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No Rest for Disabled Travelers?

By Roy Lechtreck
photo of rest area

I would guess that fewer than 10 percent of rest area buildings are within 100 feet of the accessible parking spaces.

It would certainly be wrong to say that rest areas along interstates are deliberately designed to keep disabled travelers away, but certainly it is easy to say that the designers of these areas have too often ignored access.

Although there are laws demanding accessibility, these laws are ineffective -- or simply ignored.

The first thing disabled travelers usually see as they pull off the highway into a rest area is that the building is some distance from the parking lot. In cold or icy weather, travelers using wheelchairs, walkers, crutches or canes are at a disadvantage.

The normal excuse for putting the building back from the parking lot is beautification! But most of the time that in-between area is just grass that has been trampled on many times. It doesn't cost the government any more to put a building within a few feet of the parking lot, and may actually be cheaper. The size of the rest area would be smaller, thereby saving the government money in the purchase of the land -- and the cost of upkeep, grass cutting for instance, would be less.

Based on my own experience, I would guess that fewer than 10 percent of rest area buildings are within 100 feet of the accessible parking spaces and fewer than 5 percent within 50 feet.

Once a person gets to the building, he can be faced with doors that are difficult to open because of their heavy weight. The same is often true of the doors leading into the men's and women's restrooms.

And how many rest areas now have, in addition to the usual men's and women's rooms, a "family room" where a person can feel comfortable going into with an assistant of the opposite sex?

Once inside a stall, new problems arise: Are they wide enough to take a wheelchair? (I have seen stalls with the wheelchair sticker on the door that definitely would not accommodate a wheelchair!) Is the toilet-paper dispenser within easy reach? And is the bar whereby a person lifts himself off the toilet in a convenient location?

Telephones for deaf travelers are also a problem. Volume controls are an answer for the hard of hearing, if the phones are in a fairly quiet place, and not next to the truck parking area. Totally deaf travelers, of course, need telephones with a typewriter keyboard connected to the phone, known as TDDs -- telephone devices for the deaf. Few rest areas have them.

In one state I traveled through that did have them, it seemed that the deaf person needed to be be in a wheelchair, or kneel on the ground, or sit on the ground to use them -- for they were too low for a person of average height to use in the normal way.

Although deaf myself, I have always been able to find an attendant to make a phone call for me in an emergency -- but sometimes an attendant is impossible to find. Not all rest areas are staffed every hour of every day.

The problems of disabled travelers at rest areas may pale into insignificance compared with problems they have elsewhere. But with more and more disabled people traveling the roads, the situation at rest areas will get worse before it gets better--if it gets better at all.

Some states don't have enough rest areas. Some states close their rest areas from 11 p.m to 6 a.m. (Are travelers supposed to use the facilities at the nearest McDonalds or Holiday Inn?).

There is no excuse for new rest areas to be built the same way the old ones have been built. Nor is there any excuse for not making minor changes at existing ones.

Posted April 21, 2004.

Roy Lechtreck is a retired professor of political science.

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