The Re-Education of Alex Bruzan Episode 2: A Crappy Story About Access

Oh man, I hope I don’t dump a bunch of episodes worth of content into the second one and leave nothing to talk about. I already started two more longer posts, but was getting stuck on them, partially because they all had to do with access.

A conversation on access doesn’t make a ton of sense if we don’t start with a proper definition of access. Access is essentially ones ability to get what they need. I recently had an opportunity to rethink about how I view access while camping with my family in Michigan. It was about 9:30 in the morning and I had my third or fourth of fifth cup of coffee. If you are a coffee drinker, you know that sometimes, how do I put this eloquently, you need to use the bathroom. I set the book I was reading down and got up to make the walk over to the bathhouse. We have a popup trailer that doesn’t have a bathroom in it. It is almost never an issue and wasn’t on that day. We pretty much only pick campgrounds where you can get to a bathroom easily. The particular campground we were staying at was one that I had been going to since I was in 7th grade. Having grown up going there with my parents and siblings makes it really fun to go back with my wife and kids.

The night before I shared those same thoughts with David, the guy camped next to us. He had a small trailer just like us, only smaller. It was only about as big as a twin size bed, which was more or less what the inside of it consisted of. In the back of the trailer was a small kitchen that faced the outside. It was lime green and had big tires on it, which made it sit taller than most trailers. It seemed like the perfect trailer for one guy or gal to pull behind a small SUV and instantly have a place to crash for a night or two. Meg, my wife, thought she would like to get one if I end up dying way before her and made a point of telling me that multiple times. Maybe I’ll pick one up just in case so she doesn’t have to bother with buying one herself after I croak.

The bathroom was on the opposite end of the small campground loop, so in order to get there I had to walk past David’s campsite. I remembered he was leaving that morning so I stopped to say hi and wish him safe travels back to his home about half an hour away. He told me he was going to hang out for another hour or two and then finish packing up and leave. I have been trying to be more intentional about saying hi to people, especially in my neighborhood. That means that I end up talking to more people. Just like my lengthy conversations with Ronnie and James while on my run over the last week, my conversation with David lasted a little longer than I intended, but was enjoyable.

After saying goodby, I continued around the corner to the bathroom. Before talking with David, I was reading a chapter from the book How To Be An Antiracist. I have a strong sense that reframing is needed in several areas in order to racially reconcile America. That is what that book is trying to do. Reframe the way we think about the term racist. It’s different that what we think it is. It isn’t as simple as I am a racist or not a racist or I support candidate x so I am not racist or I have a series of excuses for why I am not racist. It’s binary but on a micro level. It’s not binary on a macro level because you can simultaneously have a racist action or thought while having an antiracist thought or action. The reframing of that was needed to have a more authentic conversation around racist actions or intentions. It was just a new way to think about it. Walking to the bathroom I wandered what else needs to be reframed, what else do we need to look at in a different way.

I walked inside and picked a stall. I had two choices to pick from. The one on the left was considerably smaller than the one on the right. The stall on the right extended farther and the door was positioned at a 90 degree angle to the door for the smaller stall. Most of us would immediately recognize that one stall is the standard size and one is the handicap stall. Without giving it much thought I grabbed the handicap stall.

Sitting down I started thinking about access. The handicap stall was designed to give access to someone with a disability. It gives space for someone in a wheelchair to comfortably put their butt on a toilet seat. There was a time when there were no public restrooms. I don’t know when that was, but I for sure know there was a time they did not exist. Certainly, they didn’t exist in the capacity they do now. There was also a time, I am guessing, when all of the stalls were the same size. One of the bathrooms in the school I work at has one giant handicapped stall and on the floor halfway between the left wall and the right wall are the remains of the bolts that used to hold in place the wall that divided the giant stall into two. So, at least in that one bathroom in that one school in that one city there were no handicap stalls. That means there was a time when it was much harder for a handicapped individual to access what they need in that given situation. It was much harder for them to do something that seems so easy for the rest of us.

It’s about way more than just being able to put your butt on a toilet seat, though. It’s about privacy. Why do we care about privacy? Well, we care about privacy to protect the dignity of the person using the stall. Why do we care about the dignity of the person seeking privacy? Because handicapped people are still people regardless of whether or not they need the use of a wheelchair to get around. And why do we care about treating people like people? Because equity and ease of access are kind of the same thing. Or maybe it’s because ease of access is a prerequisite to equity. Access is more layered than just being to use the thing you need. Access, more specifically ease of access is one pathway to equity.

