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Ramps not steps: a study of accessibility preferences.

Ever since Stefan Farffler invented the wheelchair sometime in the middle of the 17th century, people using his invention have been fighting barriers interfering with its use. Rough terrain, curbs, and steps have been blocking the way for some 350 years (Pezenik, Itoh, and Lee, 1984; McNair, 1990). Inaccessible housing, public buildings, buses, job sites, motels, polling places and recreation facilities have restricted the freedom and impeded the pursuit of happiness of citizens who use wheelchairs. Because of these barriers, many of these citizens may have been denied the right to travel to work and access to a job. Some may have been denied an education, the right to vote, a trip to the courthouse and post office, a room in an inn, a meal in a restaurant, or a visit to the homes of friends and relatives. Shopping, attendance at sports events, movies, concerts, and plays may be prohibited and use of public recreation facilities denied. Restrooms, telephones, water fountains, and elevator buttons may be out of reach. Architectural barriers have indeed taken their toll on the lives of those who use wheelchairs and those with other mobility impairments (Romano, 1987; Weiss, 1988).

During the past quarter century, however, progress has been noted. Laws have been passed mandating and encouraging accessibility. Public awareness campaigns have been launched and tax incentives offered. The Architectural Barriers Act of 1968 required accessibility in buildings constructed with federal funds. The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 mandated accessible college programs, further enhanced access to public buildings for those who have physical disabilities and called for affirmative action on the part of government contractors. In addition, section 502 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 created the Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board (1988). Then, in 1975 Public Law 94-142 assured children who are disabled the right to free and appropriate public education; access to school was inherent in that right. Many states had passed similar laws requiring that state funded public buildings meet accessibility standards. Raffa (1985) described the legislative history of federal accessibility laws and Hopf and Raeber (1984) cataloged the barrier free regulations of all of the states. The Americans with Disabilities Act was passed and signed into law by President George Bush in 1990. Its passage promoted an even more accessible nation (Leung, 1990).

To facilitate compliance with these laws and to assure that facilities meet requirements, a host of organizations and groups have offered standards and guidelines for making environments accessible. The American National Standards Institute (ANSI-1986) provides the most comprehensive and exacting standards for full accessibility. The General Services Administration (1985) offers the Uniform Federal Accessibility Standards; the Architectural and transportation Barriers Compliance Board (1981) has a publication entitled, Guidebook to the Minimum Federal Guidelines and Requirements for Accessible Design; and the National Center for a Barrier Free Environment (Fuller, 1981) has spelled out standards for those who may be designing outdoor areas for parking, passenger loading zones, and bus stops. Sorensen (1979) devoted a book to the subject of design for those with disability and Scott (1985) edited one focusing on accessibility in remodeling and renovations.

Others offer accessibility guides, checklists and "how to do it" procedures for specific purposes and places. Desmond (1982) devised a checklist for employers who might want to make their workplace accessible. The National Rehabilitation Association (Mosley, 1989) concentrated on a checklist to assure that hotels/motels and conference facilities were in compliance with accessibility standards. Sovik (1980) and the United Methodist Church (1981) have developed checklists and accessibility procedural manuals for churches; Bugenske (1979) for trade shops; and Doyle (1983) for multifamily housing. Clark and Koltstoe (1990) included accessibility for persons who are sensory impaired in their checklist. Special attention has been paid to making homes accessible (Okamoto, 1984; Rigger, 1989). Both the Paralyzed Veterans of America and the University of Wisconsin-Stout (no dates) designed accessible bathrooms while Wheeler (no date) at New York University proffered accessible kitchen designs.

Accessibility assistance did not end with these resources. In addition to laws promoting accessibility and guidelines spelling out how to design buildings for those with physical disabilities there are many coping mechanisms available and useful while those with disabilities await a barrier free environment. Factor (1989) reported on the Turtle, an all terrain wheelchair that plows through snow, grass, and sand and Beachmaster (1989) boasts of its new aquatic chair which can be used in pools and at the beach. There is also a miniature bulldozer type vehicle with tracks which permit wheelchair users to climb stairs and White, Szeto, and Hogan (1980) designed a trough-shaped ramp with telescoping articulating control rods which allows wheelchair users to climb curbs and other single steps up to eight inches high. Hugh Von Holten developed the Freedom I, a rough terrain, all hydraulic three-wheel chair that features both battery and gasoline power (McNair, 1990).

Many communities have developed and published lists of accessible facilities for their cities: Thomas and Thomas (1986) offer a directory of college facilities and services for students with disabilities. In one review of research and demonstration projects on accessibility, the Interagency Committee of Handicapped Research found four cabinet level federal departments funding research on accessibility and similar disability topics (Wehrli, 1987). ABLEDATA offers toll free information on adaptive devices (1-800-344-5405) and Britell and McFarland (1988) reviewed adaptive systems and devices. Barry and Priestley (1980) focused on coping in their publication, Coping With Inaccessibility: Assisting the Wheelchair User.

