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"Watch Your Steps"

Creator: Reinette Lovewell Donnelly (author)
Date: February 1933
Publication: The Polio Chronicle
Source: Roosevelt Warm Springs Institute for Rehabilitation Archives
Figures From This Artifact: Figure 2  Figure 3

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Editor's Note: The Architectural and Mechanical Hints Group of the National Patients' Committee is sponsoring and promoting in every way possible the "Lovewell Plan," a drive to make public buildings more accessible to handicapped people.


A National Roll of Honor is being inaugurated to give fitting recognition to public buildings which meet a minimum requirement of accessibility. That minimum consists of having handrails on both sides of one or more public entrances, where steps occur, and a ramp entrance somewhere about the building.


WHEN I was a small girl, I went to grade school in a little New England village. The school house was a wooden building on Main Street, with a single front entrance. Before its wide doors was a flight of stone steps, not more than four or five, without hand railings on the side.


A few years before, Infantile Paralysis, that tricky disease known at Warm Springs as Polio, had taken most of the rightful jump and spring from my sturdy tanned legs and left them quite inadequate to travel country roads, climb trees and race like mad through fields of clover and wild iris - the inheritance of every farm-bred child.


I got about in a determined sort of way with a crutch and cane, but every day I went to school those steps in front of the entrance stumped me. I simply couldn't get up them on my feet without something to grip and pull myself up by. There was only one way to do it -- toss the crutch and cane ahead of me, sit down and hitch up them, one at a time. This I did, and, when four o'clock came, I hitched back down again, in spite of rain and snow and the dirt from many hurrying feet. My home town folk were fine, kind-hearted people, but it just didn't occur to them that for a very small cost, two substantial handrails could have been fastened where they would have enabled this one weak-legged youngster to go up and down like her fellows.


With the secretiveness of childhood, I never told anyone that behind the broad covers of my geography book I used to dream that when I grew up I'd make a lot of money -- the perennial dream of childhood -- and put stout hand railings on all the steps in the world.


I grew up -- but I did not make a lot of money. I still want to put stout, trustworthy hand railings on all the steps in the world that stand stark without them. And I know now that it is not the cost that matters but an understanding of the need.


I grew up -- through years of startling scientific achievement. From the flying fields near my Long Island home aircraft pass constantly over our roof -- a plump silvery dirigible floats along hourly carrying passengers across the river to Manhattan, a twist of our radio dial and we can hear the Prince of Wales speaking in England - common-places, all of them.


Elevators have multiplied in the land. Blessings on the manufacturers! Ramps are someone's bright idea. If anyone knows how they originated, I wish they would let me know. I find them here and there, always with rejoicing. Yet steps are still steps and numbers of them present exactly the same problem as those before the school house in Massachusetts. Last week I rode to the top of the Empire State Building -- the one hundred and two stories which rise like a mountain peak from mid-Manhattan - in an elevator so smooth and silent and perfect of operation that the ascent was imperceptible. But -- stepping from the lift on the floor where the observation terrace and lounge are located, I found myself confronted with three modernisticly lovely steps, walled in with shining metal planes impossible to grip for support.


Churches, libraries, colleges, postoffices, court-houses, city and state federal buildings, railway stations -- not all, but many, have stairways which are either impossible or very difficult for people of faulty locomotion. When a person goes up stairs normally he "bears his weight" on one leg as he makes the step up and this is exactly what Polio people cannot do. They have to help themselves out by gripping something with their hands.


Great numbers of stairways and steps have a railing on one side only. Everyone knows that halt a loaf is better than none and I admit a personal prejudice, but isn't there something lopsided and stingy-looking about these one-rail stair cases? So many people have one leg which is weaker than the other, despite the reinforcement of crutches or braces, and when only one railing has been installed, the support which is so grateful going up may be on the wrong side going down. From the purely aesthetic standpoint, things in pairs balance and give grace. Ask the decorators -- interior and exterior. I know that flights of steps before many cathedrals and public buildings are things of great beauty. One might well give pause before detracting in any way from their design. I spoke of this to a famous architect.


"It is an architect's business to make utilitarian things beautiful," he told me, "Thought is what does it."


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