by Kim Charlson
Getting involved in your local community is probably one of the most important advocacy actions you can take on. I took this to heart about five years ago when I joined the Watertown Commission on Disability. Our nine-member commission is mandated in town regulations, and we are very fortunate that our funding comes from the revenue acquired within the town by the fines paid by handicapped parking violators. This gives our commission approximately $100,000 to work with. We identify our own projects, and can help fund worthwhile organizational activities in the community. Groups present before the commission and we approve funding based on these presentations and goals.
Some of the activities we have funded include:
- A riverfront quarter-mile accessible sensory/braille trail, designed by the community with access features to maximize the nature experience;
- Audio description for plays at the local professional theater;
- A non-profit youth group that does snow removal for elders and people with disabilities;
- An automatic door opener for the senior center;
- Closed captioning for the community television broadcasts of the town council meetings;
- iPads for the local special education parent advisory council family loan program; and more.
Recently, I had the opportunity in my new role as chair of the Watertown Commission on Disability to sit down and meet with the developer of a new hotel that will be built in Watertown. We discussed design features that will be specifically useful for people who are blind or visually impaired. Watertown is the home of the Perkins School for the Blind and hosts many conferences and has a large visually impaired community. At first, I wondered, “What do I have to say that will help this person to design a new hotel?” Then I really thought about it, and I realized that this was a great opportunity that I wish more of us had to make a building more accessible for people who are blind or visually impaired.
We sat down for an hour and reviewed features in three areas – exterior elements, common space features and guest room modifications. Once I got going, I had a lot of fun identifying things I would want done if I were staying at my dream hotel. I’m sure you can think of things as well.
For the outside I recommended consideration of things like a blended curb entrance for getting rolling suitcases in and out; detectable warnings at curb ramp locations leading into the street or alerting a pedestrian at exits for parking garages (along with audio alerts); a designated, planned for, conveniently located guide dog relief area; and appropriate lighting for low-vision guests.
In the common areas, we identified features such as floor treatments – using carpet and tile as aids in wayfinding for a path of travel for orientation around the hotel; good use of color contrast for signage and lounge areas between carpet and furniture; color striping on the edges of stairs to make them more visible; and limiting the use of mirrors as walls or room dividers. How many times have you or someone you know walked up and had a conversation with a reflection?
For guest rooms, I recommended key locks that are proximity based, so instead of having to slide a card key into a slot, you just touch the key to the lock mechanism and the door opens. No more trying your key in the slot four different ways to get the right direction. I also mentioned one of my peeves – inaccessible thermostats for controlling room temperature. I described units that I have used in some hotels that have the outline of an up and down arrow button you can feel, so that you can press in that area and the temperature will go up or down depending on your preference. This type of thermostat makes me very happy because I like my room rather cool. I also discussed appropriate braille and raised-print signage for meeting and guest rooms, elevators and door jambs. I offered to proofread their signage before they install it to ensure they get what they pay for. How many times have you been in hotels that have signage with mistakes or that is installed incorrectly?
After this meeting, I really felt like I had made a difference in this new construction coming to my community. The developer has invited me to come and see a very similarly constructed hotel that just opened a few months ago in the Boston area to review some of the same design elements we discussed to see whether they did them correctly in the new location. I also discussed braille and large-print materials and menus when applicable and provided resources for production for the hotel chain.
Overall, I feel like I really made a difference for this new construction, and I gained a great sense of accomplishment being a part of funding and growing worthwhile projects that benefit people with disabilities in my community.
All of you can have the same level of impact by getting involved with your local commission on disability. I know many of you are already active and working on similar and other unique projects to help your communities. Reach out and get involved locally in your commission on disability. Most cities and towns have some level of committee, commission, board or advisory group focusing on the concerns of people with disabilities. Make your voice heard, and be a representative for people who are blind or visually impaired in your community to make your local area just a bit more accessible for others. If your area doesn’t have a commission, do what Brian and I did in Watertown — organize one. Reach out in general terms to the community through a letter to the editor or other marketing. You won’t regret it!