All About Multiple Sclerosis

More MS news articles for August 2003

Video aims to increase disability awareness

Mon, Aug. 11, 2003
Leila Fadel
Pioneer Press

When Joan Willshire travels outside Minnesota, she goes everywhere in a wheelchair because of her multiple sclerosis.

In San Antonio, when she tried to go to the bathroom at a movie theater, she couldn't make it up the carpeted ramp and had to ask a ticket taker for help.

In Minneapolis, she gets around downtown on a scooter but laments the thick carpeting in the skyway system: "It's like traveling through sand. You're going nowhere fast."

Willshire, a member of the Minneapolis Advisory Committee on People with Disabilities, is one of five volunteers who decided to put together a video to educate architects about the limitations that people with disabilities often find: curved ramps, tables that don't adjust or automatic doors that open the wrong way.

"Video Access Maze," just released by the committee, is being sold as an educational tool to promote accessible homes, buildings and offices. The video is the brainchild of Jim Ramnaraine, Hennepin County coordinator for the Americans With Disabilities Act and a member of the advisory committee.

The 22-minute video features an architect and a designer who discuss the challenges of designing accessible buildings and rooms, as well as a landlord who refurbished his building to make sure anyone could get in. The video also highlights a young quadriplegic who discusses how his specially designed home helps him live more independently.

It also includes an animated character that bumps into doors and tables and struggles up ramps designed to meet Americans With Disabilities Act minimums a section Willshire hopes will generate as much understanding for architects as the original Access Maze, on which the video is based.

Willshire was closely involved when the first Access Maze was built eight years ago.

The architects who created the maze asked designers and architects to use a wheelchair to maneuver through the maze, a wooden structure of ramps, doors, an accessible toilet and tables of varying heights built to ADA standards.

Among its creators was Harold Kiewel, an architect at Ellerbe Becket and an adjunct professor at the University of Minnesota, who uses a wheelchair because of a bout with polio as an infant.

When he travels, he'll get in a hotel shower and find that sometimes he can't reach the water controls from the shower bench. In many cases, Kiewel said, architects "don't have the understanding" of which designs work for people with disabilities and which don't.

The maze was meant to give architects that understanding. It was presented at several conventions, including the National American Institute of Architects conference, and won a $10,000 award from the National Organization on Disability.

Over time, however, the bulky maze proved too big and impractical to cart around.


When Willshire found out three years ago that the maze was being permanently shelved, she wanted to find another way to reach architects with the group's message. She turned to Ramnaraine, who had a background in video as well as contacts. He had done a similar project on police sensitivity in dealing with people with disabilities.

As a result, the Minneapolis advisory committee began work on "Video Access Maze," using Ramnaraine's contacts and knowledge of how to pitch the idea and where to look for a scriptwriter and producer.

Committee members took their ideas to architectural companies across the city and the American Institute of Architects. They encountered a bad economy and some architects who questioned whether the project was "preaching to the choir."

Even so, the committee raised $25,000 for the video, cashed in favors for the voice-over talent and borrowed studio time.

Architects "don't see the 'why part,' the human component. Moms with babies or people hauling in bags with groceries can use (automatic doors) too," Willshire said. "We think this is a video that should be in every architectural library."

Holt Bennington, 21, a quadriplegic featured in the video, lost the use of his hands, legs and part of his arms after a hockey accident in 1998.

While his home is accessible with 3-foot-wide doors and ramps, he often has trouble getting into places such as strip malls and smaller stores because he can't find a parking spot where there's room to drop down a ramp from his specially designed van.

Another problem is finding an automatic button to open storefront doors. In such cases, he has to painfully maneuver his arm to jerk the door open with the tip of his wrist and then have a friend in another wheelchair position himself in front of the door to keep it open.

Bennington hopes the video will let architects know that he likes to go out. With 100,000 miles under his belt, he wants to be able to go anywhere.

"Putting a button on a door isn't that hard," he said. "It's a pain to go somewhere and say, 'Oh great, I can't park here.' The video shows there is a simple solution."

Willshire hopes the video will let architects know that people with disabilities should have access to any public building.

"To me, it's a no-brainer because our discriminatory laws stopped minorities from coming in the back door a long time ago," Willshire said. "Yet there is this population with disabilities who still have to come in the back door and sometimes can't even get in the back door."


Copies of the Video Access Maze can be purchased at or by calling 612-673-3857. They cost $29.95 plus shipping.

For more information on the project, call Jim Ramnaraine at 612-348-7741.

Copyright © 2003, Pioneer Press