The bathroom stall at the school I work at was quickly modified to provide ease access. The bathroom I found myself in that morning was built about ten years ago. It was a huge upgrade to what was there. I remember the much smaller and outdated facilities that were present when we starting camping there almost 25 years ago. There must have been a time when someone was charged with designing one of the first handicap stalls. School design is something I find interesting. It might even be a passion of mine I guess. Maybe I just like design and constraints and finding out the best way to maximize time and space and resources. I wonder who designed the first handicapped stall. I wonder who picked that person to do the design work. I wonder if that person thought about the ideal candidate to do the design. An ideal candidate probably would be an engineer with some type of architectural experience. Maybe an architectural engineer. When I went to college at MSOE that was one of the majors you could choose from. That would be a good start. Even better, would be an architectural engineer that was also in a wheelchair. That’s the best case scenario. An expert that understands the intricacies and nuances of both design and access. I really hope the first stall wasn’t designed by someone that would never actually have to use it. Even if they had to pretend to need the access by pretending to need a wheelchair by pretending to not have the ability to use their legs so they could get a feel for what it was like, it wouldn’t give space for the subtleties associated with not being able to use your legs to go from seat to seat. I am scared that we design situations for kids to access an educational experience without including someone who will actually use the thing we are creating.

I acknowledge this might be a strange way to think while on a camping trip with your family, but everybody’s different. All of this talk about design makes me think about how we would want to market the access to a handicap stall. When I walked in it was obvious to me which stall was for what. The larger one was physically larger and the door faced a different direction. I have been in some, not a lot, of bathrooms where it isn’t totally obvious which door is for which classification of stall. Or it isn’t obvious enough that I can make an informed decision about which one to use. A lot of times there are signs or the way the space is physically arranged will give clues that if you need the access to one, you should pick the appropriate door. The doors aren’t the same usually. I guess that would be to avoid confusion. It seems like failing to clearly provide communication around how to access the spaces where the access to can be given to meet persons needs is something important. How useless would it be if there wasn’t any communication around which door someone in wheelchair should pick. All of the design work and resources that went into building an accessible bathroom would be wasted. Why would we ever do that? Build something and then not make it clear what the purpose was and who it was for. We wouldn’t because part of providing the access is making sure it is clear what the intentions of that access are and who should use it and when should it be used.

With any design or system or thing we do there is always the need to measure the success of that thing we created. For the handicap stall the measurement is pretty easy. Do handicapped people use it and does it give them enough “space” to put their butt on the toilet seat with as much ease as their condition provides? If it did not provide that space, then they wouldn’t use it. They would just use the regular stall. So our measurement for success could be if people in wheelchairs use the stall. The only design flaw comes in when selfish jerks like me walk into the bathroom and prefer to take the bigger stall, like it is actually in any way better for me or I have any excuse to use it. When I walked into the bathroom I just took what I wanted. I just took the one that for some reason seemed more comfortable for me. I blocked the access for someone else, even for a short time. What I did in that split second was make the argument in my mind that someone who needs that access is less important that my own comfort, hence the selfish jerk comment.

While sitting there and running through all of this in my mind I flashed back to Ryan, a man I first met when I was in 7th grade coming to that particular campground all of those years ago. He was actually the first person I recognized when we pulled through the ranger station after paying for our Michigan DNR sticker and got all of our paperwork situated a few days before. Ryan doesn’t have the use of his legs. Ryan’s camper has a bathroom. I know because my dad and I have helped him move campsites or helped him take it into town a couple of times. About 2 seconds later my thoughts turned to David, our campsite neighbor. David is also in a wheelchair. David’s trailer doesn’t have a bathroom. He told me that the first night I met him. He said he wouldn’t be able to use it if it did, but the bathrooms were close enough that it didn’t really affect him.

At least it wouldn’t affect him if I hadn’t denied his access during my stint in the bathroom.

It’s funny how much more we care about access when we know someone that has their access hindered. I wonder who else is having their access hindered.

