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Wednesday, 30 January 2013

The Wheelchair Sign

I almost always feel a great relief every time a white stick-figure wheelchair person sits on the door of a public establishment. Especially when entering an average-joe restaurant or a club. It’s confirmation, it's acceptance, the anti-apartheid of the disabled. It says, with all its straight white lines and blue brushstrokes, “We not only thought about you, we accept you, we welcome your business, and for you to do your business.”

Every time I see that beloved sign, I feel not only relieved but proud. “Times of change” I think, happy that I live in the 21st century. Unfortunately, the symbol doesn’t always produce what it advertises. Take today for example:
I was at this quaint little shack of a restaurant, enjoying some Chinese food and ambient mood-lighting with a friend when nature called. I usually hate this part of the day. In my mind, I started mapping out all the near-by accessible washrooms and planning my graceful exit. As I prepared to leave with my friend, I gave the restaurant a one-over, just in case. And to my pleasant surprise, a big blue sign appeared like a trophy, just off of the kitchen. Once inside the bathroom, however, I saw that the sign wasn’t telling the full truth. In this particular instance, the restaurant, though being equipped with ample space and a horizontal metal bar, preferred to use the bathroom as a storage room. Determined not to give up on the truthiness of my favourite symbol, I squished my chair in between a shelving unit (which took up about a quarter of the room’s area), a high -chair, a big, fancy toilet paper holder which was standing on the ground right beside the toilet, and, of course, the toilet itself. Thankfully, given my level of mobility, I was still able to use the bathroom. But I am entirely mindful that many others--say those with bigger chairs or paralysis--would not be so fortunate.

I have also encountered the strangest declarations of accessibility at bars. For any of you club-goers in wheelchairs, you might know that The Honest Lawyer’s accessible bathroom is truly bizarre. In that Ladies’ Room, there is a fourth stall at the end of three, which displays a wheelchair sign. It opens from the side and reveals itself to be impossibly narrow, despite being longer than the others. And when I say impossibly narrow, I’m not exaggerating. My manual chair--which I prefer to use in club situations, is one of the thinnest chairs available to people of my height-- doesn’t fit inside the stall, at any angle. This leaves me with two options I am all too familiar with: 1) Don’t pee--don’t you even think about breaking the seal, and 2) Thank your lucky stars that you have a friend with you whom you trust enough to see your secret triangle without dying of embarrassment. Though I am often blessed with the second option, it hardly means the stall is accessible. This specific wheelchair sign should really be modified to include an able-bodied person helping the wheelie, or just take their sign down altogether.

The second baffling claim of washroom accessibility that sticks out in my mind is in The Grand in The Market. The waiters there will kindly lead you to their accessible side entrance to get inside, and notify you of their accessible bathroom when asked. Both of these things are just dandy, as it shows that at least some employers have received the disability training that was supposed to be enforced by the Ontarians with Disabilities Act. Once pointed in the direction of the sitting stick-man though, things are not so smooth. The stall is spacious, but the toilet is placed very near to the bathroom door, leaving very limited room for a wheelchair, let alone the person inside of it. Much to my dignity’s dismay, I had to pee with the door open that day, a privilege usually only awarded to small children and pregnant women who constantly have nurses looking in on them. Roomy enough for three toilets, but not for one wheelchair in between the toilet and the door is less than accessible, and probably doesn’t meet standard accessibility regulations.
So next time you’re taking a nice little tinkle in the wheelchair stall (you know who you are), check out the logistics. Could Artie from Glee really fit his chair and himself in here?

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