8 Wheelchair Access Issues You May Not Consider

Gemma with cup of tea

You may remember Gemma from my interview blog post that we did a few weeks ago. We’ve also done an accessibility post exchange – I wrote a post for Gemma’s blog about accessibility problems that make me abandon my virtual shopping trolley. Now Gemma has written a post for Unseen Beauty about the things that make life inaccessible for her as a wheelchair user. I guess we all know about steps – they’re the first thing that comes to mind, but some of these other things, although they seem obvious when you think about it, are things that I hadn’t thought about before.

That’s why I believe it’s so important to talk, and to learn about people whose access needs are different from our own.

I also found we have something else in common – I know too well what it’s like to be frustrated at buffets because I can’t see to serve myself. The dilemma of what to do and how to try and make sure you get something you actually want to eat.

So I’ll now let Gemma carry on with her post…

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Being a wheelchair user, it is often assumed that steps are my biggest obstacle. I’d be lying if I said they weren’t a big deal, they are, but they’re also often an easy to solve issue.

It’s the finer details that can make a day or experience smoother for me and more accessible.

Space

Is so limited in a busy world where businesses try to fit as many things and people in as possible as to make the most profit and serve demand. Isn’t the saying ‘quality over quantity’ true though? It’s about the experience.

Take for example public transport. Those allocated spaces for wheelchair users can be incredibly small.

I’m not sure if anyone has actually measured your average wheelchair, or they just expect everyone to have the compact, sporty, self propelling kind. I haven’t.

There’s cluttered shops and cafes too. Where I feel I have to pass some kind of obstacle course before I even get to my destination.

Awkward tables

A big part of socialising, for me anyway, is eating and drinking.

Steps, narrow doorways, and cluttered cafes are the obvious barriers, but once I’m in the building, it does in no way guarantee a fully accessible experience for me.

There’s the issue of table height. Oh why is it no longer popular to provide a decent, at sitting height, dining table?! Too often cafes, bars and restaurants are full of bar height benches with stools, or informal sofas and coffee tables.

For starters these are always the tables remaining when I go anywhere. Which tells me I’m not the only one that doesn’t find them practical. But for myself, who’s forever sitting at the same average chair height, these are completely inaccessible. I cannot stretch up to reach the bar height, or bend over for the coffee table. My lap becomes littered with crumbs and coffee drips. I have to constantly ask people to pass me stuff or to put my drink down.

The most frustrating of them all though is the table that gets your hopes up. It looks a good height, seems easy to get to, but still you end up eating from your lap.

The chunky farmhouse chic wooden table. They may be pretty, but I sigh inwardly whenever I’m confronted with one.

So yes they are the right height for me, what more could I want? Well getting close enough to eat from them would be a start. The chunky legs are often too close together, particularly if I’m on an end or it’s a small table for two, for my wheelchair to fit between. There’s always a large wooden rim underneath that my knees can’t quite get under. Socially, this works better than the bar benches, but not practically.

I so often end up sitting at an awkward angle or eating from my lap when dining out. It’s one of my biggest annoyances.

My table of choice would be circular. Not only is it much more sociable for speaking with a group of people, but also easier to drive up to due to minimal legs. The curve is also a bonus when armrests and joystick controls get in the way.

Buffet restaurants

Sticking with the dining and socialising theme. A slight dread washes over me when someone suggests the buffet style restaurant. Buffets are one of my most uncomfortable and inaccessible dining experiences. Don’t get me wrong, having a variety of options is a bonus, as is trying things I maybe wouldn’t otherwise. But not only does the thought of hygiene make me twitch, I find the whole affair very confusing.

I never know what to do for the best. I obviously cannot serve myself. I can barely even see the dishes if they are on one of those bar style serving areas.

I hate getting in the way, it’s hard enough getting to my table in the first place in some restaurants, having to push past and interrupt other diners.

Do I cause a scene and go look at food I can’t even properly see, to instruct a friend to dish it up for me? Do I take a quick browse on the way in and make mental notes of a couple of things? Do I ask someone to go up and let me know what’s there? Maybe taking the odd photo to show me? Or do I go roulette and just send someone that hopefully knows me well to bring back a surprise plate of maybe not delights?

It’s all just too much effort. Whatever I choose, I’ll wish I didn’t.

The food height is often level with my shoulders. Could you easily view and serve food at that level?

How do you make the buffet restaurant accessible?

I’m not sure. Maybe a menu of the regulars? Or even a live stream of what foods are on offer and how they look? Maybe an app? I could deal with the sending a friend to dish up bit then. Even though it will never be my first dining choice.

Eye level displays

Being at a lower height than many doesn’t only pose a problem when viewing food, but also causes restrictions on pursuing the shops.

