The last thing I wanted to do was break my wife’s arm, but that’s what happened as I tried to get her through the narrow door of the plane’s lavatory. It wasn’t intentional of course, but there is not enough room inside for a helper and a disabled person to be in the lavatory at the same time. So rather than stepping in first and safely pulling her in, I tried to move her in backwards. That turned out to be a big mistake.
We learned the hard way. The lavatory door had the “wheelchair accessible” symbol. One would have thought it would at least be safe, albeit inconveniently narrow. However, the little on-board wheelchair (a.k.a. aisle chair) wouldn’t fit through the lavatory door. What was to be a relaxing and fun vacation with friends in San Antonio became instead a five-day stay at a Texas hospital for my wife. We have learned that life with a disability means we continually make adjustments. Sometimes the best laid plans can go astray.
My wife, Deborah, and I have enjoyed traveling together over the last thirty years despite the fact that she has been using a wheelchair for two decades. Her 1983 diagnosis of multiple sclerosis (MS) has certainly presented ruts in the road, but we haven’t let it erase our love of travel or slow us down. We have traveled to Europe, Canada, Mexico, Hawaii, and many places in the U.S. Apart from needing someone to “transfer” her into and out of her wheelchair, disability travel, believe it or not, does have its advantages! We sail through TSA inspections without having to wait in a long line, for instance, and people in wheelchairs get to board first.
On this particular flight to San Antonio, we deliberately chose our seats at the rear of the aircraft so that Deborah’s aisle seat would be directly opposite a lavatory. She needs me or another caregiver to do transfers, but with less than 25 inches between sink and the opposite wall, even though we are both slender, there is not enough space to trade places. So, with the toilet located at the back of the lavatory, I had to move Deborah in backwards. With my arms wrapped under hers as I “eased” her in, the narrow entrance crimped her elbows inward until her arm bone cracked just below her shoulder. How quickly our lovely vacation came to an abrupt halt.
Interestingly, years ago we would always choose the lavatory that was NOT marked with the blue “wheelchair accessible” logo because by not having grab bars, there was an extra two inches in which to trade places inside. People who are not independent and rely on a personal assistant to aid with transfers generally don’t make use of grab bars. It seems that now all lavatories have them, and though often advantageous, there are times when, without protruding grab bars, the extra two inches could be put to better use, as in the case of two people dancing around the narrow confines of what feels like a shoe box. Sometimes I think grab bars merely serve as an excuse for an airline to put wheelchair stickers on lavatory doors and make it appear that they are complying with disability laws.
So why aren’t aircraft lavatories accessible? Hasn’t the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) required aircraft to be accessible for years? Passed by Congress in 1990, the ADA has been highly successful at improving access in public facilities as well as privately-owned buildings that serve the public. It’s the reason why airports are accessible to the disabled, not only in the United States, but around the world. But the ADA does not apply to aircraft.
Airplanes are regulated by earlier congressional legislation called the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) that was passed in 1986. The ACAA created a statutory prohibition against discrimination on the basis of disability in air travel. When the ADA was passed four years later, it was felt the complex aircraft accessibility issues should be covered by rules soon to be issued by the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT).
The rules to implement the ACAA first took effect in 1992. Accommodations for disabled persons were covered for things such as ticketing, moving about the airport, boarding and deplaning, and a host of other items. However, in 1992, the rules requiring aircraft to be equipped with at least one accessible lavatory were only applied to double-aisle, wide-body aircraft. It was felt that accessible lavatories were most important for long coast-to-coast routes that were handled (at the time) by the double-aisle heavyweights such as 747s, 767s, DC10s, and L1011s.
The USDOT postponed applying rules for accessible lavatories to single-aisle aircraft. It was argued that structural problems for the rear engine planes that were common at the time (727s, MD80s, DC9s, etc.) might pose undue problems for the airlines. Plus, those smaller planes were only being used for short flights anyway. With a little planning, so the thinking went, those with disabilities could avoid the need to use a lavatory on short flights.
Things are a lot different today. Single-aisle aircraft such as Boeing 737s and Airbus A320s now fly most of the routes within the United States. As it has for the past 25 years, the USDOT still “encourages”, but doesn’t require, airlines to place accessible lavatories on all their aircraft. Aircraft are now doing six-hour flights with inaccessible lavatories. And remember, wheelchair passengers are first-on/last-off, making any flight almost an hour longer than for everyone else.
One carrier that flies Airbus 320s, JetBlue, has forward lavatories with doors large enough for an aisle chair to nose in. It’s a small step in the right direction. However, those lavatories with the “ACAA-compatible doors” are still only 1/2 inch wider inside than the “standard” aft lavatories. The “extra space” still doesn’t provide sufficient room for an attendant.
In the battle for use of precious real estate aboard aircraft, priority seems to be given to allocate space for extra seats. Rather than opting for accessibility, lavatories are actually shrinking. Remember that the term “accessible” has a wide variety of interpretations, especially where on-board lavatories are concerned.
“The ACAA has reduced barriers for people living with disabilities. Many people with disabilities, however, continue to face challenges when traveling by air—including access to restroom facilities that meet their needs on flights,” the National MS Society told AirlineReporter. “Current lavatory designs are difficult to use, especially when relying on the aircraft’s aisle chair or being assisted by a family member or caregiver. For some these obstacles are so severe that they simply stop traveling by air. This is not only too bad for people living with disabilities, but it is too bad for an often financially challenged airline industry as there are 56.7 million people today who are living with one or more disability. The Society supports efforts to further clarify the law and make progress in increasing accessibility of airline travel for people with disabilities, including MS.”
If creature comforts were more readily available to able-bodied and disabled people alike, air travel would certainly increase. For sure, my wife should not have had to endure a broken arm just because nature called and the lavatory door was not sufficiently wide. Air travel is an essential form of transportation for both work and leisure – for everyone!
Boeing explained to AirlineReporter, “Many of our airplane models have options that the airlines select for lavatories that are large enough, or are convertible to allow assisted transfer between a wheelchair and the toilet. As every airplane feature trades space for passenger and crew needs and each airline specifies their interior to meet their requirements, we continue to work with airlines to prioritize these types of features.” In other words, Boeing is ready to put accessible lavatories on any of its aircraft, but it’s each airline’s choice as to what they order.
Prototypes for fully accessible lavatories have been designed for all commercial wide-body aircraft and for single-aisle planes such as the Boeing 737 and Airbus 320 families of jets. However, very few carriers are electing to install these good, fully accessible options when ordering new or refurbishing old aircraft. Improvements to help disabled travelers will require revised rules that apply to all aircraft of significant size. But first, existing rules that apply to wide-body aircraft need to be tightened. All too often, the problems that disabled people confront on single-aisle aircraft are also found on large aircraft. The success (or lack thereof) of the ACAA on providing accessibility on twin-aisle aircraft will be something that will hopefully improve in the future.
This story was written by Malcolm Cumming with help from Lorraine Woods (NMSS Volunteer) for AirlineReporter