Part of a Whole

My name is Nicolas Steenhout.
I speak, train, and consult about inclusion, accessibility and disability.

I Nearly Killed Myself – Accessibility Hazards On Campus

I nearly killed myself this afternoon. Newish construction, flight of 4 steps, all concrete. But between the sun, and the angle I’m at, sitting in a wheelchair, I didn’t see they were steps until I was nearly falling down these steps! I’m thinking, someone who has vision impairment would have had even more trouble than me seeing the steps.

So, I admit, I exaggerate a bit, I am unlikely to have killed myself had I gone down those steps. But the potential for harm is most certainly there. Broken bones, lacerated skin, teeth knocked out, and maybe even a brain injury.

I exited a building and didn’t see a sign pointing to the ramp (hidden behind a big bush). So I just kept going straight. Afternoon sun in my eyes. And suddenly, I saw this:

Photo of concrete steps with poor contrast
View of the steps from a seated position.
Is this a ramp?

I stopped myself, barely in time to stop going over. Wow. Narrow escape.

The New Zealand Standard 4121:2001 says that the edge of steps need to have a strong contrasting colour to stick out visually. There’s a reason for that. It’s so people can see where the steps are!!!

Now, I have pretty good vision. Imagine someone who doesn’t have such good vision. Things might be blurred. Sunglasses might be used because the harsh afternoon sun is painful. Or your eyes just can’t process that amount of sun. The stairs might look like this:

Photo of concrete steps with poor contrast altered to reduce visibility.
View of the steps as they might be seen with a visual impairment.

It doesn’t take much to understand that this flight of steps is an accident waiting to happen.

I wonder why the steps were not finished properly. I mean, these were completed in early 2009, EIGHT years after the accessibility standards in NZ were published (incidentally, New Zealand was the first country in the world to adopt accessibility standards in their Building Code, back in 1973…). This build was completed several months ago, too long for anyone to be able to claim they are still putting final touches on.

Who is responsible here? Is it the architect who didn’t specify the proper marking on the steps? Is it the builder, who just did what he’s always done and doesn’t keep track of changes in regulations? Is it the building owner, who isn’t expected to know all the rules? Does it matter? I mean, does it *really* matter whose fault it is? I don’t think so. The only thing that matters is that this be remedied, before someone gets hurt.

But then, I’ve already hurt myself somewhere else on this campus, due to the improper implementation of an accessibility "feature". Last week, I "harpooned" myself in the shoulder because a handrail at the base of a ramp is sticking straight out, instead of being returned. The powers that be were notified a couple times over the last 18 months of the hazard caused by that handrail. Nothing was done about it. It had to happen. Last week, instead of going straight up the ramp, I was at an unusual angle, and my shoulder connected solidly with the handrail. That’s the shoulder that was injured two years ago and it took physio and surgery to fix, and that is still giving me problems.

Hmmmm. We’ll see how long it takes them to fix the steps, and the handrails. Or if they do fix them at all.