Jewellery counters can be particularly difficult to view when seated. As can clothing that is displayed high up.

In most instances I can point out things I’m interested in and they can be brought closer to me so that I can view the item in detail. At other time’s I’ve got the person I’m with to take photographs on my phone, but this doesn’t always provide scale or detail.

It’s also the case for display cabinets in museums and galleries. Where often the treasure on display is encased in glass on a plinth that’s eye level for those standing. There is no other way to view the object, it cannot be removed or even photographed.

I understand that some things need to be seen from a certain perspective, and with art this can be crucial.

Lower displays, though, can still be viewed by people standing, or even people that aren’t very tall. Images or booklets could assist with visuals, but shouldn’t replace the opportunity to see something in the flesh.

Directions

When you’re seated at the height of most people’s belly button, it’s not always easy to find your way around. Signposts are high, so if I’m too close I have no chance of seeing without snapping my neck. I understand the reasoning of them being high, so that they can be seen at a distance above a crowd of people. But when your viewpoint in a crowd is a mass of bums, you’re never going to see over the heads to search for a sign.

Maps aren’t much better. You know the ones you find at zoos or parks, city centres or shopping malls. They may seem low when you’re standing, and maybe some thought has gone into them being at a universal height (I do get that those standing don’t want to be constantly hunched with bad backs), but when they’re still higher than your eye level and you can’t get close enough to see the tiny writing because your foot plates and knees are in the way. Height isn’t the only problem.

Getting close

Being at a distance from things is one of my biggest accessibility challenges. Sitting means that your knees and feet are always in front of you, getting in the way. There are ways around this, for example overhanging surfaces, sinks and information boards. But they’re rare. I see many wheelchair users struggle with the side on approach. Where you jut your wheels sideways so to be able to reach things. It requires dexterity, a bendy torso, and the neck of an owl. This isn’t an option for me.

Shop counters

Are a big one for the sideways position. Facing head on to the till or customer service desk means that I am not within arms reach of the counter or a friendly speech level distance from the shop assistant.

This is an issue using cash points, paying in shops, being served at bank or post office desks and the like. Anywhere that you need to be face on with something but there is no leg room.

Lift buttons

The same goes for lift buttons. Or any buttons really. Those at crossings, doorbells, intercoms. They all rely on foot butting and stretching, or the side on position. Neither of which are easily accessible for myself or others.

I have noticed recently that some automatic door opening buttons (I know, automatic shouldn’t require a button) are on a type of post at a distance from the door. These are actually much easier to press.

What I dream of is an app that you can use to call lifts, press road crossings, etc. I basically want all buttons to be accessible via my phone. Or even better, mind control.

Until then, some of these small changes could make a big difference to many.

Check out Gemma’s other links

Wheelescapades Blog
Twitter
Facebook
and Instagram.

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Author: englishwithkirsty

I have two blogs. Unseen Beauty is my personal blog. English with Kirsty is my business blog for people who are interested in languages or learning English.

9 thoughts on “8 Wheelchair Access Issues You May Not Consider”

  1. This is so insightful! As someone who has never experienced accessibility issues, I think a menu of the regulars at buffets should be a normal thing regardless. Would make everything so much easier, from things like deciding where to eat to browsing beforehand. Great post Gemma!

    1. This often happens with improvements that are based on access needs. They’re made with a specific set of users in mind, but they can actually be beneficial to a wider group too.

    1. Not at all. And sometimes we tick more than one box – I had problems relating to buffets and my visual impairment. Now that I have food alergies, it’s got more complicated! Thanks again for your valuable insight – I really enjoyed reading your post.

    1. I have different accessibility needs, but I know that feeling. You come across the same problems time and time again. I hope by writing and sharing this kind of information though that we will start to see a change.

  2. Obstacle courses when going out just to do the shopping or grab a coffee, I can see that getting frustrating and exhausting pretty quickly. The table height issue is one I’ve become so much more aware of since reading something of yours, Gemma, ages ago. Our local Starbucks, after doing a small renovation, decided that they’d do awkward tables and seating downstairs, wheelchair users be damned. It’s stupid as there’s no way to get up the stairs to go to the toilet either (not that you’d want to, they’re usually broken and they’re yuck).

    I reckon a bendy torso and the neck of an owl would come in quite handy. Maybe the stench of a skunk to keep people away during the pandemic, too.

    A fantastic post, it’s great you’ve both done the blog post share, too. Excellent points to raise awareness, and I love the dash of humour as always.

    Caz xx

    1. Yes, a bendy owl neck would be cool, and a wet golden retriever on a train is also pretty good at getting people to give you some space. They’re just so scared of that big shake of the fur!

      It’s true – accessibility isn’t a one-time thing. It’s only as good as your last renovation or your last website update. It’s ongoing.

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