Buffalo firm helps manufacturers get on board with accessibility

Jan 21, 2011

You might not have heard the term “universal design," but pass through a doorway, walk down a hall, or step into an elevator, and you're surrounded by it.

It's about making the world more accessible for people with disabilities (and everyone else), and a western New York organization has played a key role in spreading the principal.

The 20 line bus in Buffalo is an example.  Jump on board and you see that it's roomy, there are plenty of places to sit, and it's easy to move around, even if you were in a wheelchair.

But getting on the bus is a different story.

“This gap between the sidewalk and the bus, it’s a potential hazard,” says Clive D’Souza, a researcher at the Center for Inclusive Design and Environmental Access, or the IDeA Center.

D’Souza says navigating the chasm between your average curb and the floor of the bus is a struggle for those in wheelchairs who need to board public transportation easily and quickly.

"A bus for all of us"

IDeA’s laboratory is not your average Bunsen-burner-and-beakers facility.  When you step inside, the first thing you see is a full scale replica of a city bus. It’s built from scrap left over from buses that caught fire.  Perched on top of the frame like so many birds is a series of motion sensor cameras.

“[That's] the same technology that’s used in movies and video games and stuff. We fit these markers on people. These light up and the cameras can actually track this person in 3-D space,” D’Souza says.

Picture green body suits, covered with high tech ping pong balls. While colleagues hold stop watches, bespandexed researchers wheel themselves up different configurations of ramps.

This experiment is designed to help everyone get on the bus quicker. But overall, it’s part of a larger effort to even the playing field for people with disabilities.

“The biggest problem for people with disabilities is getting employed. If you can’t get to a job, you can’t hold a job. So public transportation is really essential to solve that big problem,” says Ed Steinfeld says, found of the IDeA Center.

Thinking in terms of universal design, accessibility, employment and livelihood isn’t new, Steinfeld says, but it’s easy to forget how recently inaccessible some things really are.

“People often ask ... what brought [a universal design adaptation] out ... what started it, what was the impetus for that?” Steinfeld says.

World events created need 

The answer to a lot of those questions dates back to the last century. First, debilitation caused by polio brought about a surge in people unable to navigate a walking person’s environment. Then the three wars of the mid-20th century brought hundreds of thousands of disabled veterans, looking for work and normalcy.

These factors gave the accessibility movement momentum in the late '60s, as other social wrongs were being righted, according to Steinfeld, who says the civil rights movement for racial minorities became a model for other minority groups.

While legislation during the Nixon presidency got the ball rolling, the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 codified that private businesses with public access must provide “reasonable accommodations” to people with different needs: grocery stores with automatic doors, ramps in movie theaters, and wider lines while waiting for roller coasters.

“Those things turned out to benefit everybody. And everybody could see the benefit right away,” Steinfeld says.

But there was one element of accessibility that confronted a widespread opposition: paying for wheelchair ramps.

“The argument was never, ‘We shouldn’t do this for people with disabilities.’ The argument was always, ‘It’s going to cost too much. People with disabilities are few and far between so let’s just wait until we need to make a renovation for people,’” Steinfeld says.

Time has eased most fears of the cost associated with easing accessibility, Steinfeld says. In fact, the company that makes Buffalo’s buses recognizes improvements will provide a competitive advantage.

IDeA’s ideas will be implemented in new buses. And if the changes work, transit systems around the country could be stocked with them, costs and all.