A Day in a Wheelchair

I recently spent a day in a wheelchair as a result of surgery. I am not making any claims as to what it would be like to be in this position permanently but I would like to share my observations and pose the question, where else can we improve?

As a designer we are trained to understand the standards and regulations relating to disabled access, door clearances, heights of obstacles/ fixtures in the path of travel, ramp gradients etc but clearly from my own experience these standards do not go far enough to reduce the inconvenience and discrimination of those in a wheelchair or for that matter people with pushchairs.

We went to a shopping centre on the North Shore and it being an indoor/outdoor centre, the ground was mostly paved in the external areas. This proved to be a bumpy and bone rattling ride as pavers were loose and uneven. Luckily I had a carer to push my wheelchair as brute strength was required to circumnavigate obstacles, ramps and steer a straight path.

First stop was a large chain store which had multiple aisles, and sold items of all sizes. In commercial office design we are required to comply with corridor aisle widths of 1540mm and 1800mm depending on distances and passing spaces for wheelchairs but it seems in retail that these requirements are not met (or certainly not in this store). I went into one aisle to view something and then had to reverse back out as I could not have turned the wheelchair in the given space (approx. 1m).  A pram or shopping trolley would also have had a similar problem.

Where circulation aisles were wider, ‘specials’ on plinths or racks were placed to slow you down whilst passing. Generally this meant that the pathway became too narrow to pass in a wheelchair and we were forced to go around on the side the racks were slightly farther from the aisle. Often the pathway is a different floor finish to delineate the walkway and this may mean there is a transition strip between the two floor finishes, another impediment to cross depending on the type. Whilst I understand that shops have a bottom line and need to display stock, the removal of one aisle in this instance would have meant that the spacing between the other aisles would have been significantly improved with a minimal impact on margin. Perhaps as margins tighten stores of this type need to reduce the number of similar branded products they sell ?

In the department store  wide aisles catered for the general path of travel but moving away from this zone was nearly impossible. Clothes hung from racks almost level with eye height or at a height that was difficult or impossible to reach. The spaces between clothing racks cater only for the able bodied, I found myself leaving a trail of clothes in my wake as I tried to pass through one space to reach a rack further in. This in itself caused further apologies and requests for assistance as I needed help to access racks when facing them head on. (The foot rest protrusion meant my personal reach was diminished.)

Luckily for me I was only trying on jackets so I did not need to use a fitting room, but I was surprised at the lack of mirrors provided in highly visible locations. They seemed to be tucked away on the internal faces of columns rather than facing out into the main pathway and we had to be directed to several.

Fortunately the counter was at an acceptable height to complete a transaction but again it was within the denser clothing populated area and to me seemed very claustrophobic due to the proximity of the racks and the fact that the clothing was all at the same height. Low to high angled racks would have been a preferable solution for two reasons, it would reduce the ‘forest ‘ impression to someone at wheelchair height and would also permit space saving as the footprint is reduced, allowing more width between racks. Counters on the circulation route but slightly set back would make them easier to find and access, the setback providing queuing space that would not impede on circulation.

Next stop was the food court. I found myself to be almost invisible due to the glazed food counters. Almost all of the concessions had a similar footprint with stock visibility in glass cabinets overriding any bench space. On a positive note the food was at a good height to assess readily and other customers indicated to serving staff that I was next in line to be served. The height of the cabinets was sufficient that I had to raise my voice to be heard by the server and had to also point to the item required to ensure I was served correctly. My carer had to pass the payment over the counter and receive the goods as again I could not reach, or get close enough due to the bag rail at approximately my knee height.

I had never considered the design of these cabinets before and in all honesty I can find no reason except perhaps staff security for the height of the glazing to be 1100 – 1200 above floor level particularly as there was only one level of food in the cabinet. A cake or patisserie cabinet with multiple levels would have a genuine reason for additional height requirement, although generally these cabinets also have a lower starting height to compensate.

Having bought my lunch we then could not find any tables designed to cater for wheelchair clientele. The wheelchair sides would not go under the fixed height table so I was forced to eat side on.

Being a generally tall person I found it interesting also that I could not see the detail of items in shop windows, for example boots were on the highest shelf in a shopfront window and I could not see the type of heel until we reversed the wheelchair  to a distance 6-8 metres away from the shopfront. (We could not go into the shop to view the boots as there was too narrow a path of travel).

Having spent the day in a wheelchair I can say that it was somewhat frustrating, tiring due to all of the extra manoeuvering , and a little intimidating to be at such a height disadvantage in a crowded space.

I think the experience will enhance my design skills as I have a better appreciation of the problems a disabled person faces each day.

by Debbie Cluer