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Making the World Accessible… One Voice at a Time

Posted Aug 16 2010 8:10am

I love it when I have guest writers come forward to write for Hearing Elmo. There are so many different types of disabilities, chronic illnesses, and debilitating health issues. Reading different perspectives and other individual’s stories is important. This week Hearing Elmo welcomes guest writer Kacey A., who lives in South Carolina with her husband.

Because I am such a fun and loving wife my husband recently invited to join him as he completed an assignment for his Master’s program. Secretly, I think his intent was to get me to the department store so he could beg me to buy him something!  His assignment was to visit a local establishment and evaluate it for handicap accessibility.  He probably wishes he would’ve left me at home.  Not only because I didn’t buy him a thing, but because he forgot how much of an “out of the box” thinker I am.   I had him taking more notes than he takes IN his Master’s class!

The establishment we chose was the local Belk department store. It is the only department store we have here in town, so it keeps a steady stream of business.  According to some statistics I found, a staggering 24.5% of our county is listed as having a disability.  So, I think it is pretty important for our businesses to be accessible to all of those who have disabilities.

But what does accessible mean?  When people think of “handicap accessibility“, they usually think of people in a wheelchair.  But what about those people who have a disability but don’t need a wheelchair?  Some disabilities require a cane, a walker, an assistance dog, or a simple chair/bench to sit down and rest for a bit.

The first thing I noticed during this visit WAS wheelchair related.  There were quite a few handicapped parking spots up close to the door, which was good.  BUT…because I’ve had some experience with loading and unloading wheelchairs, I also noticed that the parking spaces were the normal size with no little yellow striped zone to allow extra space to unload a wheelchair.  So, if you parked with a side-loading van lift, you’d either dump the wheelchair into the row of bushes or into a car.  Hmm, not very practical.

The next thing we noticed was the little sidewalk entry for wheelchairs/walkers/strollers/carts. It was made of bricks that looked like Legos, with all those little bumps on top!  It’s not easy to push a loaded wheelchair, stroller or a cart, let alone push it up an incline made of bumpy bricks.   I imagine it would be the same story for someone using a cane or walker.  Those bumps would just get in the way and may cause more injury. I’m not sure what these people were thinking when they put in bumpy bricks but I was feeling a little pessimistic already.

But then things started getting better.  The entry way was a double automatic door, which got a “double” a thumbs up because it actually gives a person some space to get in and out!  In between the two entrance doors, we spotted a courtesy wheelchair, which was another thumbs up for me.  There are people I know who don’t need wheelchairs on an everyday basis, so they don’t own one, but when they get out and about, they find they need one.  So a courtesy wheelchair is always a great thing to have available.

Feeling adventurous, we grabbed the wheelchair and my husband (who is also a  football coach) pushed me through the aisles as if I was the football he was rushing into the end zone before someone could tackle him.  I held my breath, shut my eyes and prayed quietly to keep from screaming, but when we stopped and I opened them, I realized that we made it clear across the store!  To my surprise, the wheelchair actually fit down just about every aisle. There was one aisle that had a ladder in it, but it was easy to maneuver around to the other side of the ladder.  Once I caught my breath, I started feeling a little more optimistic. We returned the wheelchair and headed towards the bathrooms….. where things got rough again.

Bathrooms are always difficult to “pass with flying colors” in my book.  For starters, the signs usually only have braille on them about half of the time.  I guess those with sight impairments don’t have to use the bathroom. Of course, I can see rather well and sometimes I have trouble figuring out if I should go in the door labeled “Blokes” or the door labeled “Sheila” at Outback. Sigh.

Anyway, moving on.  Then the door itself is usually an issue too.  Very rarely do you see a bathroom door that has a automatic “door open” button.  I grumbled to my husband about how this should be mandatory at all facilities in order to be accessible for those with walkers, strollers and wheelchairs. He looked confused.  So I had to demonstrate with my “air walker” what I really meant.  It is NOT easy to push a (sometimes heavy) door, maneuver a device AND keep your balance without bumping into someone who is coming out the door.   My heart is happy when I see facilities that just eliminate the door all together and have a small “maze of walls” that leads to the restrooms.

So let’s say you manage to get in the door, or get lucky to find a place that doesn’t have a door.  Well, you are usually “home free” then because most places have the handicap accessible bathroom stall.  However, most people never even notice that most places are missing a lowered sink.  This isn’t just an issue for those in wheelchairs.  Some of those sinks are REALLY high for children to get to to wash their hands too.  Then you have the mom who stands and lifts each of her seven kids up to the sink to wash their hands.  Or she just breaks out the hand sanitizer on the way out the door.

Sigh.  Speaking of mom’s.  You know how most restrooms have a baby changing area?  Yeah, those are great, except for this one.  It was RIGHT in the way of the door.  So when it was down, no one could go through or come out.  Not very convenient.  But my other issue with these is that they have a weight limit.  What happens when you have a large child, or even an adult who needs to be changed?  I have seen ONE place that had a “Changing Counter” to allow for that.

Okay, I think you get the picture of why bathrooms never really get a thumbs up from me!  We finished up and my husband was getting anxious to leave, but I wasn’t done.

As we walked through the store, I noticed that besides the shoe department, there wasn’t a single place to sit down for those who may just need to rest.   Not even at the fitting rooms!  Chairs are such an easy and relatively cheap fix.  Considering the number of  people these days with fibromyalgia or arthritis that  need that short break so they can continue to enjoy their day without regretting it later, you’d think that even a small department store in a small  town would have some chairs!

And finally, what may be the most important aspect of being “accessible” — the employees.  Some facilities may not have everything someone needs, but friendly and helpful employees go a long way.  They may be able to find a chair for someone to sit down in.  Or they simply smile and repeat themselves to those who are hard of hearing.  They can move things around for those in a wheelchair or a walker.  They can lend a hand in opening that heavy bathroom door.  They smile as a person and their assistance dog walks by rather than scoffing and yelling about a dog being in the store. Friendly employees really go a long way.

People who don’t have disabilities don’t think of accessibility issues until the issue is staring them in the face.  How do we train employees to be understanding in a world that wants to criticize and condemn? How do we educate people in a world that would rather be ignorant because it is “easier”?

A disabled person’s limitations and accessibility issues usually go unnoticed because the person in the situation doesn’t have the energy or the confidence to ask (or demand) that organizations do something to help them have easier access.    How many people do you know who would rather just stay home than worry about making a scene somewhere?  I know far too many.  How do we build confidence in those around us who have disabilities to fight for their rights?

More importantly, how do we get businesses to think about these things before the “fight”? Organizations usually do only what the ADA requires and don’t think anything else of it.  While I think the  establishment we visited did well compared to some other establishments in town, there is still room for improvement EVERYWHERE.  But how do we push for that improvement in a day when so many organizations are looking for ways to cut costs instead of increase them?

The only answer I can come up with is this –  Stand up for yourself and those around you who are disabled. If you are blessed to be without a physical impairment, start thinking about those who you know who do have impairments while you are out and about.  Would they be welcomed into the store with their assistance dog?  Would they be able to easily maneuver around the facility?  Would they be greeted by friendly employees and treated with respect?  If the answer is no, then speak up.  Let someone know.  There is no need to make a scene, but simply let our voice be heard…. one voice at a time.

By the way, my husband got a 100% on his paper that week.  So maybe he didn’t regret taking me after all!


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