In recent years, many societies around the world have begun trying to accommodate the special needs of their physically and mentally disabled citizens. U.S. lawmakers took a large step toward that goal in 1990 when they passed the Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA. It required that "reasonable accommodation" be made for all citizens, including the disabled.
The ADA resulted in the retrofitting of public buildings with features such as wheelchair ramps and specially designed restroom facilities. It also sparked a surge in technology research designed to assist the disabled. But many non-disabled people have benefited from ADA as well.
Because there are so many kinds of mental and physical disabilities, affecting so many people in so many walks of life, numerous areas of expertise can be enlisted to help improve life for people with those challenges. That's why Pennsylvania State University began its Disabilities Studies Program. It's a multi-disciplinary approach that includes rehabilitation counseling, medicine, literature, political science, women's studies and a host of other fields.
"When we design for disabilities, … we'd like to make life better for everybody," says engineering professor Richard Devon, who teaches a "universal design" course where students design objects and machinery for disabled people.
Steps and stairs are obstacles for those in wheelchairs, and lifts that carry them up and down stairs are a real help. So are the sloped cuts now built into sidewalks and curbs in many U.S. cities today that enable the wheelchair-bound to cross streets at corners. Devon says, "If you watch the ramps into buildings originally designed for people with wheelchairs, you find that parents with children in strollers are going up those ramps. You'll find delivery people with dollies are going up those ramps."
"When you come to a door and it's closed, we thought 'if you are in a wheelchair, how do you open the door easily?' Well… put a button on the door… at wheelchair height. You hit that button, and the door opens. But if you are standing up, carrying an armful of books or boxes, you hit it with your hip. It works for you perfectly. A lot of us hit it with our hip even when our hands are free. We think it's fun!" adds Devon.
The use of "talking books," professionally-recorded readings of fiction and non-fiction originally geared to the blind, has also spread to the sighted, who listen to readings in the car, at the gym, and in other places.
Closed captioning technology, which was developed for the deaf to translate oral speech on television into written words, can also improve everybody's quality of life, says Michael Berube, who co-directs Penn State's Disability Studies Program. "I don't believe there has been a person in a crowded bar who hasn't benefited from a technology originally designed for the deaf.
As anybody who has wrestled with a user's manual can tell you, good technical writing is as important to those with normal reading skills as it is to the developmentally impaired. Shannon Walters, a Penn State Ph.D candidate who teaches the craft, says everyone benefits when complex tasks are simplified.
She cites user-friendly websites as one example. "Not having five blinking colors is not just good for people who may be color blind, but people… who get confused easily, or people with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder." Walters is also interested in animals like guide dogs, which she says help people who are forgetful, or people who have high blood pressure, as well as the blind.
In fact, the disabled and the "able" are connected in deeper ways than are usually assumed, says Susan Squier, a professor who incorporates disability studies into her literature and women's studies classes. "The assumption that disability is one section of the population and ability is the other is ridiculous," she says. "All of us shift all the time in and out of different modes of ability and disability. Throughout life we need other people's help many times. The fantasy of independence is just a fantasy!"
On the other hand, says Michael Berube, nobody in the disability rights movement marches under the banner "more dependence." "It was always a movement about creating greater independence for people with disabilities," he says. "This is a conundrum. We all need an extraordinary amount of help to become independent to differing degrees. We reach some kind of independence in some areas of our lives and not in others. But none of us get there by ourselves. Everyone requires some measure of 'reasonable accommodation."