Last week’s Accessibility Camp “unconference” was held at the award-winning downtown Seattle main library, designed by Rem Koolhass. Everyone thinks the library is fantastic — and I suppose it is. However, I suffer from acrophobia (fear of heights) and there’s no place in the library that doesn’t pass beside a glass window looking down into another floor below.
Needless to say, I avoid the library as much as possible.
The “camp” was attended by people with blindness, deafness, mobility issues, and other disabilities, as well as well-meaning people without any life altering problems — I’m one of those. The purpose was to identify where accessibility could be improved in software, the internet and websites, public transportation, and other functions where disabled people need to be included and their issues resolved by intentional design. I’ve always thought of myself as a caring, sympathetic individual who understands their needs and wants to help.
The accessibility meetings were on the fourth floor, which I can get to by entering on the Fifth Avenue side and walking up a walled stairway. The Friday session ended at 9:00 p.m. but the library closed at 6:00 p.m. — requiring us to exit through the security door on the Fourth Avenue side (a three-floor descent). The only way down was by elevator.
And the elevators are enclosed for several floors in a glass wall where the entire shaft and all the internal workings are visible. I hate them. It’s obvious the architects thought those glass walls were wonderful. I doubt that acrophobia ever occurred to Koolhaas’ team designing the building and in overlooking that, limited my accessibility to the library.
I joined a group that included two blind women and a woman in a wheelchair, none of whom were the slightest bothered by the elevator design. I – on the other hand – walked to the back wall and pressed my forehead against it with my eyes closed so I couldn’t see anything.
In the context of that elevator, I suddenly realized that they were the “normals.” I … was the disabled one. My acrophobia made me unable to take the trip down as a simple act of no consequence. The irony was that I walked in their shoes, at least for a few moments, while they spoke sympathetically but couldn’t relate.
I learned that for all their caring and sympathy, I still couldn’t break the bound of my disability. For the first time, I realized that until I’m able to cross that gap of relating, and not just being sympathetic, full accessibility will be a dream.