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Change Leader: Do More Than ‘Check a Box’ to Meet Disability Requirements

Todd Danielson on November 30, 2023 - in Articles, Profile

This interview was recorded by Todd Danielson, the editorial director of Informed Infrastructure. You can watch a video of the full interview above or by visiting bit.ly/3QLUz8F.

Mark Raymond Jr. is a disability advocate as well as founder and CEO of Split Second Foundation.

Mark Raymond Jr. has spent most of his life advocating for a more-equitable world. He started by raising awareness of systemic racism he saw firsthand and in the communities around him in New Orleans. But that focus changed in an instant when a diving accident left him paralyzed and unable to walk.

“Where I was a mixed-American before, now I am a disabled mixed-American, and that disability supersedes all of my other personal identity,” he explains. “When people are new to the disabled community, they go through that same journey from a self-identity perspective. I realized quickly that the disability civil rights issues were very similar to the other equity-rooted advocacy issues I was working on, except this population is just so much larger.”

According to recent U.S. Census Bureau data, there are about 42.5 million Americans with disabilities. After seeing how much his life had changed, how many others were going through the same difficulties and how under-resourced communities were, Raymond Jr. founded the Split Second Foundation (www.splitsecondfoundation.org), which aims to help “make people aware of a growing population of individuals impacted by disability, advocate for their rights, fund cutting-edge research, and provide clear-cut steps to immediately improve their quality of life.”

Seeing the World Differently

An important way to get the abled community to empathize with the plight of the disabled is to have them change their perspective. Raymond Jr. likes to put people in a wheelchair so they can see life from that perspective, however briefly, and open their eyes to this world that seems very similar, but now is quite different.

Navigating infrastructure such as buildings and transportation is one of the most-challenging exercises for those with mobility disabilities, and Raymond Jr. believes engineers and architects were part of the problem, but can certainly now be part of the solution.

“I think architects are building beautiful spaces for abled people, and viewing it from the abled lens,” he notes. Changing that lens starts with all the little intangibles that used to be afterthoughts as well as pushing universal design principles to the forefront of every conversation, in every design, in every space that we’re building. He cites several examples from his experience.

“My first two months navigating the built environment from this new perspective, I learned how important curb cuts were,” says Raymond Jr. “When that curb cut is too steep, it’ll catapult somebody right into the traffic. Or if it’s too steep and then it meets the street and goes back up, it creates this little pocket. When it rains, there’s puddling there.”

He notes that some elements that are never noticed by most pedestrians can become hazards to those with disabilities. “Even the slant we put on sidewalks to make sure that rain can roll into the street properly adds an extra set of force, so people with manual chairs are working harder with one arm than the other,” he notes. “Old buildings will just have steps in weird places. Why would we build this way?”

Do More than the Mandates

Raymond Jr. appreciates mandates such as the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), but they’re now 33 years old and haven’t been substantially amended. He notes that hotels and mixed-use developments are required to have 5 percent of their stock ADA-compliant, but often they’re designed to meet the specific codes, with little thought to how they will actually be used by the disabled.

“I’ve gone to hotels where the shower head and knob is on one side, and the bench is on the other, and you can’t reach it,” he relates. “I get it, you checked the boxes, but this doesn’t work for people.”

For Raymond Jr., a major improvement would be if engineers, architects and designers consulted with the disabled on their projects and didn’t just design to meet ADA standards. Those updating such standards also should do more consulting.

“What the ADA missed is having accessibility consultants on every project,” he says. “When you bring this experience in, now I can talk to you about why I need a door handle and not a doorknob, or this door needs to be wider, or we shouldn’t put that wall there because it’s going to be divisive and adds a barrier—just all the little things.”

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About Todd Danielson

Todd Danielson has been in trade technology media for more than 20 years, now the editorial director for V1 Media and all of its publications: Informed Infrastructure, Earth Imaging Journal, Sensors & Systems, Asian Surveying & Mapping, and the video news portal GeoSpatial Stream.

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