Standing in front of a sandwich shop on Central Street, Patrick Hughes points to a front stoop that would be too difficult for a person in a wheelchair to maneuver. A sign on the door indicates that handicapped customers should ask for assistance, but there is no apparent way for a patron to signal inside for anyone’s attention.
“Imagine being out here, hungry and freezing, and you’re responding to their promotion,” Mr. Hughes said with a sigh. “I’ve been in to talk to them four times.”
Mr. Hughes, an Evanston native, is founder of Inclusion Solutions, 2000 Greenleaf St., a company looking to improve accessibility for the many Americans who live with disabilities.
The high stoop problem, Mr. Hughes said, can be rectified using one of his products, BigBell, a large button mounted outside the store that alerts employees to a customer requiring help. Used in tandem with a clear plan for assistance, it is a less costly alternative to an expensive build-out when access is mandated.
“Businesses are opening up here, and we’re still not making them accessible,” he said. Though the Americans with Disabilities Act has been the law of the land since 1990, Mr. Hughes said, many business owners will not make necessary changes unless they get sued.
Mr. Hughes first became involved with persons with disabilities as an undergraduate at the University of Kansas. There he formed a friendship with an autistic student named Jay, who he brought into his own regular activities. After a newspaper story about his friendship with Jay was published, Mr. Hughes received a number of inquiries from people seeking information about his “program”– which did not exist. Before long, though, he formed Natural Ties, an organization that forged friendships between community members and persons with disabilities, who, Mr. Hughes says, society has generally pushed aside and rendered invisible to most others.
Persons with disabilities face innumerable inconveniences in time, energy and money performing the same tasks the rest of the public performs with little effort.
One such problem is pumping gas. Federal law states that filling stations with more than two employees must pump the gas of a customer with disabilities, and most have signs simply telling disabled customers to ask for assistance. But very often there is no way for an employee to know that the customer is even there. What usually happens, Mr. Hughes said, is that another customer ends up being a Good Samaritan and pumping the gas for them.
Mr. Hughes’s product, FuelCall, is a large, easily accessible button that customers can trigger just by reaching out their car window. A distinctive alert goes off inside the station, so clerks know immediately that someone outside needs help.
The device costs about $1,000-1,200, but very often gas station owners balk at the expense. Many franchisees actually own only the convenience store part of a business; they maintain that the cost should be carried by the companies responsible for the filling stations. Those companies often will not pay for such devices until legislation or litigation tells them to do so, Mr. Hughes said.
“The only way these people respond is when they’re sued,” Mr. Hughes said.
Similarly, hearing-impaired customers often experience substantial inconvenience at the drive-thru at fast food restaurants. Inclusion Solutions thus markets OrderAssist, a device that signals to clerks that someone is in line who cannot communicate through the speaker.
Businesses are not the only places that can be slow to make accommodations, said Mr. Hughes. Numerous Chicago Transit Authority ‘L’ stops cannot accommodate persons with disabilities, nor can many schools.
“We still have a public education system that segregates kids,” Mr. Hughes said. “[School] is a very scary place to enter if nobody is ready for you.”
Mr. Hughes added, however, that some Evanston schools have made substantial accommodations to improve access for students with disabilities. This can help families for whom sending their child to Martin Luther King Junior Laboratory School, which has long made accessibility a priority, is inconvenient.
The lion’s share of Mr. Hughes’s business comes from products associated with elections; about 350 items in Inclusion Solutions’s catalog are related to polling places. “Voting is a big business because of a federal mandate that polling places have to be accessible – we sell a lot of signage.”
Mr. Hughes’s advice for business owners and anyone else who wants to serve people of all abilities is to plan on accommodating the most difficult customer they can conceive of. “That way, their business will be accessible to anyone.”