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All Access

Written by Scott Shindell ’85
Photography by Don Hamerman

Maybe one day, when society is truly enlightened and everything is as it should be, we’ll get rid of all those handicapped parking spaces.

Jonathan Kaufman ’95 would love that, even though he relies on the very same parking spaces that he hopes to do away with.

Kaufman has cerebral palsy, caused by multiple strokes at birth. His right side was greatly affected, and his childhood was dominated by years of physical and occupational therapy, as well as numerous surgeries. The strokes also caused learning disabilities, or, as Kaufman prefers, “learning opportunities. I like that word better!”

Because of his cerebral palsy, Kaufman says, “Daily life has always been about adapting to the environment around me. From the moment I woke up to the moment I went to sleep, the physical negotiation, as well as how I learned and absorbed information, was part of my adaptation.”

Today, Kaufman leads a remarkably full and active life that many “able bodied” people would envy. He lives on his own in New York City, runs a successful consulting firm, and teaches at the City University of New York, where he helped spearhead the graduate program in disability studies.

Kaufman on the subway

Living in NYC, Kaufman no longer needs to drive, but transportation is still a challenge: in the subway, elevators are rare, crowds are unrelenting, and the handicapped seats are hard to win away from their occupants. “I have to plan every move seven steps ahead,” he says.

“My philosophy,” says Kaufman, “has always been to make my wound into my bow.” He has hiked the Ecuadorian highlands, skied down mountains, and rappelled off cliffs in the Middle East, even though he had to tie each bootlace one handed. Kaufman’s mobility and freedom are enhanced by an array of assistive devices, including leg braces and special utensils that help him cut his food and eat with one hand. Before he moved to New York, Kaufman drove a specially equipped car that let him steer and brake one-handed. And when he needed to park, he always pulled into a handicapped parking space.

Given the physical challenges he faces every day, and his reliance on assistive devices, special accommodations, and certain legal privileges, Kaufman’s position on handicapped parking spaces seems a little odd.

Kaufman believes that a parking space whose mere location makes it easier for the disabled to get inside a store is not enough of a solution. He also believes that a wheelchair ramp, which directs the wheelchair-bound to leave their able-bodied companions and head toward a different entrance, is stigmatizing and needs to be improved.

He’s not the only one who thinks so. The Universal Design movement advocates for products and environments that can be used by everyone, regardless of ability.

Kaufman and other proponents of Universal Design believe that accommodations like separate parking spaces, while helpful and well-meaning steps in the right direction, highlight the differences between people and ignore the many similarities. They inevitably separate people into two categories: the able and the disabled. Such accommodations also send a message to the able bodied: The automatic doors, that wheelchair ramp, those extra-wide public toilets are all for them, the disabled, the luckless, the unfortunate. Not for us.

But life is not that neat and people are not so easily categorized. The “disabled” have abilities; the “able” have limitations; everyone is gifted; no one is perfect. And things can get worse (or better) at any time. Today you may run up stairs two at a time, or slowly groan your way up step by step, but who knows how you’ll feel tomorrow? You may not be technically “disabled,” but after a long afternoon of shopping that wheelchair ramp may look very inviting. Not to mention that empty handicapped parking space right in front.

So much for “us” versus “them.” As Kaufman loves to say, the disabled “is the only minority anyone can join at any time.”

There are, of course, cheerier thoughts to consider, but Kaufman is not trying to depress anyone. He is, quite literally and in a big way, trying to change the world.

After graduating from Sarah Lawrence, where he studied disability issues, Kaufman immersed himself in disability and aging studies at the University of Chicago, earning master’s degrees in psychiatric social work/human development and in public policy. Then he entered Columbia University and earned another master’s in cultural anthropology and a PhD in applied anthropology.

Armed with these credentials and fueled by a rare passion, Kaufman founded Disability Works, Inc., a small firm that helps corporations, government agencies (including the IRS and FEMA), and educational institutions to “think creatively about disability and aging issues.”

“I’m a social entrepreneur,” he explains. “I see myself as both an advocate and an educator.” Kaufman looks at different areas within an organization—from recruitment to retention and from management to marketing—to create a better life for the people within that organization.

“My focus,” Kaufman says, “is to give people with disabilities the tools to interact with the world around them and provide greater independence.” “But these issues,” he adds, “have an effect not just on people with disabilities but on all of society.”

That’s why Kaufman urges his clients to embrace Universal Design when they’re planning a new facility (or responding to a lawsuit). Universal Design is not yet ubiquitous, but it has already improved the quality of your life in many ways.

Consider the vegetable peeler. Today, many kitchen utensils have fat, plastic handles. Originally, these handles were introduced as “assistive devices” for people with gripping limitations, but now there’s a “big grip” utensil in nearly every kitchen drawer. Not because the population of grip-challenged Americans has ballooned (although it has grown), but simply because they’re easier to use—no matter how strong your grip. Consider the volume control on a public telephone. It’s there for the hearing impaired, but if a fire truck roars by while you’re talking, you’re going to crank it up—no matter how good your hearing.

And consider the curb cut (that little ramp at the end of the sidewalk). Originally, they were installed to help people in wheelchairs get around, but if you’ve ever pushed a baby stroller you know how handy they can be.

Design that improves the quality of life for all. How enlightened.

Kaufman in front of subway elevator

"The Universal Design movement advocates for products that can be used by everyone, regardless of ability."

Kaufman on subway

"The disabled is the only minority anyone can join at any time."

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