What do trains and toilets have in common?
Baiba Baikovska is a Latvian stand-up comedian and writer. She works with people with disabilities through the organisation Agape Latvia and is a guest lecturer on disability issues.
At a stand-up rehearsal, I started laughing. It’s normal. Because I like humor. Thanks to trains, toilets and what they have in common, I often laugh at things that others would cry about. Humor helps. To survive. Not to lose yourself. To make the world more inclusive. One of the participants asked what I was laughing at. I replied that I was imagining what I would do if something like Ukraine happened here or if Putin activated the nuclear bomb. I would not be able to get out of my house because the elevators would probably not work, and I live on the fourth floor. I could not go to Līgatne, although – who would think of going to Līgatne at a time like that, unless it was to a rehabilitation center with a bomb shelter (down a set of stairs). I might not even be able to go to the toilet.
The train, which is the main subject of this article, has adapted facilities for wheelchair users. But there is one but. The train itself, which has these adapted toilets for wheelchair users, is not accessible. This but applies to many toilets. This but unites trains and toilets. What comes before and after the but? It is revealed in several situations before boarding a train or entering a toilet on four wheels.
One situation took place several years ago. A good friend, R, and I decided to go to Līgatne by train. It would be too expensive to take a taxi from Riga. And neither he nor I had a car. After this incident, I seriously considered getting a driver’s license. On the Riga-Valga train passing through Līgatne, R. had seen the built-in lift for wheelchair passengers to board the train, which led to a number of kafkaesque situations.
I am a tough nut, I’ve dealt with inaccessibility more than enough times to develop an unhealthy sense of sarcasm and doubt. So, to make sure, I decided to call the Latvian Railways information line. Maybe the use of this lift should be announced, just like the use of the lifts at the eight Latvian railway stations that have them – at least 48 hours before the journey. I called on December 26th. I was told in the affirmative that the use of this on-board lift also had to be requested, but that the special department dealing with train accessibility was closed on holidays, so I should call on a working day. The next morning, I called again, because my desire to go to Līgatne on a train with a built-in lift had not diminished. On December 27th, the special department was working. I told the person who answered about the Riga-Valga train with the built-in lift on which R and I and my furry assistant, Elfa the lab, were planning to go to Līgatne. To be on the safe side, I also mentioned that R had not only seen the built-in lift, but also taken a picture. The woman who heard my story said that there was no such train. They were only planning for one. But I am used to fighting to get somewhere. And I had seen a photograph of the train with the built-in lift! I told her again that R had taken the Riga-Valga train, which goes through Līgatne, with the built-in lift, he had seen it and taken a picture. The woman, very kindly, told me again that there was no such train yet, but did I know about the lifts that could be manually pushed onto the train at nine railway stations in Latvia – Riga, Krustpils, Rēzekne, Daugavpils, Jelgava, Saulkrasti, Sigulda, Dubulti, and Vaivari – but unfortunately not Līgatne? Since disability has hardened my patience muscle, I replied, as calmly and clearly as I could, that I knew about manual lifts and that I had used them myself. I added that I had spoken to a Latvian Railways employee the day before and that she had told me that the use of the on-board lift also had to be requested and that, in order to do so, I had to call the special department today, which I am doing now, and indicate on what date and at what time I wanted to use the lift. It was quite clear that the woman had no disability, which might have hardened her patience muscle. She told me that she knew nothing about such a train and that she would put me in touch with the head of the special department. I told him all over again about the Riga-Valga train, which passes through Līgatne. He listened. And replied. There was no such train with a built-in lift, but did I know about the lifts that can be manually pushed onto the train at nine railway stations in Latvia - Riga, Krustpils, Rēzekne… but unfortunately not Līgatne? My patience muscle could not hold out much longer. I said goodbye and pressed the red receiver icon on my iPhone, which was sticky with my assistant’s saliva from the many times she had to pick it up. Then I wrote a Facebook message to R. that either they knew nothing about a Riga-Valga train with a built-in lift or I had not spoken clearly enough. My friend knew that he had seen the train and the lift, so he decided to call the special department of Latvian Railways himself. He too got the same answer, however. One call was enough for him to realize that no more explanations were worth it and that there would be no sympathy from the special department that has to deal with wheelchair access to trains.
