Tuesday, February 10, 2009

What Does Accessible Mean?

Not long ago I was looking at some real estate websites, dreaming of moving to a house where I can access all rooms all the time. And I noticed that on occasion you can find houses that are listed as "accessible," though one person's accessible may not be my accessible. I did find one unexpected surprise. On a few websites where homeowners listed their own houses, almost all of them listed their houses as "accessible." I was at first excited but then disappointed when I quickly discovered that homeowners obviously had no idea what the term means. A small home with a vertical spiral staircase, open between each step, is just not going to be accessible, whether you check the box or not. Many of the staircases would not accept lifts because there's no full wall to attach them to--the bottom of the staircase may be open on both sides.

I always wonder what "accessible" means to people without disabilities. Our newspaper lists wheelchair accessibility for all restaurants reviewed in our metropolitan area. I have yet to see a "no" next to accessibility. This to me is strange and at odds with my experience. I have definitely been to places where I can't get in or where the turns to the restroom are too tight to take wheelchairs. This "yes/no" designation leaves out so much. Is there room in the waiting area for a wheelchair without being in the way? If I'm by myself, can I get to a counter to order and pay? Can I see the counter or what I'm ordering? Is the staff too busy to help me get a tray to a table? Can I sit outside (often, no)? Are the tables too tight to navigate between? Can I get into and out of the restroom without assistance? Can I wash my hands? Is the only seating at high bar tables or at booth tables that are a step up, meaning I can't eat at the table? Most restaurants are a mix. Chipotle counters are too high and I can't see the choices, but restrooms are really good and I can handle the seating; La Madeleine counters are low enough but it can be difficult to get accessible seating, much less have someone help you with coffee, which is out of reach. And it's always a toss-up whether in a regular restaurant the waiter can handle it or is going to be leaning on your chair or avoiding speaking to you.

I'm hesitant to make reservations for new-to-us places because I'm afraid we'll get there and there will be no way to get in or service will be awful or I'll be humiliated by how (in)access is handled. I tend to stick with the known, and we do have places where we know access is good and people are friendly.

I've known some of the newspaper reviewers, and they are very able bodied. While their intent is good in this regard, I have to wonder how different the outcome would be if they nuanced the accessibility statement or allowed people with disabilities to make the decision. I find it ironic at the place where I sometimes get my hair cut that there's a wheelchair sign on the restroom door, ironic because people in wheelchairs can't get in. Ironic that there is a long ramp up to the door in lieu of stairs, but a two inch step at the end of the ramp, at the entrance. I cannot bring in my scooter. The owner, a family friend, said, "oh, I'm sure we can find a way to get the scooter in." Even my husband, who's strong, says no way. While I can disembark from it and he and one or two other men have lifted it before, not everyone can transfer out. This is the difference between the AB/PWD perception--it's just a little step, a small curb, one tight turn. Inaccessible.

At the new GI doctor visit last week, the office was under significant reconstruction. I don't mean redecorating. I mean rooms had been stripped to their shells and walls were torn down. The staff break room had become the waiting room, but the upside was free coffee. The rooms that were still there were fairly accessible and I'm sure the changes will allow for more room in this tight old hospital building. But I did have to note, again, a restroom door with the blue wheelie person--blocked by an exam table so that only a walkie could get through. Truly their rooms are not big enough. The physician apologized for the new construction and we chatted briefly about accessibility. He noted that he recently traveled to England with his wife and 3-year old and a stroller and expressed his surprise at the absolute impossibility to get from Gatwick to Victoria Station without stairs. I nodded, having noticed the same there, and explained inaccessibility in big cities with old infrastructures. It's good that people notice on their own, though what's surprising to many is common experience, here in the U.S., there in his office, there in the parking lot without its curb cuts to the hospital, in the parking garage across the street that you can't access with a wheelchair.

I did suggest to one of the clerks that the new waiting area leave an empty spot for wheelchairs and explained why. She thought that was a really good idea and said she'd mention it to the office manager.

Increasingly, I suspect the term "accessible" is not known to most people in the context in which I use it. If I ask about "accessible parking," people have no idea what I mean. And yet this is what goes on all disability accessible parking. The sign does NOT say "handicapped parking." They do know what "handicapped parking" means.

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