Monday, October 17, 2011

Newly handicapped on Rt. 81-S

Nine days post-surgery, Dave drove me home. For the seven-hour trip from our summer home in Northern New York State to Southeastern Pennsylvania, I sat with my left leg stretched across the backseat of my mother's Camry with my broken ankle propped up on a pillow. The night before I'd taken a muscle relaxant—one tiny pill—to help me sleep, and I still could barely stay awake. This was probably a good thing. I would need all the strength I could muster for our mid-trip bathroom break.

We stopped at the Whitney Point rest area, located between New York exits 9 and 8 on Rt. 81 south. We've always loved this location. As you can see from the photo above, it overlooks the gorgeous valley that runs west of Rt. 81 from just south of Syracuse almost all the way to Binghamton. My little cockapoo Max had always given it two paws up (or at least, one rear leg). Relief would not come as easily for me.

At first everything looked great. The rest area had been redesigned in recent years, allowing cars to pull much closer to the front doors. According the the architects' website:

To rectify the inadequacies a new building was built to include the necessary components to provide for present and future needs. The new and upgraded facility includes increased parking for cars and trucks along with improved services for elderly and disabled persons. In addition, the facility contains multiple public restrooms, which are handicap accessible. Other amenities include seating areas and vending machines as well as public telephones and tourist information displays.

We were able to park right in front, beside a labeled handicap spot. At this point I was still painfully and effortfully hopping along with my walker—I didn't think a public place would be the best place for my first experimentation with crutches since an eighth grade ankle sprain. A ligament on the outside of my right hip was feeling the strain, as for more than a week now I'd relied on that one leg for everything. While my arms were generally strong from working out—thank goodness!—my wrists were not used to bearing my weight. I was heartened that it looked to be just a car length or two to get to the door. I could do this.

The interior of the building was spacious. A real beauty from tiled floor to wooden vaulted ceilings. One of my best friends is an architect, and I have a healthy respect for all aspects of design. But I also believe in the old maxim, "Beauty is as beauty does," and this was never truer for me than during my recent induction into the world of the temporarily handicapped.

The ladies room is just beyond the frame of this photo, at the near right side. By the time I made it halfway from the entrance doors to it, I was ready to collapse. I needed to stop and rest.

Despite a design so spacious it could have held enough pews for a small church service, I could find nowhere to do so.

Let me point out the only seating: see that wooden corner in the foreground corner of the photo? That was the one and only bench—I'd have to hop twice as far to get to it. What was the point? Turning back held no special allure, because I needed to use the restroom. I felt stranded. Shaking and sweating from the effort, I had no choice but to carry on.

I turned the corner and through the doorway, relieved that my trek was almost over.

It was not.

I now faced a long open hallway—one longer, it seemed, than my trip from the car door to the entrance. Clack. Clack. My efforts with the walker became dangerously uneven as fatigue set it. "Rest area"—what black humor. There was nothing restful about it. I presume this design had to be ADA compliant, but it did not take into account a full range of human needs. I finally reached the end of the hall and made another turn into an anteroom with a baby changing table. One more turn...and I face a long corridor of toilet stalls, the very last of which was the handicap stall large enough to accommodate both me and my walker.

I almost cried. My 80-year-old, 115-lb. mother, who was already done, said, "I waited for you." That was incredibly sweet, but there wasn't a blessed thing she could do to help me. I needed Lou Ferrigno to sling me over his shoulder and carry me.

An older woman with a cane stood at one of the sinks washing her hands. She turned to me and said, "I know. Welcome to my world."

I had to move on; my supporting hip was cramping. I made it down to the handicap stall and took a seat, as much to rest at this point as anything else. When I finally thought I could stand, I reveled in the joyous presence of sturdy handholds to help me get up—that right hip ligament had about had it, and I still had ahead of me a long return journey.

I went to the nearest sink to wash my hands. There were no towels or dryers in sight. My mother pointed them out—to get to them, in a separate section, I'd have to backtrack.

To hell with that. In addition to the extra effort, other women had wet the floor with water from their hands while getting to the dryers. It didn't look at all safe for one who had to rely on hopping, or using a walking aid. An aid whose use, of course, required dry hands.

So I wiped my wet hands all over my pants and began the long trek back to the car, looking to all the world as if I hadn't made my destination after all.


Doug Gallow, AIA said...

This is the problem we face everyday as designers who utilize universal design in our design solutions. You have now experienced the problems that exist when the ADA and real world collide! The ADA is the low bar, not the silver bullet. So many design professionals don't "walk in your shoes" when designing. Travel distance is often overlooked as is fixture placement (as you found out with the paper towel dispenser and blowdryers. So restrooms often have puddles of dripped water on the floor from people trying to find the trash cans; a very hazardous condition (you know about slipping on wet surfaces, right?). The real irony is these kind of issues are only going to become more prominent as the boomers age. Mobility problems are only exaggerated by today's problems of diabetes and obesity. Just look around and see the problems we are all encountering!

mark said...

Wow ! what an interesting blog.Thanks for sharing this information.Your information is really informative for us.
Nice blog on handicap bathroom design.
Keep sharing more & more.....

Kathryn Craft said...

Doug: Had to laugh at your comment that ADA is the "low bar"--shimmying under a bar is about the only thing I didn't have to do to get to that toilet stall!

I really appreciate your thoughtful response.

Kathryn Craft said...

Thanks for stopping in, Mark!

nancy oarneire graham said...

I wonder when someone will design a sink with a high-power blow dryer right above it or next to the faucet so we don't have to drip all over the floor?

nancy oarneire graham said...

After reading Doug's post: a bathroom design for a population that routinely squats (and so has a high percentage of people able to do it), and eats a diet unlikely to lead to diabetes and obesity, would look very different. So do you design one thing for all needs or different things for different needs?

I exempt the dripping on floor issue from this question, since that will affect everyone.

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