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{November 20, 2013}   Accessibility surprises

So CascadiaJS was last week, and it was awesome. I did have one issue at the start, though, which surprised me enough to blog about.

First off, the issue was resolved quite well. I’m not writing this post to complain, but to educate. I might have been too shy to bring it up, but at the start of the conference they told us who to talk to if we had any problems, even ones that seem silly. :) I’m really glad of that.

So, the issue: for the first time, I had need of the accessible bathroom. But it was locked. When I first discovered this, the staff member with the keys happened to be nearby. After explaining why I needed it, he unlocked it, but insisted on locking it again afterwards so that nobody made it messy.

Two issues here: first, having to ask made me feel really bad. I look young and healthy, but I’m not. So I end up explaining my personal health situation to a stranger to beg permission to empty my bladder. It reminded me of being in grade school, having to put my hand up and ask instead of just quietly slipping out. I wasn’t looking forward to having to ask him again – even skipping the explanation, it still meant finding him, and interrupting whatever he was doing. And doing so again every time I needed to pee (which was about once an hour). And since I feel bad about imposing on him (and humiliated too), I felt pressured to keep my bathroom visits to the minimum too.

I now have a lot more understanding of how disabled people can seem like cranky assholes sometimes. If I stopped caring about the feelings of the guy with the keys, life would be much simpler.

And then I started worrying, what if I couldn’t find him when I did need the bathroom? Which brings us to issue two: the very next time I needed it, he wasn’t there. Some nice lady helped me down to the regular bathroom then – I’d delayed so long I couldn’t wait much longer. But after lunch, he was still gone. So that’s when I went to the awesome Angelina and got the problem fixed. Bathroom unlocked for the rest of the conference, apart from a few times when the damn door re-locked itself. :)

Oh, and nobody made a mess of the bathroom anyways. Yay for responsible adults!

What I learned from this is, accessibility isn’t necessarily intuitive. I could have just as easily been the one with the keys in this situation. He made a fairly reasonable assumption (that a guaranteed-clean bathroom was better than an unlocked bathroom) that just happened to be wrong. Now I’m wondering: what wrong assumptions about accessibility do we have in our code? (Assuming there is any accessibility in the first place :P ) Or in our other attempts to be helpful in general?

It can be hard to explain when something intended to be helpful is actually hurtful, or even to understand what happened. I just hope that if I end up on the other end, the person has the nerve to speak up and I have the patience to listen.



Every time I’m in a fairly new building (in the US that means built after 1990 when the Americans with Disability Act was signed) I always play the game: if I was confined to a wheelchair could I use the bathroom on my own. So far I have only found one building that I pass – I’ve never been confined to a wheelchair so I suspect I’d fail that one too if I knew more.



Chani says:

Wow, shitty. I work in gastown which is completely inaccessible, and my apartment has an elevator but it often goes to the wrong floor and can’t be fixed. :/ I’d be pretty fucked if I ever had to use a wheelchair for more than a week.



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