Out of Reach?

An accessible world may be just around the corner—if we’re willing to speak up.

I’m at Duane Reade in Manhattan’s Port Authority bus terminal, the hub for New Jersey–New York commuter traffic. It’s Christmas Eve, and the place is buzzing with last-minute travelers and shoppers. Pushing my way past those gathered around cosmetics, baby stuff, and paper products, I arrive at my destination—the painkiller aisle. I scan the boxes placed at eye level, looking for my brand. No luck.

Finally, I find it on the bottom shelf. As I reach down to retrieve the container with its bold, colorful logo and tiny instructional typeface, a man with a cane approaches me. “Miss, would you mind getting those pills for me, right there?” he asks, pointing to where my hand is now. And again, pointing with his cane to the opposite shelf: “Could you grab that foot powder too?” Both of these items are displayed on the lowest rung of a tall shelf, difficult to find and clearly out of reach for the man with the cane.

As I do my neighborly duty and hand him the boxes, I wonder if the store’s manager has heard of universal design, design for the aging, transgenerational design, or any of the other phrases that have been bandied about since the Americans with Disabilities Act was signed into law, by Bush the elder, nearly two decades ago. A lot of care seems to have been expended to find just the right eye-level spot for lip gloss, but those in pain, those who can’t bend down to retrieve things, and those who would benefit from considerate product placement seem to have been ignored or simply forgotten.

I’m especially sensitive to issues of accessibility at this time of year. My birthday is coming up, and, inevitably, my consumer profile is looking like that of the leading edge of 78 million baby boomers, who are experiencing, even if not admitting to, new pains and aches as well as other physical challenges. I wonder if the generation that invented the sexual revolution, plus consumerism and political protest as we know them, has enough steam left to call attention to a poorly designed, carelessly managed physical environment. Awkward ramps, small print, hard-to-open packaging, bad lighting, and insensitive and discriminatory store displays are just a few of the many things that need fixing—made accessible to teens as well as aging boomers and populations with other unique needs.

Then I remember that we’re in the midst of a design revolution, ignited by an environment in distress and an economic system in peril. In the process, we’re learning how to be more connected to one another. And I think that as we become truly interconnected, we may find ourselves members of a movement Paul Hawken identifies in Blessed Unrest as “coherent, organic, self-­organized congregations involving tens of millions of people dedicated to change.” Activists, some boomers among them, are pushing new boundaries in environmental and social justice. But in this big push toward major change, no one can forget the importance of the small detail. It does matter that the painkiller is at least as accessible as (if not more so than) lip gloss. It does matter that health-related information is delivered in readable type in addition to the glossy logo. Design at all scales needs to acknowledge the complex needs of a complex society. The drugstore shelf is just the beginning. We can change its con­figuration immediately. A talk with the store manager can lead to some accommodation. Many people talking to that same manager will lead to dramatic change. We’re all advocates for design change.

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