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By Joe Zgrabik

Kathleen Carroll works with the American Association of Automatic Door Manufacturers (AAADM) and its members. She spends her days monitoring state and federal legislation on physical access to public buildings, reaching out to government agencies that can expand this access, and generally looking at life through the lens of a person needing assistance getting around. She understands, perhaps better than most able-bodied citizens, the challenges that face people with physical disadvantages trying to navigate a world built for people with a fully functioning body.

Then she found herself in a wheelchair and realized even she had a few things to learn.

Kathleen stresses that her situation was temporary, and she can in no way compare it to a person facing a lifetime of disability. But it did give her additional insight, that can’t be gleaned simply from imagination, about how important accessible doorways are to helping all individuals maintain their independence.

Experiencing Life In A Wheelchair

Kathleen was enjoying the second day of her Puerto Rican vacation when she slipped on a marble floor at her hotel, came down hard, and broke her right ankle. She spent the remainder of her vacation in a wheelchair, attempting to navigate a resort that had automatic doors at its main entrance…and nowhere else.

“Suddenly, I was relying on the kindness of strangers to get anywhere within the hotel property—out to the beach, onto the patio, even into my room,” said Carroll.

She realized that, along with frustration over her lack of mobility, the loss of independence was a crushing blow. “I’m used to doing things for myself, now I can’t,” said Carroll. “Many people with disabilities, our wounded veterans for example, remember well a time when they didn’t need help and are suddenly thrust into a new world. And people who’ve lived with their disabilities since childhood or birth, they still want to live as independently as they can. It’s up to the world-at-large to do everything it can to make this possible.”

Crutches Aren’t An Upgrade

After returning home and getting a walking boot and crutches, Kathleen expected an improved mobility experience. It was not to be. She found, while walking on crutches, she still couldn’t open doors on her own. “Think about your typical door-opening process. You step toward the door, take the handle or knob in your hand, then place your weight on one leg as you step backwards to create enough room to walk through the doorway,” said Carroll. “With the bad ankle and the crutches, I couldn’t execute this move. I became my own obstacle to getting through the door.”

Carroll points out that, with the U.S.’s aging population, it’s likely that more adults will have to live with some type of temporary or chronic mobility issue. It’s even more evidence that growing numbers of people can benefit from accessible doorways.

“Decision-makers often think automatic doors are expensive, but they don’t have to be,” said Carroll. “It doesn’t have to cost tens of thousands of dollars. There are much less expensive options and even tax credits available. There are all kinds of ways to alleviate the cost of an automatic door. There’s really no excuse.”

Incredibly, the Americans with Disabilities Act does not require automatic doors. In fact, the ADA only requires that doorways be 32 inches wide and have “maneuvering clearance” for a wheelchair user to open the door and roll through. Even then, this is only required of 60% of a building’s entrances. People with disabilities often point out that this is woefully inadequate. Carroll agrees.

Doing The Right Thing

“My hope is that all building stakeholders think about how they can improve accessibility for the millions of people who use their facilities each day. This includes building owners, facility managers, architects, contractors, and even the public—because public pressure can often bring about positive change.”

She reflects on a low point of her time at the resort, which she views as an apt metaphor for what millions of people experience every day.

“I was still using the wheelchair and was outside looking at the ocean…when it suddenly began to rain. I had to sit there, getting wet, waiting for someone to notice me and open the door,” said Carroll. “There are people stranded outside our public buildings, in every town and city, on any given day.”

“What’s maddening is that the remedy is a relatively easy one. Facility owners and managers just need to care enough to do the right thing and invest in accessible entrances. Consider it an investment that will pay huge dividends by literally opening doors to new customers, patrons, and clients.”

Joe Zgrabik is an experienced association account executive who serves as the executive director for AAADM (American Association of Automatic Door Manufacturers). AAADM is an industry trade association dedicated to promoting safety in the manufacture and operation of automatic doors. AAADM has developed inspection procedures and a training and certification program for automatic door system inspectors. The Association’s members meet regularly to review and update its certification program and standards for automatic door systems. AAADM recommends utilizing AAADM-certified technicians to install and service any automatic doors in your facility.

Kathleen Carroll is the founder and managing partner of Seven Seas Strategic Communications, a full-service public relations and government affairs firm, offering strategic planning, writing, media relations, and event planning. In this role, and for the past five years, Kathleen advises AAADM (American Association of Automatic Door Manufacturers), helping to advance legislation that addresses shortfalls in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. 

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Facility Executive Magazine