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Is the Restroom Accessible? That’s Up in the Air

By Emily @emily_ladau
Is the Restroom Accessible? That’s Up in the Air

When you're getting ready to go on a flight, what's on your last-minute to-do list? Mine looks a little something like this:

  • Make sure I packed enough underwear
  • Charge my Kindle
  • Start limiting the amount of liquid I drink

Does that last one seem a little strange to you? Well, for wheelchair users who are unable to get up and walk (like yours truly), limiting what we drink before flight is often the norm, because there's simply no way for us to access the restrooms aboard a plane.

But bathrooms are something most people take for granted, and so they drink to their hearts' content before and during a fight. Most people simply can't imagine not having access to a place to relieve themselves wherever they go. And for that reason, I'm not all that surprised by a report that a Delta flight from New York City to Seattle had to go hundreds of miles out of its way to make an emergency pit stop just because the plane's toilets were broken and people had to go right now.

Let me tell you something: I just took a flight from New York City to Seattle a few months ago. Heck, I've flown from New York City to Israel. And you know what I had to do on those flights, and every other flight I've ever been on? Hold it. I've gone without peeing for upwards of 14 hours so I could travel.

On the flights where I've found myself needing to use the restroom in spite of my valiant efforts to avoid drinking anything, the only solution was to meditate and deal with it. Seriously. No way would a pilot divert a flight because I needed to "find relief of built-up pressures."

Once, during a flight to Minneapolis, I had the misfortune of experiencing motion sickness. Fair warning: what I'm about to say may not be fun to read if you're easily made to feel queasy.

I asked the flight attendant for a motion sickness bag, but she didn't take my request seriously and took her sweet time getting it. Since I couldn't get up to go to the restroom, I got sick all over myself. And then, you know what happened? My dignity took a nosedive and I had to change out of my vomit covered clothes in the middle of the airplane while the flight attendant who didn't get me the paper bag in time held up a blanket to try to give me a modicum of privacy.

Why am I telling you all this? To highlight what it's like to be disabled in a world designed by people who don't take you into account.

I spend my life (not an exaggeration) strategizing every move, big or small. From researching if I'll be able to get into the new restaurant a friend suggests for dinner, to deciding if I should stay on a long sidewalk in the hopes there's a curb cut at the other end, to figuring out when I'll next be near a restroom I can actually use­­--everything requires planning.

Of course, it's possible that people on the Delta flight had other types of disabilities, chronic conditions, or age-related bladder or bowel issues, so yes, I get why the plane landed, but the world sure doesn't accommodate me with emergency landings.

But there are laws to make things accessible, you might say. True. The Americans with Disabilities Act was passed over 27 years ago to prohibit discrimination and provide access for disabled people in all areas of public life, but even with amendments to update the law, inaccessibility is still everywhere. The Air Carrier Access Act (which significantly fewer people know exists, including, seemingly, airline personnel) was passed nearly 32 years ago, with the intent of ensuring the disability community has access to air travel. Yet, though it's since been amended, the law still allows for aircraft with only one aisle to have inaccessible restrooms. These types of planes, known as narrow-body planes, are used by commercial airlines pretty darn frequently.

Even so, I need to travel for work. I have to go places in order to go about my day. I have the right to be an active member of my community.

I could wrap up with a broad, sweeping call to action to improve upon accessibility everywhere, from storefronts to airplanes, but I believe this kind of change won't happen without recognition of just how easy it is to take access for granted.

I admit that I roll my eyes when people who break their leg or have surgery that temporarily impacts their mobility tell me they "get" what I "go through" every day, but there's still a lesson to be learned from these comments: the ability to access wherever you please doesn't matter to people, until one day it does. Anyone can become disabled at any time.

That may sound intimidating, but think about it: if you became disabled tomorrow, wouldn't you want to live in a world where you had access to basic things like restrooms anywhere you go? People don't think about the possibility of not being able to use the restroom until access to this basic need is taken away from them, just like the situation on the Delta flight.

It shouldn't have to be this way. Full bladders should not inhibit full participation in society for the disability community.

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