Accommodating Wheelchair Users as Rational Self-Interest

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 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 toting heavy luggage, 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.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

10 thoughts on “Accommodating Wheelchair Users as Rational Self-Interest”

  1. As somebody who travels with wheeled luggage, I also appreciate improved access. Hauling luggage up stairs in the Tube is vastly inferior to the roll-on experience on, say, BART. But, then, the Tube goes everywhere, and BART goes between downtown San Francisco and the airport.

    1. Great point, and in London people with luggage are pretty much a constant on public transport. I am adding your point to the post and giving you 25% of all film rights therefrom.

  2. Two comments: ADA has made it routine to insert ramps as part of all new or replacement kerb/curb paving projects; the additional cost is negligible, even if a particular ramp doesn’t get much wheeled vehicle use (but most do). Second, a favorite quote which may be relevant here: “Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick;” Susan Sontag.

    1. Unfortunately, not true. Many US cities (among them Chicago and L.A.) have brought lawsuits under the ADA upon themselves by ignoring the ramp requirement for, inter alia, improvements financed with federal money. See, for example, as to L.A. In addition, the City of L.A. just got slapped down in an ADA action for its bogus claims that somehow sidewalks were the responsibility of abutting homeowners and not the City.

      There is also a well-financed campaign, apparently run by the US Chamber of Commerce and its ilk, to frame private ADA enforcement actions as a trial lawyers’ conspiracy to extort honest small businesses who just happen to fail to comply with disabled access laws while ignoring the big guys (such as Macys) who want to squeeze merchandise together so tightly as to prohibit disabled access.

      1. Equally unfortunately, there is a group of well-financed private individuals who make a good living measuring the distance from the sink ot the wall, and extorting sums based on inches or fractions. Ditto ramp inclines, door widths and such. In two cases that I am directly aware of, the actual measurements are within 2 inches of the law and in no case do they actually compromise access. In no way do I disagree with the aims of the ADA, but the ability f individuals who are not affected to sue for cokpliance is a problem.

        1. I’m sure that you’ll have accounts of these people, and in sufficient numbers not to be filed under ‘there’s always some sh*theads in any group’.

          1. John,

            Not a problem at all if it were happening, which it is not. Why shouldn’t members of the public be able to enforce a law meant to protect the disabled (a group which is likely to to include us all at some point, as other posters here make clear). And, the law as it stands, unfortunately, does not permit non-disabled to sue to enforce it. The burning insistence that disabled folks in wheelchairs who can barely make it to the store or doctor bring stressful lawsuits to enforce their legal rights is kinda bizarre unless there is just a desire to avoid having the law enforced.

            Having been mobility disabled at several times in my life, I’ll say (taking your stories as factual for the moment) that the negligible “two inches” that you contend do not compromise access may be a very, very big two inches to the disabled guy in a wheelchair. And, why should there be actual compliance with the minimal access required by the law?

            I still recall with horror my problems when I was on crutches after a sports injury and discovered that it was impossible, without begging for help, to go up the stairs and open the very heavy door at the specialist’s medical office building. And, this was a medical office building.

            Fortunately, the building was forced to put in an automatic door due to the ADA.

        2. Just to take the other side of things, there are plenty of situations where even an inch or two can make the difference for a disabled person between doable and fuggetaboutit. (My own anecdotes of being temporarily disabled have to do with sidewalks that cant for drainage, and the difference between flat and a three-inch scarp…)

  3. My dear friend who has MS once said that the rest of us are just “temporarily abled.” How true that is.

  4. A blind lawyer at a conference was talking about disability and access rights. He asked the audience how many people could say with certainty that they would never have a disability. “I don’t see any hands” … and indeed there weren’t any.

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