I got an email yesterday from John Garra at Square One Architecture¹ with a short paper on an aspect of physical accessibility and Covid-19 that frankly had not occurred to me. The sneeze guards that have been put up at most sales counters may, and frequently do infringe on the space required for those with disabilities to access the counter. I think this is the first non-mask related Covid-19 item I’ve seen.
Sales counters are a frequent source of ADA complaints and litigation, usually because they are not low enough, not wide enough, or cluttered with point-of-sale displays. Adding a sneeze guard that isn’t carefully designed can easily create problems that didn’t exist before. Garra also points out that the reason sales counters have a maximum height is that wheelchair users are sitting at a height lower than almost all standing users. That means the portion of a sneeze guard that is open for passing receipts or goods may be a just the face level of a wheelchair user, making the sneeze guard less effective or ineffective.
I’ll share any additional insights that Garra sends me, but once you begin looking at public spaces in terms of accessibility it isn’t hard to imagine other unintended consequences of Covid-19 protection. Restaurants that have eliminated tables in order to create greater social distance might easily have eliminated accessible seating without thinking about why some tables are differently configured. Sneeze guards aren’t just a problem at counters. The picture above shows a sneeze guard that makes a booth inaccessible for a person in a wheelchair. The focus on masks as a problematic requirement for those with breathing disabilities may cause us to overlook the problem presented for deaf individuals who rely on lip reading when a clerk or server is wearing a mask.
There are, as Garra points out, many resources on accessibility available online from the U.S. Access Board,² the federal agency with general responsibility for accessibility standards. I would add this suggestion for businesses that want to both avoid litigation and better serve customers with disabilities. Just take a few minutes to walk through your business imagining you are in a wheelchair and see what barriers might exist because of Covid-19 precautions or for any other cause. Think as well about the experience of a blind customer or a deaf customer. The technical standards can be daunting, but in most cases the problems are easy to identify and understand with a little imagination.
¹You can contact John at firstname.lastname@example.org if you want more information. His website is Square One Architecture.