Like most people, I’ve never paid much attention to wheelchair ramps at restaurants. I never thought twice about using the handicap stall in a public restroom if it was available. I remember noticing people parking in handicap parking places and walking into stores without any visible handicap and wondering how they got their permit. I can say, I never parked illegally in a handicap parking spot.
Since I’ve started using a wheelchair for family outings, I’ve noticed there is a wide variance in the compliance of “wheelchair/handicap accessible”. Many public restrooms are extremely difficult to navigate. Many stalls are slightly too narrow for a wheelchair to actually fit into the stall. I’ve had to park my wheelchair in the doorway of the stall, struggle up to the toilet while my daughter stood as lookout, and used the facilities without the privacy of a closed door. Some have a handicap bar on one side, but I had to hold onto my daughter on the other side to keep from using the toilet seat to steady myself. Some hallways or entrances to restrooms are actually too narrow to navigate without hitting walls or bumping door jams. I even had to use the restroom in a doctor’s office building that had no handicap bars or a door wide enough for a wheelchair to fit inside. I had to leave my chair in the hallway and once again, use my daughter standing in the door for a little privacy.
I recently went to the Big Texan Steak House for my husbands’ birthday dinner. I came in my wheelchair and the hostess put us in the middle of a long table. Since the restaurant was only about half full, we didn’t worry about it at first. Before we had even ordered, they seated a group of people at one end of our table. I mentioned to my family, “If they try to seat people at our other end, I’ll be trapped here in the middle without a way to get out”. Sure enough, we had two separate hostesses bring couples and begin to seat them at the other end of our table. We stopped them saying, “I’m in a wheelchair. If you seat people there, you will trap me in here without a way to get out.” They looked at me blankly, as if I were causing trouble, apologized to their group and took them elsewhere in the half-empty restaurant. I was amazed at their inattention and was nervous and uncomfortable the entire time we were there.
We have learned to call ahead and ask about accessibility, or go for a ‘drive-by’ and scope out a place before trying it out. One place we knew was very small, in an older building. We were told they would help us any way they could to get my wheelchair over the door sill and into the restaurant. We passed. Another place told us the restaurant was wheelchair accessible, but not the bathrooms. We went somewhere else. One restaurant we went to, had the non-smoking area down 3 steps in a lower level. As a result, we had to sit in the smoking section. We will not go back again.
I remember saying once, “A woman never would have designed this kitchen!” By the same token, I think they forgot to get someone who was actually handicapped to try out the public restrooms when they designed them. This has made me think more often of a friend of mine at church. She is a paraplegic, has an electric wheelchair, and a van with the lift ramp and everything. I always admired her for her dexterity. There have been advancements made in recent years. It is just too bad that most places still make me “feel” handicapped.