Before I had my abrupt encounters with dog and road a couple of weeks ago, I’d never been in a wheelchair. I’d never been hurt badly enough even to need crutches. So now, as a first-time wheelchair inhabitant, I’m noticing things I never would have before. Like that it is entirely possible to get stuck in a department store restroom.
Today Michael took me on an outing to Eastview Mall to pick up a cell phone range extender at the AT&T store. (I know usually only nursing home residents and preschoolers go on outings, but really, my dependence level competes with those groups’ right now.) We got our phone gadget, wheeled around a bit, stopped at the Apple Store to play with iPads and the new iPhone, and wheeled back to JC Penney, where we had parked.
On my way out, I saw a sign for a wheelchair-accessible restroom, and I thought I’d use it. The door was pretty heavy, but Michael helped me push it open, and I wheeled through. The wheelchair stall, unlike the one at Lowe’s last week, was big enough for me to get the wheelchair in and turn it around. There was even a sink and paper towels AND a trash can right in the bathroom stall. Super convenient. Kudos to JC Penney! And then I had to get out of the bathroom. Same heavy door, except this time I had to pull. If I were an experienced wheeler, or had a motorized wheelchair, or could put any pressure on my right leg, I might have stood a chance. But nope. Knocked on the door, thinking Michael might be right outside. Kicked the door, hoping to attract someone. Then stepped – sorry, wheeled – into the 21st century, pulled out my cell phone, and was dialing Michael to have him bust me out of the bathroom, when two nice ladies happened to come in. They, of course, held the door for me. Drama over.
So I decided I should at least mention this to someone. I figured they should know that an assisted door would make their restroom TRULY wheelchair accessible. Otherwise, it’s just wheelchair-hungry.
So Michael and I went back to the Customer Service desk, buried back behind the salon and custom home decorating desk. The guy there was kind of pasty-faced and glassy-eyed, and he said, “Well, I’m not a manager…I can try to mention it…” Which means he had no intention whatsoever of mentioning it, or, I’m thinking, of ever becoming a manager.
So we tried again. We went to the checkout nearest to the restroom and described the situation to the young man at the counter. I was being pretty nice and constructive, but right then the two ladies who’d busted me out of the restroom came up and read him the riot act. So he did actually call a manager, who was very nice and responsive. Apparently, that particular JC Penney’s will be having remodeling done soon, which will include upgrading all of the restrooms; the engineers were just in from Dallas this past weekend, she said. So I reiterated the importance of having an assisted door, and I think she genuinely heard me. Whether she has the power to make my comment go anywhere – like Dallas – I have no idea.
I’m not blaming normally-abled people (or whatever the term is for people who have full use of their bodies for purposes of self-propulsion) for not noticing the things that wheelchair-bound people need. Before I was using a wheelchair and walker, the extent of my thought about handicapped restrooms was whether I could use one without inconveniencing someone who actually needed it. I paid no attention to how big they were, whether they included a sink, or whether a person using a walker could reach the soap dispenser while standing at the sink. Because if you can’t, you have to walker-walk around with wet and/or soapy hands, which is not very secure. And I definitely never thought about whether a door was too heavy to pull open from a wheelchair.
But what we do need – and what laws like the Americans with Disabilities Act are moving towards – is including people with special needs in the conversation about how buildings, sidewalks, streets, and cities are constructed. People with physical limitations know what they need – and as I found out a couple of weeks ago, “they” can become “we” in just the blink of an eye.