Wednesday, May 4, 2016

On the Road: Misadventures in Disability

Around my hometown, I prefer to frequent handicapped-friendly establishments. Sure, they are all supposed to be ADA compliant, but some just don’t make sense or are extremely difficult to navigate. I know where it’s a pain to get a parking spot and where it’s tough to maneuver through the aisles or tables.

I’d rather go to a store or restaurant where I know it will be easy to get parking, where I can guide my walker easily while inside and where the bathrooms are accessible and easy to navigate.

But it’s a whole different story when I hit the road. 

Some recent trips to Phoenix, where I spent 20 years as an able-bodied resident, showed I am throwing caution to the wind when entering unfamiliar territory.

A few months ago, we went to Phoenix to attend a reunion of newspaper people I used to work with. It was at a Mexican cantina near the university in Tempe. I had been there before when I lived in Arizona, before cancer (lymphoma) left me disabled. I was looking forward to a festive get-together with former colleagues.

My heart dropped when the hostess pointed to a private room UPSTAIRS. I looked at several steep stairs -- the equivalent of climbing a mountain for me. Was there an elevator? we asked. No.

I almost cried. Almost. After driving nearly seven hours across the desert to see some people I hadn’t seen in decades, I didn’t want to greet them with puffy, red eyes. 

Was there an alternate route with a ramp? we asked.  No. Was there an easier way? Yes, I would have to go through one of the dining areas, squeeze through the kitchen and up the alternate entrance with only three steeper steps and no hand rails.  


I had to interrupt the kitchen staff and then find two people to help me up the stairs. (Fortunately, I had one -- my husband -- with me.)

Is there a restroom upstairs, I asked? No. There was only the one downstairs. 


I thought I’d better use it before going upstairs. I would limit myself to one beverage   because I knew it would be a huge deal to get me down the stairs and back up. 

The ladies room had one disabled stall with a handwritten sign on it, saying “out of order.” I could not use any of the other non-accessible stalls.

I made my way back to the front of the restaurant and told the hostess that the disabled stall in the ladies room was out of order. Was there another bathroom in the place that I could use? 

Umm. She didn’t think so. She seemed thrown for a loop that I was even asking a question, any question. This one seemed to mystify her.  She asked another worker, who was equally perplexed. Then they brought out a manager, who told me there was no alternative restroom for ladies, but I could use the men’s room. 


He checked to see that that bathroom was empty, then waited outside while I used the handicapped stall. When I got out, I thanked the man for his help. He said to let him know if I needed to use the restroom again.

Yeah, right.

As the day progressed, the place would be more filled with beer-guzzling college guys who I’m sure would be thrilled to find their bathroom closed while I slowly used the only available handicapped stall in the joint. 

Upstairs, it was a wonderful reunion: filled with hugs and memories, pride in what we had accomplished and an undercurrent of sadness at how the newspaper business is in a painful decline. Of the roughly 100 people in attendance, several were older than me. Some had faced medical challenges, like I had. But no one else attending the event had limited mobility and faced the same roadblocks as I had.

Lucky them. If there had been anyone who used a wheelchair, they would not have been able to attend the party.

When the affair ended, two people helped me down the steps and my husband and I walked to my car. We decided to stop for dinner at a tiny, single-level restaurant near where we used to live.

Thankfully, the disabled parking spot was right in front and the restrooms were a few steps away from our seat. But when I finally got to use the single ladies room, I discovered it was not handicapped accessible. 


More recently, I attended a wedding in Phoenix. We stayed at a nice hotel in an accessible room. But the disabled parking spots were nowhere near my room. Of 40 spaces outside our building, not one was designated for a disabled person. And there were no curb cuts -- the slanted pavement where someone in a wheelchair or walker can transition from the lot to the sidewalk.

So even though there were plenty of empty spaces, if someone parked close to my room to let me in or out of a vehicle, I could not get up or down from the sidewalk. 

The nearest handicapped spots and curb cuts were at the end of my building, quite a journey for me as I pushed my walker under the Arizona sun. 

The wedding venue was a lovely outdoor restaurant/garden property that had two disabled parking spots close to where the event was taking place.


Two large port-a-potties were available for guests to use. There were stairs leading to them, so they were inaccessible to me.  My friend (the mother of the groom) had checked out the venue in advance because I had previously told her about a lack of accessibility at another part of the facility.  A staff member showed her a single unisex permanent restroom that I could use. The staffer said it was accessible.

I found out the day of the wedding that it was not. 

It was a huge effort for me to get inside the small bathroom. I  knocked over decorations as I moved around the tiny room, squeezing the handles of my walker to make it narrower. (A mobility aid without this feature simply would not have fit in the room.) And the toilet was extra low to the ground with no grab bars to help someone like me get on or off the commode. I might still be stuck on the seat if I hadn’t planned ahead and brought a small portable toilet topper, discreetly carried in a fashionable zipped-up tote. But it was still a major effort to simply get up off the toilet with my weak legs.

Although the wedding and reception were absolutely lovely and lots of fun, I had to leave early because getting to and from the restroom (and on and off the toilet) was simply too difficult for me. I was worn out.

On one of our drives home, we stopped at a rest stop in California. The ladies’ room was temporarily closed for cleaning. We were directed to a back-up single room bathroom. It was available and handicapped accessible.


There were two large storage buckets in front of the sink and paper towel dispenser. 


The door wouldn’t lock so my husband stood by, making sure no one entered while I was inside. While I maneuvered around the buckets to use the toilet, and contorted myself to wash my hands and dry them, a few ladies were gathering outside. I could hear them talking, anxious to use the only available public restroom.

Finally finished, I tried to open the door. It was stuck. Fortunately, my husband was right outside. I hollered at him through the door that I couldn’t get out. He tried to push while I pulled. It didn’t open.

I had a moment of panic and a brief vision of me stuck for hours in the hot bucket room with a mob of angry women outside, trying not to wet themselves.  

We pushed and pulled with more force and eventually got the door unstuck. If I had been in a wheelchair or on my own, I would not have been able to use the room.

Once freed, I made my way to our vehicle and we headed for home sweet home -- where I know the locations of the best accessible establishments. Yay.