RESNA Annual Conference - 2019

Perspectives On Building Accessibility: Survey Responses By People With Disabilities On Accessibility Experiences And The Need For Information

D. Tomashek1, C. Wilson1, R.O. Smith1

1R2D2 Center, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee


Building accessibility is a major concern for people with disabilities (PWD), as acknowledged by the ADA (Access-Board, 1992; Department of Justice, 1991; U.S. Congress, 1990). However, little information is available from PWD on their perspectives of building accessibility, and the information available. We conducted a small survey to gather data from PWD. This paper presents some of the results, and discusses the importance of access to building accessibility information for PWD. We hypothesized the following: 1) that most respondents would report having had accessibility issues, 2) that they would indicate a desire and need for more information prior to visiting a public building, and 3) that respondents would like accessibility information that was personalized to their needs. To test the hypotheses, chi-squared tests of independence were conducted.


Questionnaire Creation and Distribution

Table 1: Types of Disabilities
Disability % Count
Mobility 21.77% 54
Vision 4.44% 11
Hearing 5.24% 13
Cognition 3.63% 9
Communication 3.63% 9
Upper Extremity 9.27% 23
Lower Extremity 14.92% 37
Temperature Sensitivity 4.84% 12
Touch Sensitivity 3.23% 8
Light Sensitivity 2.02% 5
Noise Sensitivity 1.61% 4
Environmental Sensitivity 1.61% 4
Head, Neck or Back 8.47% 21
Other 3.23% 8
I do not have a disability 12.10% 30
Total 100% 248
Table 2: Types of Assistive Devices Used
Assistive Technology % Count
Upper Extremity Prosthetics 0.61% 1
Lower Extremity Prosthetics 2.44% 4
Hearing Aid 4.88% 8
Communication Device 2.44% 4
White Cane 0.61% 1
Service Animals 0.61% 1
Smart Phone 12.80% 21
Wheelchair 26.22% 43
Walker 7.93% 13
Cane/crutch 6.71% 11
Scooter 4.27% 7
Medical Implant, such as a prosthesis, or artificial hip or knee 2.44% 4
Other 4.88% 8
I don't use any assistive devices 23.17% 38
Total 100% 164

The questionnaire was created by the lead author using Qualtrics software. It was then sent to several experts in the area of building accessibility to validate the questions and answer sets, and overall flow of the questionnaire. The questionnaire was then refined by the lead author were refined. The survey was then distributed through a local independent living center (ILC). The local ILC then posted a notification in a statewide newsletter, and distributed the anonymous link to other ILCs and building accessibility experts. All survey activities, including the questionnaire were approved by the UWM IRB prior to distribution.

Questionnaire Response

Because of the way in which the questionnaire was distributed, we cannot be certain how many people were potential respondents. 177 participants responded, with 118 answering all or most of the responses. Exact totals are difficult to ascertain, as some of the questions allowed for multiple responses. All data reported is only from those who answered “Yes” to the question “I have a disability”. 79 responded yes, 38 responded no. We speculate that these were people who work at independent living centers, or who are caregivers or advocates who were interested in the survey.


Participants: Ages ranged from 24 to 85 in age. Of the 110 who answered more than 1 question, 79 of the respondents reported having a disability. Participants were allowed to enter multiple disabilities (responses ranged from 71-75, depending on the question). Mobility had the most responses, followed by lower extremity. (See Table 1).

Respondents were also allowed to list multiple assistive devices. Wheelchair was the most common response, followed by smart phones. (See Table 2). Respondents were also knowledgeable about the ADA, with 46% being very or extremely familiar, and 36% being moderately familiar.

The next set of questions asked respondents about their building use and experiences. 75% of respondents answered that they use public buildings very or fairly often, indicating that our respondents are fairly active members of the community. When asked if they had ever arrived at a building and realized that they could not access it, 69% answered yes, and 60% indicated that they were prevented from completing the task they had gone to the building for because of a barrier. Table 3 shows the types of accessibility barriers encountered by respondents.

The final group of questions asked respondents about accessibility information, its availability, and importance.

Seventy percent of respondents indicated that having prior accessibility information would have changed their plans, and 75% replied that having building accessibility knowledge would help better plan activities. Sixty-one percent indicated that they were definitely, probably, or unsure of ways to access ADAAG information about a building. When asked whether they were aware of any websites or apps that provided accessibility information, 83% responded “No”, and 71% indicated that they would definitely or probably use an app that gave them accessibility information about a building. Respondents also indicated an interest in sharing comments and ratings of building accessibility; with 54% answering, they would probably or definitely share information, and 21% indicating that they weren’t sure. When asked if they would prefer generic or personalized accessibility information, 52% of respondents answered “Generic”, and 48% responded “Personalized”.

Table 3: Types of accessibility barriers encountered
Barrier Type % Count
Physical barrier (ex: Couldn't get into the building due to the entrance, couldn't use the elevators, etc.) 78.33% 47
Cognitive barrier (ex: Didn't know where to go inside the building, couldn't find what I was looking for, no directions, etc.) 3.33% 2
Visual barrier (Ex: signage was low contrast, no braille, signage, etc.) 6.67% 4
Other (Please explain) 11.67% 7
Total 100% 60

Statistical Analysis

Chi-square test of independence was used to measure the differences in “positive” versus “negative” responses. When applicable, questions were grouped to avoid statistical differences within same type responses (positive and negative). For example, responses labeled “Definitely Not” and “Probably Not” were grouped, and “Definitely” and “Probably” were grouped. Neutral responses (i.e., Unsure” “Maybe” “Not sure”) were excluded. Alpha was set at p≤.05. We used only responses from those who reported having a disability (~75), as those are most relevant to our questions.

