Basic Accessibility Provides Benefits for Everyone
When people talk about accessibility, most of the general population understands that it involves some kind of design change to allow people with disabilities the ability to navigate the world in an independent way.
Interestingly, many of these design changes have great benefit for the general population and/or people just find these adaptations preferable to the unaltered option. However, the adapted version is often the only option a person with a disability has and using it when you don’t have a disability creates inaccessibility.
Here’s an Example: Bathrooms
What am I talking about? Let’s take the very simple, yet very important example of an accessible bathroom. It’s a problem I have been aware of for most of my life, but on a recent cross country trip, I was acutely reminded of just how problematic it is.
Have you ever been on a trip, whether by car or airplane, and at some point the excessive amount of coffee you’ve been consuming finally hits your bladder? By the time you land, or park, your back teeth are practically floating and you are waddling as fast as you can, legs crossed, to the nearest bathroom.
Imagine your dismay when upon arrival you discover that every single bathroom stall is occupied. You stand against the bathroom wall, legs still crossed, doing your best not to do the pee dance. When a door finally opens up, you sprint your way into the now vacant stall and are able to finally have sweet relief.
We’ve all experienced this. Don’t deny it. But, what happens if you can’t actually fit into one of the bathroom stalls? In fact, you can only maneuver into one very specific stall, or bathroom, an it is occupied.
A First-Hand Experience
On my recent trip, I deplaned from my flight with quite the strong urge to pee. Since it was an international flight, I forewent the bathroom break until after I had cleared customs and re-checked my luggage. Since I was traveling on my own, an airport staff member had been assigned to me to assist me in navigating through he unfamiliar airport.
Knowing that I had a long layover, I asked the staff member if we could stop at the bathroom. He offered to stop at the “family” bathroom so that I could fit with my guide dog. I’ve often used the standard sized stalls and fed my dog’s leash under the door – and this leads to varying reactions to my fellow bathroom-goers.
Some people think it’s cute; some worry about her; and still others are afraid of her.
Not to mention, she ultimately takes up space in the often narrow walkways in the bathroom, making it difficult for people to get by. So, when the option of the “family” bathroom was presented, I took it. No trying to squeeze the two of us into a stall. No having to leave her standing on the other side of a door, her leash trailing between us. She could even put her mad skills to good use and find me the toilet, like I’ve taught her. The problem was when we got to the “family” bathroom it was in use.
We stood for nearly ten minutes waiting for the bathroom to become unoccupied. The airport staff don’t mind assisting, since it is their job, but I’m pretty sure it’s not a part of their job description to hang outside of an in-use bathroom for nearly ten minutes.
I tried to be optimistic and have faith. The person inside was a parent with a baby and they needed to change the baby’s diaper. The occupant was someone who used a wheelchair or a walker – some kind of mobility aid that made it impossible to fit into a standard bathroom stall.
Finally, my airport assistant went and knocked on the door. We heard the toilet flush and the towel dispenser dispensing paper towel. At least they washed their hands. When the occupant emerged I had to ask if he or she had a visible disability or perhaps a child. The answer was no. I can’t say I was surprised. More often than not, people using accessible bathrooms are people who don’t need them.
Why are the Accessible Bathroom Stalls Always Full?
I’m not sure what it is about accessible bathrooms that draws everybody in, but 9 times out of 10 they are in-use and they are in-use by someone who can fit comfortably into a standard stall.
Sure, it is possible that someone with an invisible disability who needs the accessible stall could be using the bathroom and so it is imperative to not call out people on their bathroom choices. However, if you are someone who really doesn’t need an accessible bathroom and there are other options available to you, please don’t use the accessible stall.
Accessible bathrooms aren’t the only examples of accessibility adaptations that are used by the population for whom they were not intended.
Elevators are full of people with 2 working feet when there are escalators available. This can be a real problem for people who use mobility aids or are perhaps pushing a baby stroller.
Occupied seats at the front of the bus can pose a problem for people with ambulatory disabilities when there are empty seats in the back.
I’m not suggesting you should walk an extra minute just to use an escalator, but just be aware of the other people around you and what their options may be. Most people using wheelchairs aren’t going to be able to take an escalator. They are going to need the space in the elevator that you and your family just took up.
It’s About Self-Awareness and Considering Others
Ultimately, accessibility comes down to self-awareness and how your actions impact those around you.
So, the next time you see that the accessible stall is open, ask yourself if you can spare the extra thirty seconds to wait for a standard stall – just in case someone who cannot fit into a standard stall actually comes into the bathroom. Otherwise, you may have the joy of my guide dog peeking underneath your bathroom stall door while she waits out in the walkway for me.