Having an injury certainly opens your eyes to what others have been dealing with for lifetimes. The friend I mentioned in my earlier post about pain medication has (after 2 months) returned to the office for short periods of time. Today, we ended up talking and expressing our mutual shock at just how HEAVY the doors are at Microsoft. It’s not something an able-bodied person might notice on a day to day basis, but for anyone mobility challenged it can be quite an effort. That’s why I didn’t return to work until I was crutch-free seven weeks after my original knee injury last year – I knew that there was no way I could balance my weight on one foot trying not to drop crutches while simultaneously waving my badge and pulling on the door. Untenable. And frustating… realizing that you can be defeated by a simple door does not inspire one with a lot of confidence about their recovery.

As you explore the world in your somewhat impaired state, you become much more attuned to intentional affordances – but even more so, the lack of intentional affordances in many places. Sometimes the shortfall is simple and severe – I tried to attend a show at the Paramount Theatre last year while still on crutches, using VIP tickets gifted by a kind friend. But the VIP section was on the third floor balcony… and the Paramount has NO ELEVATORS. It boggled my mind that one of the largest venues in Seattle has such a significant accessibility problem. The best they could do for me and a friend is to put temporary chairs at the far left of a row in the orchestra section – fairly bad angle, especially when compared to what we could have had. Have handicapped folks been shoved to the side all this time at that venue?

And parking – wow. Try parking in a “compact” spot in the Northwest – odds are you’ll be boxed in by an inappropriately parked SUV and will only be able to open the door a few inches. (I did end up working with my doctor to get certified as temporarily disabled with parking privledges.) That’s an impossible situation for me. Why is it that West Coast parking spaces are universally smaller than East Coast spaces? Right now, the Pike Place Market is going through long-term renovations – ironically this triggers ADA compliance issues that affect the theatre I perform at very directly – and their construction equipment is parked in the handicapped parking spots. No replacements were provided. I’m reasonably mobile, so I can cope – but what of those with severe issues?

But what a lot of folks also don’t know is that the entire physical accessibility movement is a very American concept. The Americans with Disabilities Act changed everything – introducing temporary inconveniences during renovations, but in the end improving the experience for most folks out in the world. (We can all benefit from automatic doors, wide passageways, ramps, and elevators.) Yet outside the country, it’s an entirely different story.

Last October I had the opportunity to travel to Paris for a week with a dear friend. Now, I still suffer from knee pain and am considered temporarily handicapped, but it’s been my policy to live life regardless of the knee situation. I was a bit worried about the 10-hour flight, but we got through that fine, thanks to larger row spacing on international aircraft. Ironically, domestic travel is significantly harder for me because those planes are so cramped that I’m almost guaranteed to hit my knee and I can’t extend it at all. No, the real challenge in Paris is its complete and utter lack of accessibility in the city. Metro stations with only stairs for descent. Decorative stairs. Random patches of cobblestones. Restaurants whose bathrooms are hidden down tiny basement staircases. I don’t begrudge the city for this – after all, a majority of these things were built long, long before we became enlightened enough to really support the disabled. But the thought of going through my recovery in an environment like Paris was terrifying.

I’m now exceedingly grateful for our country’s progressive stance on these issues – and if you think about it, with an aging population it’s a really sensible way to go. The demand for accessible affordances will only increase, and by making these changes we can help people be independent and productive for longer periods in their lives.

On the subject of accessibility, check out Jimmy Chandler’s lightning round IxDA talk on many of these issues, including some examples of tragically comic accessibility failures: http://vimeo.com/21502987

 At work I’m about to head into a period of brainstorming about accessibility regarding my current design work, and I’m really interested to see where that goes. (And I’m also excited that some great minds on my team will be participating in the discussion!) Software accessibility is just as important, but is enough of a discussion to warrant a separate post on the matter. To be continued…