Have disability – will travel?


I mentioned briefly in my last post the hassles of travelling with a disability. The specifics vary at an individual level and can range from huge [like a step a wheelchair can’t get over to relatively minor [like a coffee cup with a handle you can’t grip].

My purpose here is to give a perspective on the genuinely good effort to make our notionally shared environment genuinely accessible – and why accessibility doesn’t stop at the obvious.

The coffee cup or mug

I have 2 options these days. I can carry my own drinking vessel or ask for a takeaway cup at a café. I confess to electing the latter because carrying my own cup isn’t always a doable thing [okay, that’s not really true – it’s just another hassle I resist succumbing to].

Here’s the problem and do please check this out. It takes a certain grip strength in your fingers to hold a cup/mug by its handle. If you have that strength that’s fine. If you don’t the only option is to pick up your tea or coffee using the body of the cup/mug. If you like your drink cool this is fine. If you don’t, you will burn your fingers – or use a straw.

Ceramic drinking vessels are cheap and generally robust, but they are awful if you have an impaired grip. They bleed heat, and their handles are rarely designed with kindness. When an environmentally unfriendly paper takeaway cup is vastly superior something isn’t right.

Ramps are not always the answer

Getting into my chiropractor’s practice rooms obliges me to encounter a triplicity of impediments, the worst is the ramp. It is short and a bit steep. Then there’s a screen door and a round handle. What is it with round handles? The lever is perfectly fine and suits everybody.

The ramp replaces a step in the misguided belief that’s a superior alternative to a few shallow steps. It is a minor irritation to those for whom it makes no difference. But it is a serious pain for those it was meant to benefit. Because it is short it’s still a case of having to step up, but now over a greater distance, and starting with your foot angled up – which is an issue if your ankles don’t work. The door is too narrow to get a wheelchair in, so it wasn’t designed to assist wheeled access.

It was a well-meaning attempt to solve a problem without thinking it through properly. It makes access harder and less safe for some.

At Govetts Leap lookout the recent improvements have thankfully included sealing a spill over-carpark, but then there had to be a step up to a walking area via a gutter. But rather than a sharply defined gutter there is an elegantly curved one that has a kind of ramp effect. I am not sure whether the gutter design is aesthetic or intended to be helpful. You could maybe get a wheelchair up and over it.

But for people like me, and older persons and people with sight impairment it is more a potential hazard than a help. Now it’s a longer step up over an ill-defined area, and there’s no support to steady balance with.

There are well-defined benefits to be obtained from having ramps. But that doesn’t mean that the ramp is a universal solution and that all steps are evil. I received a firm education about this after extolling the joys ramps in the company of an access consultant who promptly and firmly reminded me that folk with balance disabilities would not agree. And, as I have discovered, balance isn’t an issue just because your sense of balance is impaired but also because impaired mobility can make balancing perilous.

Grips and rails that do nothing

In Rylstone NSW, there’s an ‘accessible’ toilet in which the pan was installed half a metre away from handrail intended to be used to help a user rise after use. Several workers executed this job without once wondering whether the placement measurements made any sense. I did send a polite message to the region’s council, but I haven’t been back to see if it has been sorted.

In Canberra a motel’s ‘accessible’ room has a sign above a towel rail warning users it is not a handrail. The handrail, which is beside the toilet, is too ‘beside’ to be of any use, so users reach for the towel rail. I did politely point this out to the motel operators, but a year later the sign was still there. The clue the handrail may not have been well-positioned wasn’t obvious enough.

Placement of handrails, and their sizes and shapes, should be a science. It is in the sense that there are standards. But it seems also to be an art practiced by folk of good intent, but with no aptitude for research or focused critical reflection. Here’s a brief sampling of various motel efforts in NSW.

