Imagine getting a phone call from a close friend excited about a big party that they are throwing at their new house. This isn’t just any housewarming party either. Primarily because this just isn’t any house that this close friend moved into. They went all out, spared no expense, and bought the very best they could get their hands on. This new house is said to have the best view of the city and surrounding landscape. Your imagination won’t do it justice as this has to be experienced, not merely seen. The view at night is unbelievable.
As the details for the big unveiling party are ironed out, you start planning what to wear and what time you want to show up. Not too early. Not too late. You want to be there to see this with your own eyes and be a part of the group of friends as they stand astonished at the view.
Then you find out there are stairs. Lots of stairs. Not only that, there is no elevator. In fact, there is nothing that will allow you and your wheelchair up to the part of the house with this mind-blowing view your friend has talked non-stop about.
And then someone says that they can show you a video on their phone. Someone else suggests live streaming it to a TV in another room. Maybe you can watch it on Facebook live. That’s almost the same, right? Being so short-sighted to a close friend wouldn’t go down like that. They would never overlook something as obvious as a friend using a wheelchair.
Recently, Twitter was buzzing with anger, frustration, and outrage at the announcement of Hunters Point Library design, specifically with what appears to be a blatant oversight in thinking inclusive. This $41 million building initially had received all types of recognition. That is, until the grand opening. Once the doors were open to the public, everyone realized that the mind-blowing view would only be available to certain individuals. In fact, looking for a book from the fiction section is all but off-limits to patrons who use a wheelchair given that the elevator in the building does not reach that floor.
“Because although the Hunters Point Library has an elevator, it does not stop at three fiction sections, which are tiered on three separate levels above the lobby.1”
Elisabeth de Bourbon, spokesperson for the Queens Public Library, has been quoted as saying that the building complies with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and all building codes. Yet, one of Bourbon’s further comments helped pour fuel on the Twitter fire that was already raging:
"Our staff has been and will continue to retrieve books for customers, and we are going to offer devices that will allow customers to browse the materials available in those areas."
Can’t make it upstairs to see the amazing city skyline view at your friend’s house? They will bring you a video, or just live stream it. Can’t access an entire section of the new $41 million library? They will have someone bring you a book.
You can’t hear the traffic, the sounds, feel the wind, and take in the entire scene with a live stream or a photo. Being brought a book can in no way replace the experience of standing in front of shelves of books, looking over every title and author. To suggest that the alternatives are the same is, well, insulting. More importantly, it proves a point that we have been making for years now: your building can talk.
What is it telling your guests? Justin Davidson gets to the point in his article for New York Magazine:
“…meeting legal requirements is a false standard; even vertical buildings can and should always be designed so that they offer the same quality of experience to everyone. Staircases can be wonderful, providing drama, seating, exercise, and hangout spaces all at once — but they must never be the only option. Holl’s design, as sensitive as it is in many ways, fails to take that mandate seriously…2”
Given the outrage, the library has opted to relocate the books to a more accessible section of the library3. While the change is great, it would have been far more powerful had it been thought of ahead of time, not after $41 million dollars had been spent.
This is one example, out of many, many more that can be made. However, it brings us back around to what a building is trying to tell you.
Let’s move beyond the library for a moment and think about the church. Think about your church. Most are shocked to find that the church is excluded from the ADA yet many affected by disability who have attempted to access a church building would tell you that they are not shocked at all. The church did not have to worry about the elevator going up to that final section of books. It wasn’t a requirement.
Those affected by disability are once again left unable to take in the view or browse an entire floor of books. Yet this time, they are unable to access the message of the Gospel.
It reminds me of a training and awareness session our Executive Director Ryan Wolfe did recently at a church. One of the exercises was for a non-wheelchair user to use a wheelchair. The task they were to complete was to leave the room, make their way to the bathroom, wash their hands, and return. Simple enough and an exercise nobody would typically bat their eye at. When the participant returned and Ryan asked how the experience went, they stated they couldn't wash their hands because of the height of the sink. Because of where the sink countertop was positioned, it actually prohibited a wheelchair user from reaching the sink.
"So what do you think that communicates to those who come to your church?" was the question Ryan asked.
Our buildings are certainly talking. We have to pay attention to what they are saying and make sure the language they are speaking is one of inclusion and accessibility.
1 The New $41 Million Hunters Point Library Has One Major Flaw by Elizabeth Kim, October 3rd, 2019, Gothamist
2 The Important Thing I Didn’t See at the New Hunters Point Library by Justin Davidson, October 4th, 2019, New York Magazine
3 After Uproar About Accessibility, Hunters Point Library Will Relocate Fiction Section by Elizabeth Kim, October 4th, 2019, Gothamist