And by “accessible” you mean what?

I will never forget that bathroom break. We were living in Minnesota and I was taking some graduate classes in education. Having a bladder the size of a grape, I of course had to run out mid lecture to relieve myself. As I threw open the door, I almost crashed into a fellow student. I quickly apologized and began to go around her to the stall. I didn’t get far before realizing that she wasn’t that close to the door because she was using the sink, trying to go herself, or simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. She had been trying to leave and could not. I awkwardly asked her if I could help her with the door and was caught off guard by her response. (obviously these are not her exact words, but you get that). She too had needed to escape a lecture to use the facilities. Unfortunately though, an hour had elapsed since she had used the restroom, her lecture had ended and she had missed an important review for an upcoming exam. Why? Because the supposedly “wheelchair accessible” bathroom in our building became her prison. There was no way anyone, I don’t care if they could bench press a million pounds, could have opened that door from a seated position. It was ridiculous. And I could see that what I had initially perceived as her sadness and my need to show compassion wasn’t it at all. She wasn’t sad. That girl was pissed off. And shouldn’t she be? And you know what, I think she wanted me to be too. Shouldn’t I be? So we opened that door and stormed out together, ready to bring it, and angry that with all the dollars we were paying for our education they couldn’t manage to put in a door that could logically be opened by anyone. We wanted to give “the man” a piece of our minds. But did we? Or did I for that matter? Nope. I want back to lecture, got bored and completely spaced out for the remaining 30 minutes.

Today the girls and I ventured downtown to go to the aquarium. I had a stroller for MolĂ© and BQ on the “buggy board.” Much better for the bus and train. As I was lugging the children from bus to train and then more trains, up and down escalators, searching for the correct elevators to get me to such and such platform and trying to maneuver the stroller on and off the train and bus I was beyond frustrated. What a pain! How in the world would anyone think any of this is accessible to a mom with a stroller when it clearly is not!? I started to wonder if any of it would even be possible for someone in a wheelchair, traveling alone and needing to go the same route. The answer is a big fat NO WAY. We live in a very old city and its attempts as being accessible are pretty much laughable. In the past I would say this makes me a bit sad. But now, it really just makes me angry.

Wouldn’t it just be better on everyone if we called it like it is? Rather than a little blue sign with a white drawing of someone in a wheelchair, why don’t we add a big question mark. Basically, “Um, well, yah we sort of tweaked some stuff, but haven’t really checked it out, so yah know, good luck with that.” Sort of a choose your own adventure concept. I wonder how many others like that student I met in the bathroom have been fooled into believing that little blue sign only to be left behind. It’s ridiculous. The Hallmark store at the mall near my house that has all of its cards up a set of stairs after you enter, ridiculous. Our church that doesn’t have an elevator or any ramps other than the one up to the front door yet has classes and meetings upstairs and in the basement, ridiculous. My apartment with its stairs at every entrance, ridiculous. And the aquarium with its really cool top of the big tank viewing area that’s only accessible by stairs, ridiculous.

I don’t really have an answer and obviously I’ve never experienced this personally. It’s just on my heart tonight and I needed an avenue to express my frustration. How can we truly create access for all without it being an afterthought? Some sloppy inadequate job that looks like something a five year old threw together. It isn’t about checking boxes on a form so that you can proudly display that little blue sign, is it? I hope not. I don’t ever want to meet someone in the bathroom, or any other place for that matter, because of cut corners. I highly doubt it would have taken much time to have someone test out that door prior to completion of the restroom.

Maybe I’ll go back to be junior high days of removing public signs (true confessions. i really liked the “wash your hands before going back to work” ones found in bathrooms. they were usually up with double sided sticky tape and came off easily. i know, really random form of rebellion). This time I’m targeting you, little light blue sign and your so called “accessible” establishments. You’ve been warned- it’s either fix it or buy a lot of nails.


4 thoughts on “And by “accessible” you mean what?

  1. I’m right there with you. When we first moved here with a newborn I was appalled at how wheelchair unfriendly everything was. I do not think I would have noticed had I not had a stroller. Perspective is everything! I can’t say I have done anything about it though. Everyone kept telling me the city was old. If you need some help with those signs let me know. I used to be known as the “TP Queen” I haven’t used those skills in awhile!

