Waiting Room Etiquette from the Disability Perspective

I’m trying to get Spinraza, the first-ever treatment for SMA. (If that occurs, this blog will probably share further details.) Anyway, for the neurologist to submit the treatment request to my insurance company, I had to get examined by a physical therapist. I was in the waiting room for about 15 minutes, and was driven absolutely nuts by a man on the far side of the waiting room who was video chatting with, first, his grandchildren and, second, his wife. Most socially-conscious people know that this kind of behavior is obnoxious. Then I got to thinking about waiting room and lobby etiquette from a disability prospective. This post summarizes my thoughts on the subject.

For owners and designers of waiting rooms and lobbies:

  • Do not line all of the walls with chairs; leave sufficient space for wheelchairs to park in the row with everyone else who is seated. I hate going into a waiting room and seeing every single space against the wall lined with chairs. Sometimes the chairs are even strategically spaced (i.e., extra-wide chairs perfectly interspersed with standard-sized chairs) so that no portion of the wall is left uncovered. Where is a wheelchair user to sit? In the middle of the room? No! They will sit in front of the chairs, parallel parked, and wind up blocking access to three standard-sized chairs. That’s awkward; give them better access.
  • Have a variety of seating options. In addition to offering standard-sized chairs, why not purchase a range of seating options? When I am at the doctor’s office, I regularly see people making use of the extra-wide and, even more so, extra-tall chairs. These can be used by people with broken bones, so as not to put extra pressure on the site of injury. The extra-tall chairs don’t require as much leg and hip flexion, helping patients with broken legs, as well as elderly people who have a difficult time sitting up from a lower chair.
  • Put items for guests at an accessible height or have staff automatically offer to assist guests in retrieving items. It frustrates me when a waiting room offers magazines, but places them on a low coffee table. Similarly, one of my doctor’s offices has a coffee machine and cookies on a low table. Fortunately, staff at the latter inquire as to my interest in the goodies, presenting an opportunity for me to easily ask for assistance. Similarly, if a guest is blind or visually impaired, staff should be instructed to inform him or her of items available while waiting.

For staff serving waiting room and lobby guests:

  • Understand that your clipboard may be insufficient to meet everyone’s needs. Because there aren’t any tables I can access in waiting rooms, I can’t independently fill out paperwork. When I ask for assistance, staff quickly hand me a clipboard. When I explain this accommodation is insufficient, that I actually need someone to physically write my answers, I’ve gotten eye roles. Inappropriate! I understand that you may be extremely busy meeting the needs of other patients, but you could kindly ask that I wait a few minutes. You could ask other personnel to provide assistance. Your office could have mailed me the paperwork before I came for my appointment. But, it’s on you to figure it out, as such assistance is a reasonable accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
  • Move chairs if it looks like someone in a wheelchair is struggling or uncomfortable. I remember interviewing for some jobs at State agencies with really tiny lobbies. I would be the only person waiting, and there would be five or six chairs crammed inside. Once there wasn’t enough room for me to even sit in the lobby, and the secretary told me she would call for me while I waited outside. Awkward… And what a great way to build my confidence going into a job interview! On another interview, the secretary sheepishly remarked on how there really wasn’t room for wheelchairs in the waiting room, but never offered to remove a couple of chairs so I didn’t have to sit in a manner that blocked the access route for anyone going in or out of the office.
  • Don’t assume guests or patients are being jerks. I was waiting for an administrative hearing with a colleague, and the secretary began to bark at my colleague for not filling out the guest log on her desk. My colleague is blind; she didn’t even know the log existed! I didn’t know it existed, either, because the desktop was higher than my head. If you have expectations of guests, explain them politely when they enter the office.
  • Don’t violate HIPAA because someone needs an accommodation. Sometimes a guest or patient will need paperwork read aloud. This could be due to blindness, and intellectual disability, etc. If reading assistance is requested, don’t read their medical information aloud to a filled waiting room. Invite the patient into a private area and complete their request.

For people with disabilities using lobbies and waiting rooms:

  • Don’t take up more space than you need to use. It drives me nuts when I see a fellow wheelchair user sitting parallel to a row of chairs, taking up three seats when there is room to sit elsewhere. Just because you a wheelchair doesn’t mean you can do whatever you want.
  • Don’t try to cut the line because you are disabled. Again, sometimes people with disabilities feel entitled to be accommodated to however they wish. Many times I’ve witnessed people with disabilities and their attendants cutting in front of others in a waiting room line. Everyone has an appointment for a reason, and yours is not more important merely because you have a visible disability. Take your place in the line like everyone else.

For fellow waiting room and lobby guests:

  • Pay attention to the seating arrangement before plopping down. Often, the best place for someone in a wheelchair to sit is at the end of a row of chairs. His or her attendant will sit in the chair next to them. However, the end-of-row seats seem to be the most frequently occupied by non-disabled people. When all of these end-of-row seats are taken, the wheelchair user may have nowhere to sit in a busy waiting room.
  • Don’t sit by me. Many people in wheelchairs are immunocompromised, and cannot keep their body healthy by doing regular exercise. If you are in the office to be treated for a contagious illness, please stay away!

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