More Than the Minimum


In the name of all that is holy, how in the hell is this considered handicap accessible?! I surveyed the small space with growing despair as I quickly calculated the risk factor of several possible transfers and dismissed them all as too dangerous. The wheelchair barely fit through the door to the restroom, let alone the tiny stall. One handrail on the wrong side of the toilet and a generic handicap plaque on the door is considered acceptable accommodations for those living with a disability. How am I going to maneuver her chair through the door? Maybe she can stand outside the stall and we’ll use her walker. That won’t work. Not enough room for her to turn with the walker and I won’t be able to fit in there to help her sit on the low toilet. Besides, the only handrail is on her affected side. She won’t be able to grab it. Think, Alice, think! Don’t let her sense your frustration.
“Let’s just go home.” My heart sank as my client’s voice cut through my frenzied need to figure it out. Once again, she was reminded that she can’t just enjoy a day with her extended family. Once again, I felt a rush of anger at the unfairness of it all.
We made our way out of the restroom, carefully maneuvering around the diners in the upscale restaurant. The tables were so close together that there was no way to get through without jostling people. My client hastily bid farewell to the extended family that had made the two hour trip for the annual Christmas reunion luncheon and we made our way home.
We just made it home and to her own bathroom in time to avoid an accident and for that I was grateful. My client hates having the rare accident. It upsets her for days and would have just added to her disappointment. It would have been another blow in a day full of reminders that she is no longer able to simply enjoy a special day that so many of us would take for granted.
Three more feet and one more handrail in that bathroom stall would have made the difference. My client would have been able to celebrate being an aunt, mother, wife, and grandma on that festive occasion. Instead, she had to rush out of there, embarrassed and frustrated at her inability to perform the most basic of human functions in a public restaurant. Three more feet and one more handrail. I don’t think that’s so much to ask.
The Americans with Disabilities Act is over twenty five years old. It has gone a long way in promoting a better quality of life for those living with challenges the majority of the general population do not face. But laws and regulations do not bring with it the insight or necessity to understand those for whom the laws were put in place to protect. The regulation may require a handicap stall, so the owners slap a sign on the door and a bar on the wall and they are in compliance. Done deal. They don’t see the effort or the struggle those who need to actually use the stall go through so it doesn’t factor into the equation. They see only whether it will pass or fail an inspection.
Nothing will change until our collective view of those living with disabilities evolves. It’s not about respecting the LAWS. It’s about understanding the PEOPLE. Maybe thinking about how life looks through the eyes of someone who can’t walk or see or has simply “aged out” is uncomfortable for most people because it makes them think of their own mortality. But like it or not, we are all on the same road and the time will come when we very well may need help ourselves. Would you want to be seen as a person or a disability?
I know minds change slowly and that there really has been quite a bit of advancement in protecting and enhancing life for those living with a variety of disabilities. Still, that day in that restaurant, all I saw was how far we have to go and all I felt was my client’s disappointment and sadness. I made two promises to myself that day. One, I would write about the experience this week and two, I would make certain my client’s house was so decked out for Christmas that she would feel comfortable having family over.
She had told me that she used to love decorating for Christmas. It was her favorite season and it made her happy to put out her bird ornaments and nutcracker collection and colorful lights. For years, her husband dutifully dragged all the decorations out himself and did the best he could to keep up the tradition. As he got older, this became more difficult until finally, three years ago, the tradition just faded away. It started with skipping the tree and ended with skipping the decorations all together. She finished the sad story with a sigh of such resigned acceptance that I had to blink away tears that welled up unexpectedly.
This afternoon, my boyfriend and I headed over to her house, as promised. We spent the afternoon decorating a Christmas tree for her with her bird collection as she supervised from her lounge chair. We laughed and talked with her husband as we untangled the colorful lights and hung the ornaments. Once we had the tree decorated to my client’s satisfaction, we all sat down for dinner together. It was an afternoon filled with joy and laughter and no thoughts given to her disability.
Those are the times that matter. Those small moments when I can remind her of the joy still left to be had in life. And you know what? Those tiny solutions add up. It doesn’t have to be only caregivers or loved ones that reach out. It can be anyone. It doesn’t have to be only during the Christmas season. It can be any time. And in doing these small acts of kindness, we are gaining so much more than we give. We learn to be an active part of the solution instead of staying stuck in the problem.
I let my anger at the unsatisfactory conditions of a public restroom motivate me to ensure my client would have the Christmas she wanted and I enjoyed every moment of it. How do you make a difference? One small act of kindness at a time.

2 thoughts on “More Than the Minimum

  1. Anna

    Hi Alice, Thank you for this reminder and your example. And to you and your client, may your holiday be merry and bright.


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