Armless Chairs – Equal Access Is Not Special Access

The world is messed up you are fineFar 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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22 thoughts on “Armless Chairs – Equal Access Is Not Special Access

  1. Ironically, my father (who walked with canes) was one of those who battled to get chairs *with* arms. The standard used to be that all waiting room and restaurant chairs were armless, and he could not get up and down from them. The real killer for him was the big soft cushy sofa designed to sink into – he stood in many waiting rooms that only offered that.

    I prefer them with arms, myself – my weight is in my belly, I have a tricky knee, and, well, I’m not getting younger. (Many elderly people have difficulty with chairs without arms, as joint and balance problems become more common.)

    The problem is that we really need both to be available – when my group of friends go out to dinner we really need both at the same table – but purchasing agents don’t think that way… We need to make it clear that we need This *and* That – rather than This *not* That.

    1. I wouldn’t think it would be *that* hard to design a convertible chair where the arms fold down next to the legs when not in use, like those desk-arm things in some school lecture halls, but I’ve never seen one. They would presumably need to be repaired more often because moving parts break, but the regular hypothetically-not-removeable arms keep falling off on our office chairs, so durability doesn’t seem to be a big element in purchasing anyway.

  2. I became more aware of this recently with a client of mine at my real estate office—I was absolutely beside myself with embarrassment at how long it took me to find an armless chair. We do have them, but there should be at least two in each conference room so that they don’t have to be hunted down like the Questing Beast when someone prefers one. Somewhat similarly, I had no idea how hard it is to navigate in a motorized wheelchair until I had a disabled client whose logistics I needed to consider in advance, everywhere we went. I like to think of myself as having an inclusionary/accepting attitude, but: these two experiences made me realize that I don’t necessarily see what’s going on until it’s brought to my attention. I hope that with focused and deliberate practice, I will learn to proactively see where my surroundings are failing, and also advocate for appropriate accommodation for all.

  3. My medical group’s offices have nice matching chairs. All are fairly wide, but some have arms and some don’t. There are spaces here and there where people can park a wheelchair or walker. They look fine. I can fit into most “standard” chairs, but it’s nice not to have the arms digging into my hips, and I appreciate the diversity for people of different sizes and abilities. I think I’ll try to remember to tell them so.

  4. Thank you so much for this post. It’s these small things that we fat people just know are going to be issues that the rest of the world doesn’t think about. And because we know they are going to be issues, we fret and worry and feel shame at having to ask for accommodation. But we should not have to feel ashamed! Rather, the rest of the world should be asking how they can be welcoming to all of their customers.

    This past weekend I took advantage of Southwest’s Person of Size second seat policy. I chose to pay for the second seat up front so I knew it would be available for me. While it sort-of still irritated me that I had to pay up front (waiting for reimbursement when the trip is over), I really appreciate the fact that they offer this option at all! When I explained to my thin friend how it worked, though, he was surprised that I would be getting a full refund. Why would they do that, he asked? What’s in it for them to let you have two seats? And while he didn’t say it, I still heard the unasked, “And how come you get to have two seats for the price of one? That’s not fair.” That question occurred to me, too, along with the accompanying shame – this time two-fold: shame at having to ask for a second seat because my bum is not ever going to fit in a 17″ wide seat without “taking away space” from my neighbor. And shame at getting something without paying g for it – even though all I am really getting is a seat big enough for me to sit in without discomfort for myself and my neighbor. It’s a struggle, it really is, to change the mindsets of others. But it’s just as much of a struggle to change my own!

    Thank you for all the work that you do that helps me. I’m so glad to have found your blog! You are inspiring me to reconsider what the world has always told me. Each of your posts makes me think why such a situation exists, and question why I have always accepted it as both the truth and the rule to follow. So, thank you! Truly. You are important, and you are making a difference.

    ~ Sent from my iPhone ~


    1. May I ask a question, for clarification? When Southwest reimburses a 2-seat passenger, is that every flight or only when flights turn out to have empty seats once you are ready for take-off? Meaning, they would have had an empty seat to place you next to so no 2nd seat would hve been necessary but you pay up front simply to guarentee you don’t get bumped.

