How Can Accessibility and Public Health Work Together?

How Can Accessibility and Public Health Work Together?

Accessibility and public health measures can work together, pandemic or not.

Observing public health guidelines during a pandemic, businesses are adapting spaces and services to attract as many patrons as possible. Among those consumers are 1 in 4 people in the U.S. with some form of disability.

Sanitizing protocols, social distancing opportunities, and contact-free transactions are some of the hygienic practices businesses are adopting. Often, these measures must be implemented in spaces not originally designed for such tactics. These adjustments are bound to affect usability for people with disabilities.

Barriers, however inadvertent, still prevent people with disabilities from participating equally in daily life activities.  Pandemic or not, businesses need to provide access to all patrons, including those with disabilities.

Hindering or helping access

It is possible to mitigate public health hazards without unintentionally causing accessibility hazards. Knowing how ADA Standards and guidelines apply to specific mitigation efforts – and following them – is a good place to start.  

Here are some examples of how public health related efforts may hinder access – and how to avoid them:

If protruding objects are installed

  • Wall-mounted objects, such as sanitizing units, should not obstruct passage and must be at an accessible height.

If accessible features are closed off

  • Do not close off accessible features, such as accessible toilet stalls, sinks, or counters.

If accessible entrances are used for exit- and/or entry-only

  • Be sure a person with a disability can use the accessible entrance to enter or leave the premises. A revolving door is not an accessible feature.

If elements used in different way than intended

  • Be aware of elements in spaces not intended for ‘temporary’ services. For example, a bar or operable window was not designed for take-out/pick-up purposes. Move pick-up to an accessible location, such as a folding table that can be easily reached by all.

If accessible routes or elements are encroached upon

  • Don’t place objects (tables, portable heaters, chairs, tents, portable sanitizing stations, waste bins) to impede mobility. Leave clear floor space for an accessible route.

If new measures create new issues

  • When installing temporary ramps be sure placement allows maneuvering room at top and bottom. Install platforms at curbs to provide access to street-surface seating.

Communicating social distancing

  • Ensure messages are clear for all patrons. Use high-contrast, non-serif text. Ensure color is not the only distinguishing factor. Use plain language. Use a simple image to show and say it. Provide both audio and visual information wherever possible.

Improving access and public health

There are also opportunities where public health measures will bolster accessibility. Many of the features described below are not new. But they have gained particular significance during a public health emergency. Their wider use going forward, as designs adapt to greater awareness of public health, can only benefit accessibility.

When more is automated, items are touch-free and may present fewer barriers

  • Automated door openers
  • Motion activated paper towel dispensers, soap dispensers, and water faucets

When more space is provided, maneuvering room is provided

  • Greater distance between tables in a restaurant

When there are options for how service is delivered, people can be served in a way that works for them

  • Grocery delivery 
  • Applying for permits/licenses online or in person
  • Pickup service

When communication is streamlined, more options mean more access

  • Online ordering improves experience for people with speech-related disabilities
  • QR codes instead of printed menus may improve access for people who are blind or have low vision

Changing consumer behavior and new technologies have historically generated creative approaches to enhance daily life experiences. Safer, more welcoming environments for all users are possible through intentional and careful planning and design.  


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