  2. The Boston Center for Independent living filed a class action lawsuit against the MBTA a few years ago and they reached a settlement – so changes are happening, but slowly. I think that society is often reluctant to change both physical structures and common institutions to enable people with disabilities to lead full and active lives because of our general discomfort with the idea of disability. Our focus is on the cure and prevention of disability, not on measures that improve quality of life, because it’s difficult for mainstream society to embrace the natural diversity that people with disabilities bring. For years, people with disabilities have been institutionalized, sterilized against their will, euthanized, imprisoned in their homes, pitied, and denied equal access to education, healthcare, employment, and community activities. The main goal of many disability organizations is not to advocate for people with disabilities, but rather to cure disability, to “fix” what we perceive as “wrong” or “broken” because we’re uncomfortable with it. Until our society truly begins to accept disability as a natural part of the human condition, full access will never be achieved.

    In looking at accessibility issues, I think that many people say, “Well, why should we make things accessible just for “them” (people with disabilities)? They constitute such a small portion of our population! Just fix them or make them go away!” Yet the improvements in physical accessibility make things easier for everyone, from our elderly population to – like you, moms using strollers. And improvements in education of children with special needs, for example, are a benefit to the everyone in the classroom because we’re realizing that no students learn in the same exact way and it’s important to cater to the needs of a diverse group of learners, including students with special needs.

    When I was in middle school and my parents and I were engaged in a vicious battle with our town council so that elevators could be installed in the high school, they recommended that I attend school at home via video conferencing, they asked why we had even moved to the town in the first place if I had a disability (my parents moved there before I was born), they wanted to send me to another school 45 minutes away from my town and away from my friends, and they asked over and over, “Why should we build elevators for just one student?” My parents and I were alone in our fight and had few allies on our side, but we won and the elevators were built. All of a sudden, the elevators became useful – not just to me, but to everyone. Students who broke a foot or sprained an ankle were able to get to class. The band members used the elevators to transport equipment. So did the janitors. Older teachers didn’t have to climb huge flights of stairs. Grandparents could finally come to school events to see their grandchildren receive awards or honors. Moms with strollers could finally get in. They didn’t end up building elevators for just one student – they built them for a community. It’s not an “us versus them” situation, and in order to truly change things and respect the value of human life, we need to begin to embrace the diversity of disability.

    1. Jen, I love your thoughts and you are so right on. I completely agree that it’s about celebrating the unique qualities of each and every person and allowing that to be something positive. How boring would it be if we all looked the same way and got around the same way. And, isn’t it funny how often after the fact we realize, “wow, so many more people are affected/blessed by the changes we were so reluctant to make!!” Well, duh. And bravo on fighting hard even when you had to do it alone. I’m sure there have been many students, families, and teachers that will continue to be blessed through your unwillingness to back down or settle.

  3. I am usually not one to post comments on blogs (in fact, I almost never do) but this one really caught my attention. For those that don’t know, I am a neurological physical therapist specializing in spinal cord injury. With almost all my patients being in wheelchairs, accessibility is something you could say I am aware of. It is appalling how inaccessible most of America is. Even in Arizona, a relatively young state where many of the buildings are new, inaccessibility is everywhere (I can’t even begin to imagine how bad it is on the east coast where the buildings are much older). Just a few weeks ago, I took one of my patients (a C5/6 quadriplegic- he uses a manual wheelchair but has limited use of his upper extremities) to Glendale Community College as part of a treatment to see if he could navigate campus and check for accessibility. Many of the buildings on campus are brand new. One that we were looking at in particular had just been built withing the last few years. That same building had only 2 entrances with handicap accessible plates (to open to door) and in both doorways the threshold was so large he couldn’t push his wheelchair over it. And this is at a community college-funded by the county.
    I find myself teaching my patients how to try to navigate the inaccessible streets and buildings of Arizona, which isn’t always possible.
    Thankfully, Arizona is becoming more and more disability friendly (even though the brand new light rail has its pay stations at a height that nobody in a wheelchair could possibly reach) but it is a slow and frustrating process. I think its great that you are bringing this to the attention of all your readers. That is what will help make change happen, the more people that are aware the better.

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