All of this bathroom talk makes me think about education in general. Like, what is the point. I’ve spent a lot of time lately thinking about what is the point of school. Particularly during the first months of the pandemic. My kids had no contact with their teachers for weeks and survived. Kids in neighboring towns had multiple hours of work per day and they survived. Putting your butt on the toilet is not actually the need. The need is more profound than that. We live in a society where it is inappropriate to use the bathroom wherever you want. Doing something that is deemed inappropriate by society usually leads to negative consequences. We can’t deny access to the system that has been created to meet the societal need of not just using the bathroom wherever you want. In fact, we can’t even make that access difficult. It has to be easily obtained. To not allow reasonable access would be unkind, unfair, and inequitable.

Currently, we are operating within a society where it is inappropriate to not have a marketable skill, something you can do to go and make money in the marketplace, a thing you do to make money. That is something every fully functioning adult needs to have. The consequences of choosing to not have a marketable skill are poverty, hardship, and stress.

Right now we have a system for providing access to acquiring marketable skills. It’s called school. The only problem is almost no one sees it as that. A small subset of the educators I talk to think about school in general like that, but most do not. And actually most of the educators I talk to couldn’t tell you what the point of school actually is. A vast majority of the kids couldn’t tell you what the point of it is either. In the inner city, there is almost no connection between school and acquiring marketable skills. School is a punishment, maybe that’s because kids that look like the ones that live in my neighborhood are punished a higher rate than students that look like me.

I have known children that are now adults that hated school. I have known adults that say their education was pointless. The old narrative used to be do good in school so you can get into college so you can get a good job so you can move into a nice neighborhood and get married so you can have a couple of kids. That narrative is entirely inaccessible for someone growing up on my block. Unless a parent has already navigated the higher ed system, how would the kid be expected to make the connection that doing good in high school means getting into college, which isn’t necessarily even true anymore because of the expansion of for-profit colleges. You can literally never pass a high school course, graduate, and get into college. I have seen it happen. If you are in college, it’s not like it’s a guarantee that anything positive is going to come out of the investment. The idea that a career will allow you to live in a good neighborhood is ludicrous for some of my neighbors, mostly because good is relative. I literally just talked to my friend Andre who told me that his little corner of the inner city is the only place he feels comfortable. He will be 60 in a few weeks and he has come to the conclusion that a corner on 9th and Ring is the only place he can get away from racial prejudice. His exact quote was, “there’s not gunshots all the time”. He will trade a few gunshots for not being hated randomly for how he looks. The funny thing, is I am happy to trade that too. I would much rather live in a place where he feels comfortable that one he does not, even if there are gunshots every once in awhile. He has a ton of marketable skills and can live wherever he wants. That is something I find fascinating about the inner city and my neighborhood in general. They are dying off but there was a generation of elderly Black men and women that were not poor and they stayed on the block. They didn’t move. The idea that school is going to help you get into more school so you can go to college and move away to a place where you are judged by the color of your skin can’t be appealing to some and I don’t blame them.

What we need is a reframing of the point of school. We need to know what the point is. And when we figure out the point we need to over communicate it. If the point is acquiring marketable skills, then we need to design access with both educators and people that need help in understanding how school can provide access to those marketable skills. We can’t make it confusing about the what the point of the access is; the doors can’t look the same. Right now we have pockets of concentrated poverty that is largely racially divided. If we don’t have experts in education design new access points for the people that need it with the people that need it (student centered design) then we run the risk of designing a handicap stall that isn’t usable or one that the people who need it choose not to access. Then we would measure our success of our educational system not necessarily by what happens during a person’s time within the system, but how much access they had to the end goal, the acquiring of marketable skills. Then we would look at educational outcomes in a more human form, because the success or failure of an individual to acquire marketable skills has real life consequences.

There is one more point that needs to be said. We would never blame a handicapped person for not wanting to access a space that was inaccessible to them. What if every student that has disengaged with school was seen as a failure on our part as educators to provide the student with the appropriate access to the educational experience we offered. What if we saw a drop out or a credit deficient kid as someone that we didn’t make school accessible for? What if we viewed every student that did not succeed by whatever our measures of success are as, and what if we saw every adult that grew up in a system that didn’t provide them with access to the acquisition of a marketable skill as a failure on our part to design something that provided the access they needed.

Because equity and ease of access are kind of the same thing.

Ease of access is a prerequisite to equity and access, more specifically ease of access, is one pathway to equity.