Table 4: Results of Chi-Square Tests of Independence


Question Responses Χ2 (p-value)
Hypothesis1 Have you ever gotten to a building, then realized that you could not access it? For example, unable to enter, no directions once inside, couldn't use the elevators. Yes=60 No=13 .000*
Have you ever been prevented from accomplishing your intended task at a building due to a barrier? Yes=55 No=16 .000*
Hypothesis 2 Have you ever been in a situation where knowing whether a building was accessible or not beforehand would have changed your plans? Yes=59 No=9 Maybe=5 .000*
Would you use an app designed to give you information about the accessibility of buildings? Definitely/Probably=56 Definitely/Probably not=6 Not sure=9 .000*
Hypothesis 3 Would you prefer generic accessibility information, or would you prefer personalized information by users similar to you? Generic=35 Personalized=38 .72


The responses from our survey supported our first hypothesis that people have encountered accessibility issues, and often could not complete the intended task due to barriers. The data also supported that people with disabilities would like information, but often do not know where to find it. However, the data did not support our third hypothesis that people would prefer personalized accessibility information to generic. The researchers speculated on this, and arrived at the conclusion that, because it was not explained to them in the survey, the respondents did not understand what we meant by personalized accessibility information (Spaeth, Tomashek, & Smith, 2015).

 While it may seem obvious that people with disabilities experience barriers to full participation, this has not been reported. As with many issues within the disability community, things that seem obvious often go unreported, thus making it more difficult to solve issues. The ADA has, of course, increased the ability for many individuals to participate in many places. However, the results of this survey show that problems still exist. Just as importantly, there is a need for people to have information, so they can better plan activities within the community.

The Access Ratings for Building (ARB) and ARB-NextGen projects are developing a suite of apps, AccessTools, and AccessPlace, to not only expertly rate the accessibility of buildings, but to allow people to leave information and comments from the point of view of people with disabilities (R. O. Smith, Tomashek, & Domke, 2016; R.O. Smith, Tomashek, Mendonca, Spaeth, & Burns, 2017; Tomashek & Smith, 2017). Further, by creating a user profile, data can be filtered so that the most relevant information for that user will appear first. Through experience and anecdotal evidence, we have confidence that once users see how our personalized information system works, they will prefer it to a generic information “dump”. Our methods for this personalization were presented at RESNA (Spaeth et al., 2015; Tomashek, Spaeth, Latzig, Pelkey, & Smith, 2018).

Of further interest was a question asking people to share their “worst” accessibility experience. Many of the “common” experiences were no accessible entrances, or accessible entrances being locked for “security” purposes, or entrance through an inaccessible back alley. Others included lack of elevators, restrooms that were inaccessible due to steps, lack of handrails in entrances and bathrooms, doors being too heavy, lack of signage and directions, and no accessible parking. These were especially dire during situations such as being late to a job interview and being unable to access voting polls. While the physical and cognitive barriers were deterrents, several people reported being humiliated by employees or managers, or being embarrassed, such as on a date. These psychological barriers can be just as, or even more important to many people, who would rather stay home than face the humiliation that often accompanies non-accessible issues.

Again, this stresses the need that people with disabilities, and their caregivers, friends, and families have for accessibility information prior to planning activities. It was also noted by more than one respondent that the ADA is only a minimal requirement, and doesn’t ensure accessibility for everyone. This emphasizes the need to think



Access-Board. (1992). Americans with Disabilities Act Accessibility Guidelines (ADAAG) Checklist for Buildings and Facilities.   Retrieved from

Department of Justice. (1991, September 14, 2010). Title II of the Americans with Disability Act Retrieved from

Smith, R. O., Tomashek, D., & Domke, H. (2016). AccessPlace: Personalized Accessibility Information for Buildings. Paper presented at the 96th Annual American Occupational Therapy Association, Chicago, IL.

Smith, R. O., Tomashek, D., Mendonca, R., Spaeth, N., & Burns, S. P. (2017). Measurement approaches and tools for accessibility of the built environment. . Paper presented at the Rehabilitation Engineering and Assistive Technology Society of North America (RESNA) Annual Conference New Orleans, Louisiana.

Spaeth, N. L., Tomashek, D. B., & Smith, R. O. (2015). AccessPlace: Personalized accessibility information for buildings. Paper presented at the RESNA 38th International Conference on Technology and Disability: Research, Design, Practice and Policy (platform), Denver, CO.

Tomashek, D., & Smith, R. O. (2017). AccessTools: A Multitool App for Assessing the Built Environment. Paper presented at the 2017 Assistive Technology Industry Association Conference, Orlando, FL.

Tomashek, D., Spaeth, N., Latzig, N., Pelkey, N., & Smith, R. O. (2018). Validation of the AccessPlace Personal Accessibility Information Review Sorting. Paper presented at the Rehabilitation Engineering Assistive Technology Society of North America Conference (RESNA), Arlington, VA.

Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990,  (1990).