  • A single small hand grip that is variously placed too low, too high, too close or too distant to be of benefit to other than the one random person for whom it is optimally placed. I have never been that person.
  • A handgrip placed over a bathroom cabinet which was so close to the toilet there was hardly any room to get knees into the tiny space left. The handrail was unusable. Mercifully the handbasin was close enough to serve as a grip.
  • A shower that had a small supporting handrail in it, but there also a significant hob with no support to get over it. Hence those able to get into the shower would have little use for the support
  • A shower that appeared accessible and had a decent sized support rail immediately under the shower head. But how to get to and from it? Who is going to test whether the tiles are slippery?

I am not sure how folk who run these establishments envision their efforts – other than with no clarity. There is certainly no belief that people with a disability might travel alone or that they might desire to toilet or shower themselves independently.

Older folk travel too, and they don’t see themselves as people with disability – just with the downsides of getting older. Motel and hotel bathrooms can be danger zones for a lot of folks. And yet there are no standards to be met before a room can be called ‘accessible’ – or ‘elder safe’ [that’s an idea that just struck me – I don’t know if it’s a thing – but maybe it should be].

It isn’t just about mobility

Mobility access is important, but that not the defining feature of being able to travel with some degree of comfort. There are many other aspects of disability which have little adverse impact of mobility in terms of getting around, but which can be adversely impacted by how hotel and motel rooms are designed.

For example, was I was staying in a decent hotel in Sydney because it tended to be kinder than many in its room layout – but still pretty bad, even though it advertised accessible rooms. Here are a few things that were major flaws:

  • The return on the door was so strong I needed to lean hard on it to open. I asked for it to be adjusted. It wasn’t. 
  • The room had several lighting sources, including a standing lamp with a floor switch behind a sofa. I had to ask staff to come and switch it off.
  • Even though the room was notionally suitable for a wheelchair user the tea/coffee making station was at hip height and far from the table.
  • The two-seater sofa was very low and with very soft cushions. I couldn’t use it. The only other place to sit was at the table from which I couldn’t see the television.
  • The television was on the wall directly in line with the bed. I cannot sit in bed leaning back on pillows. I listened to, rather than watched, the telly.

The rooms toilet was fully accessible, and the shower marginally so – usable but dangerous. The rest of the room couldn’t have been better set up to make staying there unpleasant and uncomfortable. There was no concession to disability accessible anywhere outside the bathroom. And even so I had to ask for a chair so I could shave and clean my teeth. 

The room was set up based on an incoherent vision of a person with disability – just a jumble of diagnostic features and not a whole person. These diagnostic features related to design standards – but we are not design problems defined by a cluster of ‘symptoms’.

Let’s not mess about here. Being able to wash and toilet is absolutely essential. But its not all we think about, and it’s not how we define ourselves. We want comfort and enjoyment as well as being able to meet essential needs.


This is a brief personal reflection on small array of the things that can make going anywhere a pain in the butt. By that I mean experiences that corrode the pleasure we might derive from short or long trips. Its not meant to be about enduring discomforts, inconveniences, and perils, but it can become like that.

I get that being able to have one’s essential needs is important, so I am not griping about welcome accessibility features at locations and venues. That’s just not where our expectation of equal rights and dignities ends. These accommodations are not the whole edifice of our equality – they are just the foundations.

The ceramic coffee cup is emblematic. Who is it designed for? An unimpaired ideal. I didn’t like these designs before GBS – barely functional handles that my large hands struggled to make usable. Who is the hotel room designed for? An incoherent assemblage of attributes – a mythic ideal person with disability?

We create ideals that are incoherent. We know the ‘average person’ does not exist but when we make lots of things in anticipation of use by lots of people, we have to guess what is good to make. Obviously personalised design to meet every person’s needs is not practical at the moment. Maybe in a few centuries we will have figured out how to do that.

What we must do is reinvent the template of the ideal human to be ‘ideal’ in the sense of being able to embrace the spectrum of being human, rather than a vision of unimpaired and unblemished perfection. We are not Greek gods and goddesses. We are those whom they treat capriciously.

Then we can imagine that a person with disability is a broad spectrum and coherent representation of the reality of living with disability – and not a disembodied assemblage needs defined by standards and compliance demands.

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