Life's Tool Box – A Guide for Parents and Educators

May 30, 2012

Ramps, Universal Design, and Universal Welcomes

     At a weekend lecture to a large group, I shared the story I heard told by the consummate educator, Rick LaVoie, about the snow storm and the ramp.  In this now apocryphal story, a school somewhere in the Northeast is digging out after several snow days.  The school janitor busily shovels and scrapes the front stairs while hundreds of children arrive and await entry into the toasty warm building.  At the side, sat a boy in a wheelchair, who called politely to the janitor and asked “when will you clear the ramp”.  Tired and overwhelmed, the janitor answered “I have to get these steps cleared so that all these children can get into the school.  You will have to wait until I take care of all of them”.  The boy in the wheelchair answered, with wisdom and innocence.  “But if you clear the ramp, we can all go in”.

Although I spoke multiple times across the weekend program, on a number of topics, I had the greatest response to “the ramp story”.  Many people told me they will never forget it (validating how important stories are to the messages we want to share).  Many told me it needed to be said, and thanked me for my appeal and passion for inclusion.  Most poignant were the families who shared with me their struggles to find the ramps into our communities, and their on-going frustrations when ramps may be built, but remain the last to be cleared in a storm.

When I heard Rick LaVoie tell the ramp story, it launched him into a discussion of universal design, the now mandatory practices in architecture and public works that make the world accessible to those with challenges, but which benefit us all.  Elevator indicators to display which car is about to arrive were mandated so those in wheelchairs could position themselves to board the elevator before the doors close.   How many of us, arms filled with packages, have appreciated that simple signal?  Typically such examples of universal design are used to make the point that when we build our buildings, schools and world in a way that works for the disabled, it works for all of us.

I am convinced that universal design has a very different and compelling benefit.  When we shovel the ramps, when we create openness, we are changed for the better.  We are transformed, as people and as communities, when we open our doors and hearts, and become accessible to all.  And the opposite is equally true.  We risk our own well being, our emotional and spiritual health, when we become insular and isolated, or close our world to those who are different, those with struggles.

It is easier to surround ourself with clones, with others just like us.  Difference makes us uncomfortable.  Disability can sometimes puzzle us.  When access requires a physical adjustment, a ramp, a lower sink, Braille signs, we know what to do and how to create a universal environment.  The greater challenge is how we welcome those with learning and emotional difficulties, those who dress or think differently than us, those who may not fit our ideas or norms exactly.  But it is exactly our response to those uncomfortable and unclear situations that stretch us, that enrich us, that allow us to reach beyond who we are and what we know.

It was heartening to hear from so many, that the ramp story resonated and will be remembered.  But a part of me hopes for the day that it will be irrelevant, that people hearing the story will ask incredulously, there was a time when stairs were preferred over ramps?  There was a time when barriers were allowed, and even prioritized?  There was a time when we had not found the way, the room, the heart, to welcome everyone?   But we have not yet built a world that is truly universally designed with access for all.  Until then, we will have to rely on ramps, and stories of ramps, to remind us that when we open doors, we all enter.  When we open our communities, we all are expanded in the most wondrous ways.



  1. A note on language that would make your point stronger. The children were all “snow-bound” but “wheelchair bound” has long been relegated to the obsolete word pile.

    Comment by Scott Rains (@srains) — June 2, 2012 @ 3:32 pm |Reply

    • Thank you for the comment. I will edit and relegate it to my personal obsolete word pile!

      Comment by Life's Toolbox — June 8, 2012 @ 7:44 pm |Reply

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