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If you are able-bodied and independent, you walk easily on most sidewalks and enter/exit stores without problems, other than the occasional surprise of a very heavy door or pushing/pulling when you should be doing the opposite. Cobblestones, bricks, steps, small doors – none of these bother you. Some stores might have small aisles, but other than it being cumbersome at times, it doesn’t slow you down too much. At least that is how I moved about my city – with ease.
Yet, over the past 4+ months, I have navigated the sidewalks and stores of Burlington, VT with a stroller. Suddenly, I gave thought to the condition of the sidewalks, the types of entrances, and the width of aisles. Frankly, the sidewalks of Burlington are horrendous if you are on wheels. Stores are a mixed bag of accessibility. I have plenty of appreciation for stores that are stroller friendly and plenty of empathy for anyone attempting to get around with a stroller or in a wheelchair.
Generally when you pushing a stroller, people are very kind and will hold open the doors for you. And you learn the turning radius and proper spatial distance needed for your stroller. You get better at avoiding sidewalk bumps because you don’t want to wake the sleeping baby, nor jostle her fragile head. You know which streets are best to take. And the list goes on.
(The building block above would be easy to make accessible.)
However, there are some limitations with a stroller, and I would imagine with a wheelchair. I spend a fair amount of time stroller walking. Depending on weather, I might pop in and out of stores to browse or run errands. While Christmas shopping, I realized that I could not take my baby into a few of my favorite shops because there were not accessible entrances (read: only steps, no ramps). Sometimes entrances are elsewhere in buildings, but if there is no sign, that does not help, as I cannot leave the stroller on the sidewalk to go in and inquire. Additionally, some stores have accessible entrances yet the aisles or displays are so close together that even my narrow stroller has a tough time navigating between everything.
(It’s hard to see in this photo, but my favorite building block has a few stores without accessible (or at least obviously found) entrances.)
I wondered about how many people face this challenge. Is the percentage of lost customers so small that it doesn’t affect the businesses? What if you’re in a wheelchair, what do you do?
Most businesses have modified their entrances to accommodate all customers. Unfortunately, this often replaces character defining features of historic entrances, or obscures them. The National Park Service Brief 11: Rehabilitating Historic Storefronts discusses the importance of entrances and their rehabilitation, but its only suggestions for access issues are as follows:
Alterations to a storefront called for by public safety, handicapped access, and fire codes can be difficult design problems in historic buildings. Negotiations can be undertaken with appropriate officials to ensure that all applicable codes are being met while maintaining the historic character of the original construction materials and features. If, for instance, doors opening inward must be changed, rather than replace them with new doors, it may be possible to reverse the hinges and stops so that they will swing outward.
(How would you make the above entrance accessible?)
It makes sense that this would be a case-by-case basis discussion; however, I think we need a collection of good examples. And a discussion. What are the challenges to improve entrance accessibility? Are small businesses at risk of losing business if they cannot improve accessibility? Does this affect you? As historic preservationists, how can we find the balance between character defining entrances and not limiting accessibility? What haven’t you considered in your environment until you had to consider it?