New Baby, New Perspectives: Accessibility in My City

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?

9 thoughts on “New Baby, New Perspectives: Accessibility in My City

  1. Judy says:

    In Evansville Indiana many of the downtown sidewalks have been updated for handicapped accessible. However those in the power chairs continue to use the streets and some with babies in strollers do the same thing. VERY DANGEROUS! Many areas in Evansville are neglected, as the mayor wants everyone downtown. Mixed bag here. What was once a busy downtown area of stores is now bars and restaurants. Really sad. I loved to go downtown on Friday night after work and shop or look around in the stores. This is what many did to get their shopping done or browse around. Those days are gone. Many of the buildings have been updated and the charm is gone. Glad towns, such as your own, are keeping the charm and historic details intact. I grew up in Vincennes, Indiana and the university has torn down most of the town and put up new buildings. Sad, as this is the historic town where George Rodgers Clark cross the Wabash. The William Henry Harrison home still stands, but all the street signs were sent to the dump. No one can go back and find their old home place.

    • Kaitlin says:

      Hi Judy, thanks for sharing. Sorry to hear that about Evansville. Hopefully the mayor’s efforts to get people downtown will bring about a revitalization.

  2. Jane Griswold Radocchia says:

    I will be a spoil sport.
    I am a mother of 3. I never had a stroller. I carried my children, close to my heart or on my back, looking over my shoulder. I grew good muscles! You can too.
    I did appreciate a secure, easy to grasp handrail set at 30″, hand height. I still do.

    I have handicapped friends I like to spend time with. We depend on ramps and no steps for their mobility.

    • Kaitlin says:

      Hi Jane – not a spoil sport at all. I have also walked many miles with my baby in a carrier. For a while she hated the stroller. Now it’s her favorite place to sight see and to nap (she’s not the best napper, so I take what I can get). The fact that she loves the stroller now really helps for running errands and carrying what we need in addition to the baby! I can’t carry everything. Thanks for reading and commenting. 🙂

  3. Sherry Smith says:

    I have had this issue all my life. I am legally blind and I cannot tell you how many times I have fallen because of cracks in the sidewalk, or drop offs that I did not detect before I went to blind school as a 45 yr old adult. Now I use my cane. This became even more treacherous as I began to use a wheel chair and a power wheel chair. I did walk behind my children’s strollers and it was pretty difficult. Now if I walk outside, I for sure use my cane or my walker with wheels. Thankfully the sidewalks in my new town are really new. Great info here in your article! Thank you for bringing this issue to light.

    • Kaitlin says:

      Sherry, how impressive to go to school at age 45. I’m glad to hear it has helped you navigate your environment. Glad to hear your town has good sidewalks. The newer sidewalks here are good – I love those. Thanks for reading.

  4. Cynthia Reyes says:

    It’s very challenging with folks in wheelchairs, using a cane, on crutches, etc. One winter in Toronto, my friend was trapped in his apartment for several weeks – the sidewalks were icy and snowy and he couldn’t navigate them at all.

  5. anniebikes says:

    Hi Kaitlin. I remember those challenges, but also how kind strangers were in opening doors, lifting my stroller up stairs, etc. I have fond memories of inside stroller parking at the YMCA when I worked out and used their childcare room. But you’re right, we may not have empathy for handicap travelers until we’re in that position ourselves and with the city’s older buildings that can pose a structural and aesthetic challenge.

  6. wornoutmumma says:

    Our favourite pub only has wheelchair/ stroller access at the back so you have to go around lots of other buildings to get to the back or carry the pram up the front steps!

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