Despite the laws, the progress and the coping mechanisms much of American remains remote to those who use wheelchairs or have other temporary/permanent mobility impairments. In many other countries of the world, the situation is even worse for there are no accessibility laws, guidebooks, nor checklists (Couch, Baud, & Goetz, in press). Even though progress has been made there is a continued lack of awareness and sensitivity to accessibility throughout the world a lack of understanding and accommodation. As one group explained, "...architectural barriers are little recognized by the general public, exist on a large scale, and may be eliminated in the private sector only by a voluntary effort..." (Nelson, Jones, & Salkind, 1986, p. 133).

In their study of accessibility in privately owned businesses, Nelson and his colleagues (1986) discovered that 90 percent of 2000 public use settings surveyed in Kansas City presented substantial barriers and more than half were totally inaccessible. When a sample of 300 of these establishments meeting a partial accessibility criterion were sent accessibility packets and offered free consultation on making their businesses more accessible only 15 percent of the businesses responded to the initial contact. Nelson et al. (1986) noted that there were almost no incentives for businesses to make their establishments accessible. Some states still offer tax credits, but Section 190 of the Internal Revenue Code permitting a limited federal tax credit of up to 50 percent for expenses incurred in making businesses accessible lapsed in 1983.

Public laws prompt accessibility for public buildings but incentives must be found for the private sector if accessibility is to be fully achieved. Nelson et at. (1986) reviewed behavioral community research and suggested three intervention strategies which might prompt change in the prevailing posture of private businesses. Informational prompts that tell the story of accessibility, feedback on a particular building's accessibility, and incentives. Incentives such as tax credits, improved community image, and more customers may prompt the most response because they could lead to increased profits.

This study may relate to incentives. The purpose of the study was to investigate preferences of means for changing elevations specifically whether people preferred steps or ramps. The results could be linked to consumer satisfaction which is certainly an incentive for all businesses. If consumers prefer steps, give them steps. If they prefer ramps, give them ramps. The research question was: given a choice, would patrons at an urban shopping mall prefer ramps or steps as a means to ascent/descent a five foot three inch height at a department store. Although the University of Minnesota (Matross, 1981) surveyed both students with foot three inch height at a department store. study showing general satisfaction with wheelchair accessible buses, no recent study of general population with wheelchair accessible or ramps was found in the literature.


Patrons of an urban shopping mall in a small southern city were observed ascending or descending a height of approximately five feet leading to or away from a large department store serving as one of the mall's anchor stores. A total of 3554 observations were recorded. Patrons had three options in accessing the department store and one small dress shop on the mall's upper level. There were two sets of steps, one on each side of the mall's concourse. Each set featured nine, seven inch high steps. In the middle of the concourse was the lower entrance to a 90 foot ramp that curved upward to the top level. At the department store's (upper) level a large permanent display separated the wide, open entrance. In circumventing this display, patrons exiting the department store were funneled to the sides of the mall so the stairs were a convenient as the ramp at the upper level.

There were six observation periods scattered over three months, on several different days (4), and at different time periods. In the absence of a randomly selected sample, this procedure provided a cross section of patron traffic ranging from a calm weekday opening hour, to an after-school rush to a bustling weekend evening. The first observation was for a period of 30 minutes. All of the others were 90 minutes in length. At each observation the patron's choice of options in ascending to or descending from the department store was recorded. Patrons who entered and/or exited the same entryway were counted each time they used the steps or ramp. So, the same person could have been counted more than once. The department store had two other entrances which faced the mall's parking lots outside so the number of entries and exits did not match.

Frequency and percentage distributions were used to illustrate the preferences of the two groups for either ramps or steps. The nonparametric chi square procedure was used to test the significance of the observed difference in the data generated in the study (Cozby, 1085). An .05 level of confidence was selected as criterion for accepting any obtained statistical differences. A second, verification study was conducted on a sample of 100 patrons at a second mall site which featured a similar configuration of steps and a ramp at another anchor department store. The qualitative research technique of participant-observation (Goetz & Lecompte, 1984) was also employed to collect certain non-quantitative data relating to use of ramps and steps. Anecdotal notes relating to patron behaviors and comments were taken at each observation period by a participant-observer patron. The study was limited by a number of factors. The shopping mall observed represents only one setting and patron preferences may not generalize to other settings, other businesses, other environments (i.e. outside), or other malls. The configuration of the steps and ramp may have provided a convenience factor that could have influenced patrons more than personal preferences. Various demographic characteristics of patrons which were not controlled for might also have influenced preferences for ramps or steps. Finally, during several of the observation periods a number of individuals were discovered using the steps, and on rare occasions the ramp, as exercise enhancers. This too could have affected the results. However, the large number of observations probably compensated for this and other factors which could have possibly biased the results.


Asizeable majority (65.5%) of the 3554 patrons observed chose ramps as their preferred means of ascending/descending a height of approximately five feet leading to/from a mall department store. In every one of the six observations periods the majority of all patrons chose ramps over steps with percentages ranging from a low of 57 percent to a high of 73 percent. On one occasion, a greater number of patrons did chose steps over ramps in ascending to the store (57%) but when patron descents were added to the total for that period, a majority favored ramps. Fewer people using the ramp chose it for ascending to the store (59%) than for descending to the lower level concourse of the mall (72%). Table 1 depicts the frequencies and percentages for each of the observation periods and for the observation of preferences for the total observation of [TABULAR DATA ONE OMITTED]

The obtained chi square value was significant, X2 (5, N = 3554) = 28.21. A chi square value greater than 20.517 was necessary to achieve this degree of confidence. This level of significance indicated that observed differences in group frequencies were not likely due to chance.

