A small taste of institutional ableism

I recently had minor surgery, and my discharge instructions included “Limit climbing stairs to once or twice daily.” I physically *can* do stairs, but my abs get a bit cranky, and I understand the recommendation that I not push it.  Since I work on the second floor in an old building with crappy elevators, it’s been an “interesting” week.

To start out with, I really wish that my doctor, or the hospital, or *somebody* had let me know about the stairs thing at some point in the months leading up to this surgery, rather than only finding out in my discharge instructions. My workplace isn’t exactly conducive to mobility issues.  I work on the second floor, with another little half flight of stairs leading up to my work area. Fortunately, there’s at least a “Porch Lift,” a little elevator designed for a single person to ride up.  The building next door, where I attend meetings occasionally, has a third floor cube farm with *no* elevator access.

So, I came in on Monday, took the elevator up to the second floor and walked up to the disability elevator, only to find that it needs a key to operate.  I, of course, did not have said key.  I walked up the half flight of stairs and looked for the guy who I figured would be in charge of such things.  I didn’t see him, but I did see that the elevator key was in the elevator at the upper entrance.  I grabbed it and shot him an email.  He let me know that there’s another key, which one of the high-level managers has, so I asked said manager for that key.  The elevator requires a key to open the door on both levels, and a third key to actually operate it.  If you hang onto the key when you go down, you can use it again coming back up, but you have to remember to take it each time. Once I got the third key, I could just leave them both in place.

This elevator is a groaning, clunking monstrosity. It takes twice as long to go up half a story than the regular (and also temperamental) one, and it loudly announces your comings and goings to everyone on the floor.  It’s also open at the top, with a half door. A coworker mentioned to me that when a guy who used a wheelchair used to work there, it got stuck, and someone had to jump down to physically get him out. (Facilities has a two-hour turnaround for elevator emergencies.)

Since the surgery was kind of personal, it was also *awesome* to have the noisy elevator announce to everyone that I was using it.  But I definitely mentioned the surgery, without giving details, to anyone who commented on the elevator use, because I didn’t want comments later on me being too fat and/or lazy to take the stairs. (My coworkers are a bunch of smartasses, which I love, but the line between smartass and jackass gets crossed on a regular basis, and there’s a lot of teasing that can get mean-spirited.)

I should mention that, with the exception of a sink and a coffee pot, all the workplace amenities are down on the second floor proper, so I’ve been using this elevator not just to come in in the morning and leave in the evening, but at lunch and every time I visit the restroom and the water fountain. Or the vending machine. Or the kitchen. And since I usually eat breakfast at work, either an oatmeal packet that needs to be microwaved or a Pop-Tart from the vending machine, that’s another trip.

Just when I thought I could not despise this elevator any more, I got in, held down the button, and it descended about three inches and stopped dead. I tried taking the key out and putting it back in, pressing the button again, and bringing it back up then trying again. No joy.  I mentioned it to the appropriate coworker, who emailed the facilities folks. He let me know a couple hours later that they hadn’t responded.

At some point, I just about cried. It was 10ish, and I hadn’t grabbed breakfast, and all I wanted was to go down to the vending machine and get a freaking Pop-Tart. I figured I should wait, though, because the elevator could be down all day and I should save my couple trips up the stairs for lunch and bathroom breaks.  I ended up calling my husband, who works in the building next door, and asked him to bring me a Pop-Tart. He did, because he’s awesome.

Later, I tried the elevator again and discovered that when the half door on the top floor closes automatically, it doesn’t close all the way.  And, strangely enough, the elevator won’t descend unless the door is closed.  Which is a lovely safety feature, except for the fact that the door stops about an inch before it’s actually closed, leaving me to swear a lot and try vainly to get someone to check it.

Before I figured out what was wrong with the elevator, I called my boss and asked if I could move to another location temporarily.  He went off to check who was out on travel or vacation, and he did actually find me another spot. I ended up not needing it, but the actual people I work with have been really helpful. The building design itself, not so much.

For me, this is an annoying inconvenience that will be over Friday afternoon. Even if the elevator dies completely, it probably won’t do damage for me to go up the stairs an extra time or two.  At worst, it’ll hurt some. But for someone with a long-term disability, this would be a nightmare.  That wheelchair-using coworker who used to work in the building?  Yeah, they had to move him somewhere else because of elevator issues.  The elevator would be down, and he’d be stuck in the lobby for two hours instead of being able to come upstairs and do his job.

Nobody intended that certain areas of the building be unusable for people with mobility issues.  Technically, the building is presumably ADA compliant. But in practice, ouch.

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