Greetings from the WCET conference in lovely (if crisp) downtown Minneapolis! The WSU contingent is staying in the conference hotel, a stunning high-rise facility in the heart of the city.
I’ve never been in a hotel like this. It’s not just accommodating and comfortable, it is also a universally designed space that is equally welcoming to all guests, regardless of ability. This space is filled with subtle features designed to assist. And “subtle” is the keyword; finding the design decisions is like finding easter eggs in a Disney movie. But once I started looking, they began to reveal themselves: low tables interspersed throughout the space, power-assisted doors, narrative way finding, and even flashing light doorbells in the rooms.
I am especially impressed by the rooms. Anyone could be comfortable in my room, and if they travel with a nurse or other caretaker, the hotel easily accommodates that as well. Even someone with profound physical limitations could enjoy a private space, take a bath, and use the room’s amenities all without much if any assistance from another person.
In fact, this space works right up to the moment that it doesn’t. While I was waiting for the elevator (in a wheelchair friendly elevator atrium) I noticed the signs directing guests to take the stairs in case of fire. But I am staying on a fully accessible floor… 14 floors above street-level. Fourteen floors above safety in case of a fire.
So, I asked the front desk what the evacuation plan is for folks in wheelchairs and others who would not be able to negotiate fourteen flights of stairs in case of emergency? The answer is simple, like with most or all other multi-floor hotels, the system breaks down a bit in case of emergency. The front desk would be notified of guests needing assistance via electronic and paper reports, but only if those guests remembered to self-identify as disabled at checkin. And what if the fire starts in the electronics that run those reports? In that case, sadly, the hotel staff and emergency responders would have no way to know who might be stranded in the floors above.
I am not casting aspersions on my hotel. This space is as dedicated to universal design and accessibility as any I have ever been in. Instead I am pointing out some obvious weaknesses in the plan to illustrate that all plans work until they don’t. Accessibility isn’t any different from other important challenges. The key is learning to walk right up to the failure points and start thinking creatively about how things can be done better, and then start doing them better over time.
If we are going to embrace this process, then it is important for us to be doing a job we love. Do what you love; love what you do. Because the solutions are in the iterations, and every “finished product” will lead to new failure points.