How a Can of Soda Changed a Cafeteria Design

Derek Anderson in the cafeteria

It was an "a-ha" moment.

When the MITRE facilities team was redesigning its McLean, Virginia cafeteria, the plans of course complied with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). But ADA doesn’t take into account some simple things that impact people with disabilities—such as being able to reach your favorite can of soda.

That’s where Cybersecurity Engineer Derek Anderson comes in.

Anderson, who suffered a spinal cord injury in a snowmobiling accident when he was 13, uses a wheelchair for mobility. When the facilities team invited the five-year MITRE employee to a cafeteria design review meeting to look at accessibility issues, the results were game-changing.

"The facilities team and the architect showed me their plans, and I made some suggestions,” Anderson said. “We then toured the cafeteria and I pointed out a few more things. I was impressed; they listened to everything I said."

"Derek opened our eyes to the challenges people with disabilities face," said Carole Horne, director of MITRE's Corporate Real Estate and Facilities Operations. "He gave us a whole new level of understanding. Because of his input, we're incorporating all his suggestions. We’re also going to engage with MITRE's Accessibility Committee (a cross-functional team of MITRE employees dedicated to improving accessibility at the company) on future facilities projects to get input on accessibility issues."

Issues like simply getting a can of soda…the real "a-ha" moment.

Coolers in cafeterias are stocked with the same flavor on the same shelves. But what if you"re in a wheelchair and your favorite flavor is on the top shelf? It’s a problem that's easy to overlook. During a tour of the cafeteria, Anderson suggested a different way of stocking coolers, as well as ideas for placement of silverware and napkins.

"He really opened our eyes to other things we could do to make life easier for people with disabilities," said Dave Gallagher, MITRE project manager for the cafeteria redesign.

Anderson even had some ideas for the cafeteria's new courtyard.

"The plans for the courtyard were great, but there was a step down, and I couldn't get out there," Anderson said. "So the team incorporated an automatic door and ramp into the plans. Same goes for seating space in the cafeteria. When I want to sit with colleagues, it’s sometimes tough to get to the table. Now, plans include more space for people in wheelchairs."

Anderson's input into the cafeteria design is an example of MITRE taking the extra step to make sure accessibility is the best it can be for employees and visitors.

“We've always complied with ADA and accommodated people with disabilities," Gallagher added. "But we want to go above and beyond basic requirements to make MITRE the most accessible workplace for everyone. This project has shown us that getting input directly from people with disabilities is the best way to do that."

Bedford Too

MITRE's Bedford, Massachusetts Food Services Director Michael Cicolini thought the McLean approach was so good he and his team borrowed a wheelchair from Health Services to test accessibility of some products. Cicolini and team researched ADA requirements and then applied a reality check with the wheelchair and tape measure. Thanks to that work, they’ve rearranged beverages vertically so that products are accessible to people in wheelchairs, and they've changed the arrangement of chips on the chip rack.

"It was surprising to see how many different areas that we could make ADA compliant by using the same equipment in a different arrangement of products," Cicolini said.

Other Improvements

Anderson's input even extends outside MITRE.

The facilities team invited him to meet with the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) about a sidewalk that was in disrepair on the way from the Metro to the McLean campus. Thanks to Anderson's input, VDOT fixed the sidewalk and plans to install a new crosswalk. He's even working with facilities on the redesign of the MITRE Institute's teaching space.

"MITRE is always looking for ways to make things easier for people with disabilities," added Anderson. "This is the best company I've ever worked for in going the extra step to accommodate people with disabilities so we can do our jobs."

—by Andy Porter