      Thank you for posting.

      1. Southwest’s policy is to give people two (or three) seats if they need them and then to treat that the exact same as if it was a single seat. You don’t have to pay ahead of time, they will give you a seat when you show up at the airport. I think that this is important because there are ways to book a second seat that don’t require fat passengers to give Southwest twice as much money at the time of ticketing. If you do choose to pay for the second seat and then get reimbursed, they will reimburse you regardless of whether or not the flight was full. If you show up and need a second seat and you didn’t pay ahead of time and the flight is overbooked, they will treat it like any other overbook situation and ask for volunteers to accept a voucher to take a different flight.


  5. We hear some horrid stories, but I have a few positive ones, and I feel they are worth hearing because they provide hope. During one of my earliest visits to my therapist, I gave her an essay that was published – I THINK – on the ASDAH blog about a woman who felt that her mother’s early death was at least partially caused by her fear of going to doctors’ offices where chairs wouldn’t accommodate her body. I gave this to my therapist because the woman also discussed how biased medical care in general was a problem for her mother’s health, as it led to undiagnosed conditions. My therapist’s office is tiny and had all armed, small and frankly not terrifically sturdy chairs. But that was NOT why I gave her the piece. I wasn’t even thinking of it, because I almost never have to wait when I get there.

    But the next time I got there? She had an armless chair. I didn’t even have to ask. She read that piece and realized it was something she should’ve been providing all along. I cannot even express what that meant to me. I was moved to tears. Over a fucking chair. Over being given a chair to sit in that fit my body without even having to ask.

    Another story is about my dentist’s office. They have chairs that match, but some versions have arms and some don’t.

    And the final one is in my new(ish) primary care doctor’s office, where the armed chairs are quite large (I am still slightly squished but I am almost certainly in the minority), and on top of that, they also have loveseats.

    I should also point out that I live in Colorado, which of course is consistently ranked as the “thinnest” state (a ranking that shouldn’t even fucking exist because it just adds to biases and should be meaningless). But despite that, I have found of the four states I’ve lived in, I receive the LEAST poor treatment or judgment for my size living here. Not to say it’s none, but it’s not a lot and while I’m sure I’m still silently judged, people are allowed to think/feel what they want… it’s when they decide to randomly say those things to a total stranger (or even not a stranger) that I take issue. But it’s just interesting to me that in all of my time in New Jersey, Manhattan, the suburbs of Philly… places with a lot more diversity (in all respects, not just size), I felt far more judged, had far more trouble with accommodations and just… always felt self-conscious about my body. I moved to the “thinnest” state and here I feel far, far less judgment.

  6. At my endocrinologist’s office, where one might expect to encounter fat people, I more or less fit into the armed chairs, but they don’t have scales that go up above 350 lbs. At every visit, they give me a questionnaire that asks how they can improve their practice; I always suggest armless chairs and scales with a higher limit. Nothing has changed in the 3 years I’ve been going there.

    1. Guess it won’t help things if you write on the questionnaire:

      “Kindly READ your completed questionnaire forms.”

  7. Ragen,

    I’m hearing more and more about companies punishing “overweight” employees by forcing them to pay higher health insurance premiums. Could you compile, or direct me to, a list of companies who are doing this or discriminating against fat people in other ways? I’d like to not buy anything from them ever again.

    I’ve got Johnson & Johnson and CVS so far.

    1. It’s the same in Canada. My health care (not through a company) rejected me for the ordinary plan because I’m too fat, and I have to pay for a more expensive plan which covers about half of what the ordinary one does.

      It’s Alberta Blue Cross.

    2. If you find this, I’d be interested too. I hit up my local CVS all the time, but there’s a Walgreen’s not much further I’ll be happy to switch to over this. (Where did you even find info on those two?)

  8. My orthopedic surgeon’s office has a number of chairs labeled, “for our patients who have hip problems” that are taller and easier to sit in and get up from. No one thinks that is asking for something special. They think it’s a great thing to have.

