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Most savvy businesses know that in the US people with disabilities have more than $200 million in discretionary spending. If we include their friends and families, we get an even bigger slice of the market pie that businesses are vying for. Thanks to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), most businesses have accessible counters, bathrooms, and often seating areas, but even with these accommodations there is still one surprising barrier between a business’ products and services—and interestingly it is the door.
This is relatively obvious for small businesses that are renting space in older buildings. They don’t own the building, nor do they necessarily have the funds for remodeling. However, what most people don’t realize is that even chains, like Starbucks or McDonald’s, also have this problem. “Starbucks doors are technically accessible,” says Patrick Hughes, the Founder and CEO of Inclusion Solutions. He explains that there is no step in front of the door and that they have rounded handles for easier gripping which makes them ADA compliant. “But they are not practically accessible,” he says, because this baseline of compliance still excludes some wheelchair users like quadriplegic Appelton Wisconsin Alderman, Joe Martin. Martin tells me that “the only way [he] could get in was if [he] could get an employee to notice [him]. And especially on cold days, that’s very frustrating” because it could take a while before either an employee or customer would open the door.
Just like it’s surprising to realize that doors are the chief barrier to business, so too is the simplicity of the solution surprising—a bell.
It is not realistic to expect every business to have automatic doors akin to Walmart or Target, so Hughes thinks of solutions to accessibility in an approach he calls “low tech, high touch.” His BigBell™ is a low-cost wireless bell that can be installed on any building, or on a stand in front of a building. If a person needs assistance, whether it be someone elderly, a wheelchair user, or a parent with a stroller, they simply ring the bell and the staff hears (and sees via a flashing light) that someone needs them to open the door. A few months ago, David Grossman, Chicago Area Developer for the restaurant franchise Freshii, implemented this approach in his area branches. You can see in the below video how remarkably effective such a solution is when it comes to making buildings accessible.
Alderman Martin agrees with the lauding expressed in the above video. I asked him how often he frequents his local restaurant, Mark’s East Side, now that they use the bell. “They’re now number one on my list of places to go,” he says. “They have a different attitude. I’m not just a guy in wheelchair. I am a paying customer. Just having the bell tells me they want my business.” It is clear that physically opening a door for a customer who needs assistance is more than just helping them enter the establishment. It is about a philosophy of inclusion and a spirit of welcome. And this spirit doesn’t only impact customers with disabilities.
“When the bell rings, the staff gets excited,” says Grossman when I asked him what differences he has noticed since the implementation of the bell. They get to greet the customer and help them. “You want them to feel welcome,” he says. “The other cool thing is that so many customers who are fully able, they might have a disabled family member or friend, they see the sign [with the Freshii Assist bell] and it resonates with them and lets them know that we care and that we are trying to make it easier for people with disabilities to come to Freshii’s.” The persistent undercurrent in all these testimonials is that making accessibility and inclusion a priority has a positive ripple effect that extends far beyond the individuals who are being helped.
Thanks to the ADA, business establishments have come a long way in being accessible for everyone, but they are still not perfect. Once seen in action, solutions like the BigBell™ seem obvious and it becomes clear that they should be widely implemented. As Martin put it, “When you think of people with disabilities, they have disabled parking spots near the door. But if you can’t get through door all the money you have in your pockets stays in your pockets.”