Far too often people create spaces as if fat people don’t exist. Reader Chloe wrote to tell me about an experience in which she arrived at the doctor’s office for a checkup for her broken leg (remember that, it will be important in a second) and found that all of their chairs were narrow with arms and didn’t accommodate her. She hobbled over to the front desk and they said that they wanted all the chairs to match so that the office looked nice, and that they didn’t have a “special chair” for her.
So Chloe asked if that was actually more important than the chairs being functional and welcoming to clients of all sizes, and not forcing her to stand on one leg during what she had already been told would be an extended wait. At that point the staff apologized, went to another office in the complex and borrowed an armless chair, and promised to order one the same day, even asking for her opinion of what might work better – an armless chair, bench, or a love seat?
Asking for accommodations can bring up a lot of emotions – stress, embarrassment, shame, fear, anger, guilt. I think that one massive problem is that we’ve been told that asking for accommodations is asking for some kind of favor or special treatment above and beyond what everyone else gets.
Often those being asked to accommodate us, and sometimes even those asking for accommodations, feel like this is a request for something “special.” So when someone needs an armless chair, or a seat that accommodates them on a plane, or clothes in a size that fits them, or whatever, there can be a thought that the person is asking for some kind of special treatment.
That’s just not true. When a fat person asks for furniture that accommodates us or enough room to sit on a plane or plus sizes (or, as I like to call them, sizes) this is not asking for something special – it’s asking for what others already have. If the other patients at your doctor’s office walk into the office and sit down, but you can’t because the chairs all have arms and don’t work for you, then when you ask for an armless chair you’re not asking for something special – you’re asking for what the other patients already have.
The problem isn’t that you are asking for a chair that works for you, the problem is that your doctor’s office didn’t think to order some armless chairs in the first place. I believe that people who are designing spaces – especially spaces like public transportation and healthcare – should constantly ask themselves “How can I accommodate everyone who might want this service?” That includes people with disabilities,people of all sizes/heights, people with cultural and language differences, people who are left handed, everyone they can possibly think of.
Let’s be clear that we aren’t saying “hey, I need this special thing” we’re saying “I’m going to do you the courtesy of asking you for something that you should have already provided but didn’t.” How about instead of saying “damn these people and their ‘special requests’ to be provided with what we’ve already given to the people it’s cheapest and easiest for us to accommodate” people start asking “How can we become radically hospitable? Who can we better accommodate?”
When a fat person says “I need a seat on the plane that I can fit into” or “I need a chair that works for me” or “I want some clothes that fit” they aren’t saying “I need something special” they’re pointing to the person beside them who can walk onto the plane and fit into a seat, sit easily in the chairs provided, and shop at more than 3 online stores, and saying “I’ll have what she’s having.” Equal access is not special access, equal treatment is not special treatment, and the only people who should feel embarrassed when we have to ask for accommodations are the companies who didn’t provide it in the first place.
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