I entered the building, groggy-eyed, ready to go through the motions of the same morning routine I had performed daily for months. When I lifted my hand through muscle memory to push the “up” button, something new caught my attention.
I stared at the “out of order” sign affixed to the elevator at my favorite rec center. Three years ago, I wouldn’t have taken much notice and simply sprinted up the single staircase next to it, considering it bonus cardio.
But this time, it meant I’d need to change my plans for the day.
My daily routine of hitting the pool (the only place I can move freely) twice a day and writing in the quiet space upstairs was foiled by my inability to haul a walker, laptop bag, and disabled body up a flight of stairs.
What I once would’ve considered an inconvenience was now a barrier, gatekeeping me out of a spot I had so often accessed previously.
Three years ago, I would’ve seen the building as accessible. Then my perspective changed with my body.
I was in my late 30s when a degenerative back condition finally elevated me from occasionally in pain to disabled status.
While I used to wander the city for hours at a time, taking my able body for granted, I began to have trouble walking long-distance.
Then over the span of a few months, I lost the ability to walk to the park, then the backyard, then around my house, until the act of standing alone for more than a minute or so brought on unbearable pain.
I fought it at first. I saw specialists and had all the tests. Eventually I had to accept that I’d never be able-bodied again.
I swallowed my pride, and my fear of the permanence of my situation, and secured a handicapped parking permit and a walker that allows me to walk for several minutes at a time before I need to rest.
With time and a lot of soul-searching, I began to embrace my new disabled identity.
The rest of the world, I learned quickly, did not.
There’s a terrible ’80s movie called “They Live,” in which special glasses give Roddy Piper’s character Nada the ability to see what others can’t.
To the rest of the world, everything looks status quo, but with these glasses, Nada can see the “real” writing on signs and other things that are wrong in a world that looks normal and acceptable to most.
In a manner of speaking, gaining my disability gave me these ‘glasses.’ What looked like an accessible place to me when I was able-bodied now vibrantly stands out as inaccessible.
I’m not just speaking of places that have made no effort to implement accessible tools into their environment (that’s a subject for another discussion), but places that appear to be accessible — unless you actually need access.
I used to see a handicapped symbol and assume a place was optimized for disabled people. I assumed some thought had been put into how disabled people would use the space, not just installing a ramp or power door and calling it accessible.
Now, I notice ramps that are too steep to effectively use a wheelchair. Each time I use my walker at my favorite movie theater and struggle to push against the incline of the ramp, I think about how difficult it must be to keep control of a manual wheelchair on this slope in either direction. Perhaps that’s why I’ve never seen someone using a wheelchair at this facility.
Still more, there are ramps with curbs at the bottom, defeating their entire purpose. I’m privileged to be mobile enough to lift my walker up over the bump, but not every disabled person has this ability.
Other times the accessibility ends with access into the building.
“I can get inside the building, but the toilet is up or down steps,” says writer Clouds Haberberg about the issue. “Or I can get inside the building, but the corridor is not wide enough for a standard manual wheelchair to self-propel through.”
Accessible restrooms can be particularly deceiving. My walker fits inside most designated restrooms. But actually getting into the stall is another story entirely.
I have the ability to stand for moments at a time, which means that I’m able to open the door with my hand while awkwardly shoving my walker into the stall with the other. Coming out, I can squeeze my standing body out of the way of the door to exit with my walker.
Many people lack this level of mobility and/or require help from a caregiver who must also get in and out of the stall.
“Sometimes they just throw in an ADA-compliant ramp and call it a day, but she can’t fit in there or move around comfortably,” says Aimee Christian, whose daughter uses a wheelchair.
“Also, the door of the accessible stall is often problematic because there are no buttons,” she says. “If it opens to the outside, it is hard for her to get in, and if it opens to the inside, it’s nearly impossible for her to get out.”
Aimee also points out that often the power button for the door to the entire restroom is only on the outside. Meaning that those who need it can get in independently — but they must wait for help to get out, effectively trapping them in the restroom.
Then there’s the issue of sitting. Just making a space where a wheelchair or another mobility device fits isn’t enough.
“Both ‘wheelchair seating’ areas were behind people who were standing,” says writer Charis Hill of their recent experiences at two concerts.
“I couldn’t see anything but butts and backs, and there was no safe way for me to exit the crowd if I needed to use the restroom, because there were people packed all around me,” Charis says.
Charis also experienced visibility issues at a local women’s march, in which the disability-accessible area lacked a clear view of both the stage and the ASL interpreter, who was stationed behind the speakers.
The interpreter was also blocked during much of the livestream — another case of giving an illusion of accessibility measures without practical application.
At Sacramento Pride, Charis had to trust strangers to pay for and hand them their beer, because the beer tent was on a raised surface. They faced the same barrier with the first aid station.
At a concert in the park event, an accessible port-a-potty was in place — but it was located on a stretch of grass and installed at such an angle that Charis nearly slid to the back wall with their wheelchair.
Sometimes finding anywhere to sit at all is a problem. In her book “The Pretty One,” Keah Brown pens a love letter to the chairs in her life. I related to this greatly; I have a deep love for the ones in mine.
For a person who’s ambulatory but has mobility limitations, the sight of a chair can be like an oasis in the desert.
Even with my walker, I can’t stand or walk for long periods, which can make it quite painful to stand in long lines or navigate places without spots to stop and sit.
Once this occurred while I was in the office to get my handicapped parking permit!
Even if a building or environment is highly accessible, it’s only helpful if these tools are maintained.
Countless times I’ve pushed a power-door button and had nothing happen. Power doors with no power are as inaccessible as manual doors — and sometimes heavier!
The same is true for elevators. It’s already an inconvenience for disabled people to seek out an elevator that’s often located well beyond where they’re trying to go.
Finding that the elevator is out of order isn’t just inconvenient; it makes anything above the ground floor inaccessible.
It was irritating for me to find a new spot to work at the rec center. But if it had been my doctor’s office or place of employment, it would’ve had a great impact.
I don’t expect things like power doors and elevators to be fixed instantly. But this needs to be considered when the building is made. If you only have one elevator, how will disabled people access the other floors when it’s broken? How quickly will the company fix it? One day? One week?
These are just some examples of things I thought were accessible before I became disabled and reliant on them.
I could spend another thousand words discussing more: handicapped parking spaces that don’t leave room for mobility aids, ramps with no handrails, spaces that fit a wheelchair but don’t leave enough space for it to turn around. The list goes on.
And I’ve focused solely on mobility disabilities here. I haven’t even touched on the ways in which “accessible” places are inaccessible to people with different types of disabilities.
If you’re able-bodied and reading this, I want you to look closer at these spaces. Even what appears to be ‘accessible’ often isn’t. And if it isn’t? Speak up.
If you’re a business owner or have a space that welcomes the public, I urge you to go beyond simply meeting bare minimum accessibility requirements. Consider hiring a disability consultant to assess your space for real-life accessibility.
Speak to people who are actually disabled, not simply building designers, about whether or not these tools are usable. Implement measures that are usable.
Once your space is truly accessible, keep it that way with proper maintenance.
Disabled people deserve the same access to places that able-bodied people have. We want to join you. And trust us, you want us there, too. We bring a lot to the table.
With even seemingly small adjustments like curb breaks and sporadically placed chairs, you can make a huge difference to disabled people.
Remember that anywhere that’s accessible to disabled people is accessible, and often even better for, able-bodied people as well.
The same, though, isn’t true in reverse. The course of action is clear.
Heather M. Jones is a writer in Toronto. She writes about parenting, disability, body image, mental health, and social justice. More of her work can be found on her website.