Data generated from participant-observation indicated that a sizeable number of individuals (81) would have had difficulty accessing the department store without the ramp some could not have accessed it at all. This group represented two percent of all observations. Among these, the largest number were parents with babies in carriages or strollers. They numbered 51. Mothers had other concerns. On Several occasions, pre-school youngsters were observed running ahead of their mothers obviously headed for the steps only to have their mothers prompt them to use the ramps instead so they would not fall. These mothers evidently thought ramps were safer. The second largest category in the group needing ramps were those with disabilities. A total of 5 patrons used wheelchairs and another 19 had evident permanent or temporary physical disabilities. Finally, on five occasions, workmen were seen using dollies to move equipment and supplies up/down the ramp. The only specific qualitative observations in which steps were obviously preferred was when individuals were engaged in exercises. Steps appeared to offer more physical exertion. A few who choose steps were not exercising yet comments overheard by these individuals indicated that they probably agreed that the steps were physically demanding. Typical of these was an elderly woman who said to her companion as she reached the top of the steps, "I can't hardly get up these damn chairs!"


Given a clear choice, a majority of patrons at an urban shopping mall appeared to prefer ramps to steps (65.5%-34.5%). This majority preference was consistent over six observation periods, at various hours and on four different days of the week. The observed differences were significantly different at a .001 level of confidence. Somewhat surprising was the fact that the ramp proved far more popular for descending from the department store than for ascending to it. It is more physically demanding to climb stairs that to go down them. The configuration of the two sets of stairs and the ramp suggested that the ramp approach at the lower level would be far more convinient than the ramp approach at the top. This result may have mitigated the convenience factor as one of the study's limitation. The second, verification study also indicated that a majority of patrons preferred ramps over steps although not to the degree of the primary study. At the second site, one used the ramp or steps to descend to a department store on a lower level; the entrances at both the top and bottom were located differently and the proximity of other stores also differed. The preference for ramps to steps in the verification study (56%-44%) was slightly less than the lowest percentage recorded for any of the observation periods at the primary site.

Qualitative data provided additional evidence favoring ramps. Ramps make businesses accessible to parents with babies in strollers, to those who have temporary or permanent disabilities, and to the elderly. Increased traffic provided by these additional customers could result in higher profits. Further, if most consumers prefer ramps to steps then ramps should lead to greater consumer satisfaction and to higher profits associated with consumer satisfaction. For some patrons ramps may be safer. Ramps also facilitate the movement of equipment, fixtures, merchandise, and supplies by workers and by suppliers making deliveries to business establishments. Thus, there are incentives to using ramps even financial ones.

This study should be replicated in other settings, at other sites, and with different businesses. Possible patron demographic influences should also be studied and controls for the convenient factor employed. If such studies consistently verify that people prefer ramps to steps, then the implications for improved accessibility are obvious. Planners, architects, developers, contractors, and government officials would take note that a majority of all people preferred ramps. Both public and private policy that would recognize the preferences of the majority. Ramps might replace steps as the preferred means for pedestrians to change elevation levels at, near, or in buildings. Constructing ramps for people might become as habitual as constructing them for automobiles in driveways and the drive-in businesses, and for shopping carts at supermarkets and discount stores.

Whenever anyone discusses ramps the subject of cost in inevitably raised. The cost of ramps, say the detractors, is prohibitively expensive. But is it? Preliminary efforts to explore this often repeated reason to avoid constructing ramps indicated that there may be no appreciable differences in costs of ramps and steps. Research regarding cost factors should also be conducted.


Shopping mall patrons were observed entering and leaving a department store in a small southern city. Their preference for means of ascending and descending a five foot elevation was observed, recorded and compared. The research question asked: given a choice, do patrons prefer ramps or steps? Patrons had the choice of three options. Either one of the two sets of stairs or a 90 foot ramp. Results showed that 65.5 percent of patrons preferred ramps. The observed differences between ramp and step users was found to be statistically significant. Among those choosing ramps, a larger percentage (72%) appeared to prefer ramps for descending from than for ascending (59%) to the department store. Qualitative research data gleaned from participant-observation offered other evidence supporting ramps as some two percent of the observations made were of those who needed ramps for baby strollers, work dollies, wheelchairs, or other mobility impairments. Cost factors considered suggested that ramps were not, as has been often claimed, necessarily more expensive than steps. Although replication is recommended, results tentatively suggest that increased business and greater customer satisfaction could be possible incentives for builders to consider ramps in their construction plans.

In summary, this study did appear to support the sentiment of an old bumper sticker distributed by one Governor's Committee on Employment of People With Disabilities which proclaimed, RAMPS NOT STEPS!


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Author:Couch, Robert H.
Publication:The Journal of Rehabilitation
Date:Jan 1, 1992
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