      1. lklinger: I got a set of bed risers and put them under the legs of my couch. Have done the same with a recliner. They cost about $10 and come in a set of 4 (so you may need 2 sets for a larger couch with legs in the middle). You can get them in plain black, wood, and even clear.

  9. Average sized folks have no clue what it is like for some of us. When I am invited to functions/affairs, or being sent to a training class or even a random work lunch at a local eatery, I cannot commit until I have viewed photos of the dining area, class/conference room or banquet hall on the location’s website or Facebook. If the seating is not size-friendly, I cannot attend. Because I also have COPD and dibilitating arthritis, both walking and standing can be issues for me as well. Work-wise, I’ve had to call hotels to ask about handicapped parking and how far the walk is from the entrance to whatever room the class or event is scheduled for and I’ve had to tell my biased manager “no, I cannot navigate that venue” and, for an intrivert such as myself, it was excruciating to have to do so. Sometimes people at work think I am just not a “joiner” when I’d truly LOVE to be included in their team-building events; however, having to explain myself and my health issues to fatphobics is both uncomfortable and embarassing not to mention none of their business.

    I know I miss out on so much.

    1. I hear you. At my previous job in Korea, my department scheduled the annual end-of-term goodbye dinner in a restaurant with floor seating only (no chairs), even though they KNEW that several employees had joint and back problems that made them unable to sit on the floor. We took one look at the venue, greeted our coworkers, and walked off to eat elsewhere.

      Here in China, I was relieved to learn that one of my supervisors also has walking issues so when he gives a walking time estimate, I don’t have to multiply it by two or three like I usually do. (I was also relieved to see a few fat coworkers.)

  10. “they said that they wanted all the chairs to match so that the office looked nice”

    Truly the reason one goes to the doctor- to view matching chairs.


    Guess it is too much to ask that the office meet the needs of their patients.

    (any interior designer will tell you not to have all identical chairs in any room- at home or in an office waiting room. )

    Where I work (a lab), we did not have enough chairs to accommodate all lab personnel. This was brought to the attention of the CFO. She inspected the situation. Then declared there was no money to procure additional chairs. We’re talking basic typing chair with wheels –nothing fancy. Her solution: she instructed the lab folks to share their chairs. “After all, no one is in the lab all the time. So just share the chairs.” Result was that I did a good portion of my lab work resting on my knees on the floor. Not comfortable.

    So early one morning, before anyone else had arrived, I went up to the front offices. I noticed that the CFO’s chair and the very diminutive R&D director’s chair were identical. Both had the leather executive office style chairs with all sorts of back and height adjustments designed for custom fit. So I switched the two chairs.

    I got great satisfaction watching the CFO spend her entire day repeatedly getting up from her chair to make adjustments. She was pissed! Kept hollering “Who touched my chair? Who messed with the adjustments? I‘m never gonna get this chair back the way it was!”

    The R&D director didn’t notice a thing. Course, while he sat, his feet no longer touched the floor. But he’s not one to notice such things.

    Neither one ever realized the switch.

    (I went out and purchased two typing chairs for the lab. Paid less than $200. No, never got reimbursed.)

  11. Our clinic in town here has chairs with arms kind of around the three walls of the waiting room (the 4th is open to the rest of the clinic). They’re fairly large, too. The middle of the clinic has a set of chairs that are both armless and bolted to the floor – I imagine that also makes them sturdier for people using them for balance?

    There’s also a chair on that set that is a different colour from the plain black “leather” of both the armed and armless chairs, and I think it’s like a back support thing? I’m always nervous at the doctor so I’ve never really asked why.

    It looks fine, though, to have both, so that argument is faulty.

  12. In he city where I live many doctors do no have armless chairs or a loveseat in their waiting room. A few have an arm less chair in the back office. If a fat patient is afraid to see the doctor or is self conscious this can result in no seeing a doctor for their condition.If the condition is deadly and they die of the situation this effects the mortality statistics negatively.

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