I happened to be standing in line at Big National Chain Bank the other day when all sorts of things started going awry for the tellers. First, one had her computer crash. Then, the other had what seemed to be some sort of problem with a cashier’s check which involved a lot of furtive muttering and consultations with the other tellers. The third teller had a customer who appeared to be depositing approximately eight million checks into four million different accounts.
So, I realized I was going to be there awhile. The people in the line behind me (including the man who first tried to cut in front of me because he “didn’t see me,” because I guess being fat really does make you invisible), started grumbling and grousing and complaining. Which always seems odd to me. I mean, sure, no one wants to stand in line at the bank, really, but I fail to see how moaning about it is really going to help.
And, while I was standing there, I had a sudden flash of awareness. I thought, “man, this would really be uncomfortable and unpleasant for someone with a disability like chronic fatigue syndrome.”
See, the thing is, the bank is totally accessible in terms of the letter of the law. The doors are wide and ramped, there’s a counter low enough for customers in wheelchairs to use. But I started looking around as I was standing in line, and I realized that the bank actually has a lot of accessibility problems. Like no chairs in or around the area for the line for people with disabilities to use while they are waiting, which means that someone with a condition like fibromyalgia or chronic fatigue might walk in the door, see the long line, realize that they will have to stand in that line for a prolonged period of time, and either grit their teeth and suffer because they need to get their business done that day, or leave, making the effort of the trip a total waste of time and energy.
Like a floor which is kind of rough, and while probably navigable with a wheelchair, might catch a walker, a cane, or an unwary foot. As if the flooring isn’t bad enough, there are random rugs which also represent a tripping hazard. And that low counter with space for a wheelchair? There are two chairs crammed right in front of it, which means that a wheelchair user can’t just roll right on up to it and get down to business.
And what about the narrow doors into the carrels the bank uses for private business? I’m not positive a wheelchair would fit through one of those, and once inside, it would be difficult to maneuver. And, of course, there are chairs wedged every which way from sideways in all of those carrels, and the chairs would need to be moved to accommodate a wheelchair user, someone with a walker, a scooter user, someone on a ventilator, someone who needs supplementary oxygen.
It was an important flash of insight.I’ve always been interested in accessibility, but it was only recently that I started making the leap into examining spaces to assess them for accessibility from an actual usability perspective, not just a legal one. And, from there, to think beyond “wheelchair user” and to start thinking about people with other disabilities. Disabilities I would not have thought about if people weren’t writing about them and sharing their experiences with me.
And, you know, as a society, we are doing a pretty crappy job when it comes to making even basic accommodations for people with disabilities. Like, say, making sure that sidewalks don’t randomly end. Or making doors wide enough. Or keeping bathrooms on the ground floor so that people can access them. Or making counters low enough for wheelchair users, older adults with severely bent spines who cannot straighten up, or people with dwarfism. Putting up grab rails where they are supposed to be. We can’t even comply with the law when it comes to accommodation, and the law is woefully shortsighted.
Accommodation is not just about complying with the law. It’s something that needs to be thought about from a lot of different angles when designing and laying out spaces. Clearly, this thinking is not going on, and this means that people with disabilities are forced to ask for accommodation. Sometimes, they are forced to ask a business to just comply with the law, and they aren’t even requesting that people think outside of their own bodies for a moment and consider ways in which they could make the lives of others easier. People with disabilities should not have to be asking business owners to do this. Business owners and members of society should be able to figure out how to make spaces accessible; they should be able to evaluate a space and ask, not only “is this space legally compliant,” but “how would this space be to use, as a person with disabilities?”
We need, in short, more awareness.