And yet he had in fact taken this train from Riga to Valga and got off in Līgatne. He had seen the yellow-and-blue lift and spoken to the conductors, who told him that they had even been instructed how to use it. He too had a well-trained patience muscle. He was a physical therapist. So, at 18:10, when the Riga-Valga train was due to arrive with the built-in lift, we went to the platform. The train arrived. The doors opened and people climbed out. Through one of the doors, a new and obviously unused yellow-and-blue lift was plainly visible. We moved towards the door of the train. There stood a conductor in a dark blue uniform. R. asked how it was possible to use this lift. The conductor did not know. Another conductor in the same uniform came and said that the lift could not be used because its use had to be requested in advance by calling the special department of Latvian Railways that deals with train accessibility issues. It seemed that our reply that we had already called was unheard. Then, in a voice raised a decibel higher, the second conductor said that the use of this built-in lift must also be registered through Apeirons, the Association of People with Disabilities and their Friends. On the tip of my tongue, I had a question what Apeirons had to do with trains, but I didn’t say anything. Meanwhile, R. was trying to arrange with the conductors to try to start the lift himself, because he was a physiotherapist and had experience with lifts. Because he was polite and did not want to argue, he did not mention that the conductors should have been instructed how to use it. However, the conductors did not let him touch the lift because, first, he might break something and who would have to take responsibility then; and second, it was not connected to electricity. I began to wonder what the train and the lift were for. I tried to calm down R., who was visibly upset because he was not used to such attitudes. Unlike me.
We did go to Līgatne, however – by bus, where they just kindly asked us to warn them next time so that they could send a bus with a built-in lift for our convenience. On the way to Līgatne, R. mentioned that on the Riga-Valga train with the built-in lift, he had also used a toilet with handles and everything else adapted for wheelchair users. Of course, it would only be possible to use adapted facilities when on the train, but…
I was once in a bowling alley. The bowling alley also had its buts, which came to light when I asked if there were facilities for wheelchair users. They said they were very well adapted. Where are they? I asked. On the second floor, they said. I asked how I could get there. Well, you have to go upstairs, they said. This time we had no one with us who could carry me up in my wheelchair. We had to go to the nearby Rimi supermarket to use their facilities. Outside Rimi, they should put up an ad: “Come hither! The only facilities for the disabled within a 10 km radius!”
The buts of accessible facilities are usually discovered through personal experience, sometimes in a nervous mode if you have to look for the toilet key. For some reason, the facilities for the disabled, unlike the ones for the rest of humanity, are always locked. Why is that?
The need can become even more urgent if there is something else to look for before the key. In one shopping center, the door of the accessible toilet says to ask the attendant for the key. Neither the attendant’s number nor a description of him or her is in sight. None of the traders working closest to the facilities knew what the attendant looked like either. It took so long to find the attendant that I started to wonder whether I should start looking for a janitor as well. My patience, trained by my disability, finally ran out. I went to the store management to get a key to the adapted facilities and told them that their setup was a violation of human rights.
I did tell them, but many people would keep quiet and leave, maybe even embarrass themselves because they would not make it to the facilities in time. Toilets are not luxuries, but for wheelchair users they sometimes are, and those places where facilities are available get extra points and extra visits because there one can drink tea and coffee to one’s heart’s content, because one doesn’t have to worry about what would happen once the liquids are recycled. But there are still too many places where you have to worry about that. For example, in a Latvian railway station, where there are adapted facilities, but...
Ten or twelve steps down. Is there no lift? There is one, but it has become a platform for old cardboard boxes and brooms, because apparently it broke down a long time ago and there is no one to fix it. That time, writers and artists carried me to the adapted facilities. Once there, a woman had to clear it of buckets, brooms, sponges, and other things so that I could get inside.
On the train, you have to go up to the adapted facilities. At the railway station, it’s down. But then there are places where it’s neither down nor up, and you can use the toilet in peace. Even two of you at the same time, because there are two identical commodes. Why is that? Maybe such toilets are good places to meet people? Certainly, two commodes with handles are better than one or none. I still choose to be alone in the toilet because my private space is important to me. Too often disability is seen as a permission to violate it: I have to request an adapted train when in fact I would like to go somewhere unnoticed and unaccounted for, or look for the bathroom key when I don’t want to talk to anyone, just to take care of my business, or on the street, in the shop, or some other public space answer questions such as these:
What happened to you?
Where are you going?
Why are you alone?
Where is your assistant?
Where do you live?
How do you get to the fourth floor?
How do you cook for yourself?
How do you manage living alone?
Do you have a boyfriend?
I will give you money. Take it! – That’s not a question.
Can I pet your dog?
What’s your dog’s name?
Does your dog bite?
You are probably going to the clinic, social services, or day center, right?
“I'll help you” is not said. But you should keep asking how you can help. We all have a private life, including wheelchair users, and it’s important to respect that. That way we will respect each other and create a safer and more inclusive environment. Thank you to all the places where there has been dialogue about how to adapt them and where a human conversation has taken place! Thank you to all those people who ask how to help and ask if they may ask questions instead of barraging me or other disabled people with them without any self-censorship. I am glad that there are increasingly more places where I don’t have to worry about how I am going to get in, how I am going to use the toilet, or that my assistant dog will be barred from entering and our right to be together isn’t respected. May we have fewer and fewer buts and more and more ability to put ourselves in the shoes and wheels of our neighbor, to smile at the buts that still exist and do our best to make them disappear so that we can have the freedom of being human together! May a healthy sense of humor help, revitalize, and encourage us to keep living, going, rolling, seeing, feeling, being!