Talking Toilets and VI air travel

Firstly let me apologise for the vulgar title of this post – but I promise, it really is an appropriate title! This is an impromptu post which I feel compelled to write whilst waiting to board my homeward bound flight from JFK Airport.

On my way out to New York, a few days ago, I encountered something I feel I have to share. It comes not long after my series about Accessibility and is a perfect example of how a small accessibility feature makes a big difference to someone like me. It’s slightly unfortunate that it is somewhat… well, toilet-related.

I went to visit the ladies room whilst waiting for a flight at Manchester Airport. This sounds pretty simple, doesn’t it? Well, actually this seemingly simple task has the potential to become a bit more complicate when you are visually impaired. Firstly, I needed to find the restrooms. They happened to be a fair walk away and tucked into a corner behind a coffee shop. With the help of my long cane, I made my way through the crowd of duty free shoppers, pulling their obstacles of bags and suitcases. I methodically followed some directions I’d been given and eventually found the toilets without incident. When I got there, I found the whole area was dimly lit and I had no vision at all. (My little remaining vision is dependent on an optimum amount of light, not too bright, not too dark.) I found a number of doors but I couldn’t tell which was the Ladies and which was the Gent’s. I managed to locate the disabled toilet and decided that would be the safest option! Now, what happened next was truly (and perhaps sadly!) exciting!

An exciting encounter

As I opened the door I heard an announcement. I can’t remember the exact wording, but a recorded voice greeted me and said something along the lines of “if you are visually impaired and would like a description of the room and location of items in it, please wave your arm to the left.” In my excitement, I said “ooh… yes please!” out loud, to the prerecorded voice. Then I remembered to wave my arm.

You see something I don’t talk about, because it’s not polite to do so, is a frequent bugbear of mine and perhaps of other visually impaired people too. Public toilets. Specifically, finding them and locating all the things in them that I need. I’m pretty sure that most places I go maintain perfectly acceptable standards of cleanliness, but as you might imagine, when you can’t see, you visualise the worst. I cringe every time I reach out to find the toilet roll dispenser or the flush in case there’s something unpleasant on it, even though it’s most likely, absolutely fine. So imagine my joy at hearing directions to the toilet itself and a description of the height of the seat. I didn’t need to feel around the walls for the toilet roll or the flush as the helpful voice guided me straight to them. It also helped me find the sink, described how to operate the tap and it let me know the soap dispenser was automatic. I then had the choice of paper towels or a hand dryer as it provided directions to both. Finally, it told me the door was directly behind me and once I had turned around it described the location of the handle. I left, feeling strangely smug!

A moment of ease

Let’s put this into context. Generally, air travel, among other things, is more complicated when you can’t see very well. Airports are notoriously difficult to navigate – imagine doing it without being able to see signs! During flights, the sound of the plane makes hearing someone speak more difficult, aisles are narrow and lighting is such that I usually see nothing at all on planes. Because I don’t sit on a 12 hour flight holding my cane for the duration, flight attendants are not always aware that I can’t see them and sometimes I miss their directions or worse still, I might miss food!! Anything that makes the whole process of going through an airport, getting on and off a plane and leaving the airport at the other end a little easier, is very welcome. Popping to the ladies room was made easier by the talking toilet. It was an opportunity to find something straightforward amidst the complicated process of catching a plane.

A different kind of assistance

I really do appreciate the assistance offered at airports – it makes flying easier for me. I’ve had many positive experiences of assistance in airports and on planes. There was a Special Assistance Officer at Berlin Airport who greeted me kindly and guided me through immigration and baggage claim with impressive efficiency and care. I couldn’t fault the service he provided. There was a thoughtful flight attendant on a flight from Dubai who placed a drink on my table then gently touched my elbow and asked my permission before guiding my hand to the cup. He was discreet and genuinely helpful. Then there was the washroom attendant in Singapore who noticed me feeling around on the floor (for what seemed like minutes), when I dropped the packet of wipes while changing my daughter’s nappy. She kindly put the packet in my hand and after I had finished, she passed me paper towels and quietly asked if she could guide me back to the door. I was very grateful for her help.

It’s hard to explain why this accessible toilet made me feel different than when I receive help from other people. A talking toilet is not really a big deal in the grand scheme of things. I mean I can use a toilet that doesn’t talk to me and tell me where things are, it’s just more difficult and takes longer. So I wonder why it made me so happy? Maybe it was because nobody was helping me and nobody knew I was being helped. I’m not sure why this is important to me, or even if it should be. I’m not unrealistic. I’m legally blind and I know I need a bit of help to do certain things now, air travel being one of those things. I’m working on being at peace with that. But I would rather not need help. I would like to do it all myself, like I did when I had a bit more vision left, because part of me feels like I should still be able to. That’s why as much as I appreciate assistance, it’s always preferable when I genuinely don’t need it. As my vision deteriorated, the times when I didn’t need assistance became less frequent, so I kind of relish moments where I can do things on my own. I suppose that’s why the talking toilet made my day!

Accessibility is the my favourite kind of assistance

I was grateful and happy for the help and kindness of the Special Assistance Officer in Berlin, the flight attendant in Dubai and the washroom attendant in Singapore, but I am the most grateful and the happiest, when the world around me allows me to to what I need to do, without any help at all.

Thanks for reading this post. I’m sure talking toilet cubicles are not a new invention but I’m happy to have discovered them and thought I would share my findings with you all. Let me know if you have discovered any interesting or innovative accessibility features recently – I’d love to hear about them.

Catch up on the first part of my three-part series about Accessibility.

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