We play with wheelchairs– for fun. That’s how we roll here in Alpine Village, especially when a gently used one is dropped off as a donation for Eastern Adaptive Sports. Some people leave handmedown clothes in bags; we are left handmedown wheelchairs because when people need them, they need them. They are often challenging, time consuming, and financially draining to find quickly. And so in this interim period, they, the wheelchair, is stored in our living room. We use it as an extra seat when people come to the house; the kids push one another out in the cul-de-sac. Neighbors give us questioning looks, at first sympathetic to think, “Oh, how sad, that little guy needs a wheelchair.” Then he hops out to give his sister a turn, or to sprint up the snow mound, and we then witness the shock and awe of a walking miracle on their faces.
I explain to them how we are just playing, that their dad uses a wheelchair, and our kids love them. Wheelchairs are a good time, and also dangerous when not properly trained. Listening to our kids “school” their friends on the importance of not leaning back or “you’ll flip over and crack your skull” shows that they do listen to us on occasion. The best advice though is, “Watch out for pot holes– they can kill you,” says the 7 year old to his friend. Why, yes, they can.
So, the conversation occurs regularly when we talk about accessibility and how not everything is accessible to everyone. When we go away as a family, we need to make sure that he can at least fit through the bathroom door. People are surprised when they consider the size of their door, not realizing it was smaller than would allow a wheelchair to squeeze through.
“Well, Mom, why don’t they just make all doors big enough when they build houses?”
An excellent question, young Jedi. I explain that there are building codes now for just about everything, but that there wasn’t always. Houses or buildings which were built a long time ago don’t have the same rules.
Universal design is a beautiful thing. People consider it always when constructing a new home thinking of retirement. Do we really want to be climbing two flights of stairs when we are older? My brother Greg is an architect on Martha’s Vineyard (Hutker Architects for those of you looking to build on Cape or Islands– http://hutkerarchitects.com). Visiting him before children meant going to work sites to check on cool design projects. He was a student at Northeastern University when he first taught me about the concept of UD, and even back then, before Geoff was even on my radar, UD made so much sense. Bedrooms and bathrooms on the main floor with easy access to the kitchen or family room can be both practical and beautiful.
But we also consider universal design when looking at the political bathroom scene of 2017, about who is allowed to use what bathroom and when. I shared a bathroom with my parents and brother growing up. We had co-ed bathrooms at Connecticut College, now known as “gender neutral” whether you are a boy, girl, transitioning, transgendered, etc. I’m not sure why this is such a complex issue for people to grasp and understand. The bathroom is just a bathroom. Geoff has taken our daughter into the men’s room, just as mothers from the history of time have brought their boys into the “ladies'” room.
When the answer is so obvious to a child, I expect it to be as simple for the rest of the adult world. Universal design. Bathrooms built for everyone, accessible for all, whether one is disabled, able-bodied, old, young, male, female, transgender, etc… Greta loves the wider stall at Loon Mountain because “the extra room is nice when you have to take off all those ski clothes to pee.” Obviously.
Our kids don’t know what transgender is, but they do not understand why someone would be banned from using a restroom. They do understand about water fountains and how some used to be just for white people and some used to be just for black people and how the world doesn’t work that way anymore because it was wrong, unfair, and unjust. We clarify: the world should not work that way any more, but it does and so we need to understand why and make sure we educate everyone we know.
“Mom, do you mean people just have to catch up with how kids think?”
Yes, dear 5 year old, that is what I mean.