance.

  • Whenever possible, employees are encouraged to visit the cafeteria during 'non-peak' times to ensure the most efficient use of their time and prompt service. This would be prior to 12:00 pm and after 1 pm.

  • Employees can also consider visiting the cafeteria with a co-worker.
  • Someone near and dear to me is disabled, so I feel qualified to translate:
  • Disabled employees are normally rude, so this is a reminder to them to use some manners.

  • Disabled employees (who didn't create this problem) create a lot of work for the cafeteria staff during peak hours. They should come in early or eat late so they don't inconvenience anyone.

  • If a disabled employee can impose on a co-worker to help them get their food, all the better for us.
  • As you might have guessed, the department started sensitivity training after that e-mail went out. I hope part of that training includes eating in the cafeteria during "non-peak" times. I bet they'll get an earful from the disabled employees eating with them!


    K. said...

    Incredible. You'd think that in this day and age building a facility appropriate for people with disabilities would be a known thing. I can't believe that there aren't a set of protocols for architects and engineers -- stuff like the correct height of cafeteria tray ought to be a simple checklist item by now.

    K. said...

    That is, "cafeteria tray sliders ought to be a simple check list item by now."

    Anonymous said...

    Non-peak times-would that be when the cafeteria is closed?
    I'm sure whomever designed the place was a Bush crony who managed to make a couple million extra in cost overruns alone.

    Kathy said...

    K, I'm sure they have a set of protocols, but it may not include the tray sliders. My church built a new facility years ago and the contractor knew the ADA standards, but they're very basic ones. He was astute enough to ask some members of the congregation with disabilities to give their input, and then he made changes to fit their suggestions. This was all done in the early building stage and it didn't cost them a cent more. Someone was lazy and incompetent in this situation.

    Ron, that's what I suspect too. I would think a real disability expert would have caught the cafeteria tray slider and the heavy doors for sure. Those are obvious problems for people in wheelchairs.

    abi said...

    Disgusting. I didn't catch the insinuation in the email about politeness. I don't doubt what you say, tho, about what the writer intended. But what struck me about that part is that disabled people are expected to beg for help every time they want to use a tray. That's pretty demeaning and insensitive, and probably the last thing a disabled person wants to have to do.

    Kathy said...

    Abi, maybe I'm reading too much into the e-mail, but I based my insinuation about politeness on two things:

    1) I've witnessed able-bodied people talk right over the head of a person in a wheelchair as though they were mentally impaired, and they addressed the person pushing them instead. They assumed that the person couldn't think or speak for themselves. Trust me, people in wheelchairs hate it when they're treated like that.

    2) In all my working years, I never remember reading a memo or e-mail that advised me to "politely" do this or that. I got the sense that the official was talking down to the disabled employees as though they were children and needed to be taught good manners.

    Maybe that wasn't her intent, but one thing is certain, she wasn't very professional in the way she handled the situation.

    abi said...

    I'm not disagreeing with you, Kathy. I just didn't catch what you did, but your reading makes sense. The writer of that email sounds like a real twit.

    But we ought to have sympathy for her - being a twit is a disablilty of sorts. ;-)