Yamin: Why we need to improve disability access

Jennifer Yamin, Columnist

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Seven months ago I pumped gas by myself for the very first time. In my home state of New Jersey, self-service stations are illegal, and the law requires certified gas attendants to pump drivers’ gas. Since I’ve never had to leave the car at a gas station, it never really occurred to me how difficult it may be for people with disabilities to pump gas on their own.

But what about those stickers with the international symbol of accessibility posted at stations? Although the stickers are present for legal reasons, in reality they can serve no purpose. Showing that the gas station accommodates people with disabilities doesn’t actually guarantee that a woman in a wheelchair, for example, will be able to pump her own gas. The existence of a sticker does not mean any action by the station actually takes place. Moreover, the signs simply mean the station can accommodate a disability, but not necessarily all of them.

It wasn’t until I took Paul Arntson’s communication studies class, Community Integration of Labeled People, that I first began to notice the meaninglessness associated with the blue international symbol of disability access posted in public places. If there is one thing I learned from Arntson’s course, it is that there is great room for improvement when it comes to assisting the disabled community, and it is up to us as millennials to make a change.

A class field trip to Inclusion Solutions, a company founded by Patrick Hughes, further showed how prevalent an issue the lack of disability awareness is.In a discussion with our class, Hughes shared anecdotes illustrating the numerous difficulties people with disabilities encounter in public places, including gas stations, fast food restaurants and voting poll locations. Hughes’ company works to eliminate these problems by providing businesses with alert systems, intercoms and various other mechanisms made to accommodate those with disabilities.

Despite the efforts from people like Hughes, the disabled community still struggles to have easy access to basic public needs. Hughes mentioned Paul Tobin, a quadriplegic in a wheelchair who drove from his home state of New York to New Jersey every time he needed to fill up his tank. For Tobin, pumping gas on his own would require up to 30 minutes. Not to mention during this time he would be blocking at least one pump from other customers. When it is easier to drive a farther distance and pay the state toll than to pump gas on his own in his home state, clearly something needs to be done.

The regulations and procedures for assisting people with disabilities at gas stations vary from state to state. By enforcing a more consistent and accommodating law across all 50 states, the disabled community could run into fewer problems when trying to access the services at gas stations. Turning the stickers with international symbols of accessibility from meaningless symbols into effective practices of assistance is just one way to make the lives of people with disabilities easier.

Similar difficulties have occurred at drive-thrus of fast food restaurants. People with disabilities often run into issues when, for example, a deaf person can’t use the drive-thru to order food. There have been lawsuits where people with disabilities sue fast food restaurants for unequal access to its services. Companies settle these Americans with Disabilities Act cases by training employees or posting more stickers. The issue with these lawsuits is that their solutions and money are only temporary. These recurring cycles of lawsuits and settlements won’t solve the problem — change that actually fixes the problem will.

Laws are capable of creating change. Whether or not those laws are effective is the real question. While the legal system may have the intentions of helping the disabled community, the laws can sometimes cause more harm than good. Take note of these legal holes and think of ways to patch them up. One day, you may just be the catalyst for effective change the disabled community needs.

Jennifer Yamin is a Communication junior. She can be reached at jenniferyamin2016@u.northwestern.edu. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to opinion@dailynorthwestern.com.