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June 05, 2012 1:15 PM Accommodating Wheelchair Users as Rational Self-Interest

By Keith Humphreys

As I put ice on my swollen left elbow and swabbed the blood from my right leg, it occurred to me that “accommodations for the disabled” are often better thought of as accommodations for everyone.

After the Americans with Disabilities Act passed in 1990, my hospital lowered all the kerbs at crosswalks for people who use wheelchairs. Yes, it cost money and yes, it was a mess while they broke up the old kerbs and put in the little concrete ramps. But as someone who had often wheeled a cart with an overhead projector from my office to a classroom, I immediately loved it. So too did the workmen who rolled their supply chests full of lightbulbs, toilet paper and other supplies around the medical center. Parents pushing newborns in strollers also became big fans.

Unfortunately, some wheelchair-unfriendly public spaces remain with us, including many of the tube stations in the London Underground. Some have added lifts for people in wheelchairs, but many are essentially no go zones for the physically disabled. The lack of lifts doesn’t just affect wheelchair users. Every year thousands of people fall and are injured on the long metal escalators that carry them from deep underground to street level.

Lots of people who don’t use wheelchairs are at heightened risk on escalators. These include people who have vertigo, people who need a cane to walk, people who are intoxicated and young children. Fortunately for the little boy who toppled off the escalator step in front of me last week, I was able to dive and catch him, taking the impact on my elbow and knee as we crashed down the moving stairs together. Unfortunately for me, I was limping so badly when I staggered to the next level of the station that I could barely walk, and there was no lift in sight. Neither could the uninjured but shaken little boy switch to a lift, which would have been safer for him.

That it makes life easier for wheelchair users ought to be a sufficient rationale for making public spaces more accessible. But the benefits for the rest of population are non-negligible, making the case even stronger than what a purely altruistic analysis would suggest.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-based Community]

Keith Humphreys is a professor of psychiatry and behavioral medicine at the Stanford University School of Medicine.