BEUSCHEL: Is handicap accessibility what it seems?

Jul 21, 2011

So, to the uninitiated observer, things look pretty good for those needing handicap accessibility. But are they what they seem?

Over the past 20 years of my life, I and several members of my family have had to find out through experience the answer to that question. 

Let’s start with looking at parking spaces, which are marked with upright signs and blue paint on the pavement. There are extra lines next to the handicap parking space, allowing for the full opening of the car door and space for the wheelchair, walker or motor cart to be brought up to the car door. Sometimes all the handicap spaces are full and it’s a lot more difficult to use a regular space. 

How the number of needed handicap parking spaces are determined I have no idea; but overall, I would say in this community we have done a pretty good job.    
Although there are ramps to move from road to sidewalks or into buildings, the slope and quality of the ramp might prove to be unmanageable for the handicapped.

I recently noticed that even my very strong 8-year-old granddaughter had trouble wheeling her wheelchair up some of the ramps. Due to a playground accident, she recently spent six weeks in a wheelchair. Although she was very determined to do it by herself, there were times when halfway up the slope she could not push any farther and needed assistance.

Even worse was her fear that the wheelchair would start sliding backwards uncontrollably. Did you know there are no brakes on wheelchairs?

The next challenge comes with getting into the building. There are all kinds of entry systems put on doors so that they might be handicap accessible. There are many doors that are wheelchair accessible in width, but they do not open automatically.

Having to maneuver a wheelchair or walker around the door at the same time as pulling it open is a Herculean feat. Handicapped people, like the elderly, struggle with these doors since they don’t have the strength to pull the door open and push the walker or wheelchair in through the doorway.

There are doors that have buttons to push so that the door swings open automatically. Sometimes these buttons are so far away from the opening door that, by the time someone with a walker gets there, the door is already closing. 

The best type of door entryway for a handicapped person is the sliding door with an electronic eye-opener. These doors work for everyone. My kudos to Spring Lake District Library for the best set of handicap accessible doors in the Tri-Cities.

Once in the building, the use of the motorized carts by the handicapped is a blessing — or so it seems. The first challenge is finding one. It is not a given that there will always be a cart available. The number of carts per store varies greatly. Some stores do not have them not all. 

Once a cart is found, it might not be “charged.” During high-usage times, the carts are not idle long enough to fully charge. On one grocery shopping expedition, my mom had to switch carts three times before finishing her shopping. This then also means transferring all the groceries in the cart each time. Fortunately, both customers and employees were right there to help her, and things went along smoothly with a good sense of humor on everyone’s part.

Then there’s the matter of using the bathroom. Large stalls with raised toilet seats and handrails are the typical handicap accommodation. 

On one outing to a brand new store in town, my mom’s motorized store cart got stuck in the tight curved entrance into the bathroom from the lobby. It took me and a store clerk to lift and maneuver the cart through the entrance, and the same on the way out of the bathroom. We chuckled about how things like this just aren’t coordinated when planning a new building.

Another puzzling issue in accessibility is the fact that the keypad for credit card use and signatures is too high for someone in a wheelchair or motorized cart. In all my travels, I have not seen any type of device that could be lowered for use by the handicapped.

Since 9/11, there have been many times I and my family members have had to go through extra security checks at airports due to hip replacement, walkers, wheelchairs and casts. Everyone from my mother, my husband, myself and my granddaughter have had to go through the pat-down process at the airport. The TSA workers we have had process us have been courteous, patient and thorough. They have been sensitive to our individual situations and treated us with respect. Even on our most recent trip in June, we experienced professional and competent TSA security clearance checks. 

Once through security, the challenge for handicapped people lies in the boarding process. Thankfully, airlines continue to allow the handicapped and families with young children to board first. Accessibility to planes ends at the ramp onto the plane. Wheelchairs and walkers do not fit through the cross bridge onto the plane, nor do they fit down the aisle of the plane — even my granddaughter’s child-size ones would not fit. She hopped down the aisle on her “good” leg to her seat. Been there and have done that myself!

Although things are not what they seem, in terms of overall perfected handicap accessibility, they are an effort to make life easier for the handicapped person. Fortunately for us, there are many kind and caring people to pick up the slack. 

Upon seeing a need to hold open a door or get something down from a store shelf, people have stepped up to help us. They are not marked by any blue and white sign, just smiles on their faces and a question on their lips: “Can I help you?” 

Janice Beuschel can be contacted through her website, www.janicerbeuschel.com.

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