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“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.