Universal Design at the Pump

I don’t drive my ’94 mini-van very much. Partly because it has 152,000 miles on it and I’m trying to keep it going for another year or two. Partly because the wheelchair lift on it is cumbersome and awkward to use, and so I just take my power wheelchair and public transit whenever possible.

A couple of weeks ago, I decided to drive in to work because it was raining, and using the lift wasn’t as onerous as getting rain blown in my face at the train station. My car was on empty, and I went to a nearby Shell station, because the prices were actually the lowest in my neighborhood. That was my first surprise.

The second surprise came when I got out of the car.

Aesthetically Pleasing Combo of Retro and High Tech

I noticed, when I pulled in the station, that it had been redone, like most of the Shell stations in the area, with the rounded corners and edges that I think of as “retro” – similar to the “dinerfication” of Denny’s.

When I got out of the car and went around to the pump and my tank, I noticed that the display, buttons, credit card processing slider, and keypad were all lowered. Because I’m only 5″2′, this meant that I didn’t have to stretch or fumble to reach everything I needed.

I then realized that if I had to, I could use this pump from my wheelchair. At this, I was thunderstruck.

The Next Step in Equal Access

In California, if you have a state issued “handicapped” placard, which gives you license to park in the recognized blue spaces in parking lots and on some city streets, the placard is also supposed to trigger minimal services at a primarily self-serve gas station. If there are an adequate number of people on duty, they are supposed to come and pump your gas for you if you have a placard, at self-serve prices.

Getting the attention of the gas station attendant, who doesn’t have to pump much gas, can be a challenge. Also, the training they receive in this area seems to vary widely, and you can never be certain that they will respond to one’s waving of the placard from the driver’s seat.

A newer development I’ve noticed is that some stations have a button (with the blue and white wheelchair man logo on it) that you can push to summon the attendant. (Of course, you have to get out of the car to push the button, and by then you are standing at the pumpâÂ?¦ So, I usually just do it myself, unless my feet are absolutely killing me.)

On the island of 2 pumps I was parked next to at this Shell station, there was one of those little blue buttons to push, as well as the redesigned pumps.

No Explanation

I looked at several Shell websites for any mention of the redesigned pumps – nothing.

But I can tell you that the Universal Design fairy had been there.

What is Universal Design?

Briefly, the idea of Universal Design is that if you design products so that people with disabilities can more easily use them, they will be more easily useable by everyone. A perfect example of a company whose products exemplify Universal Design is Oxo, which makes all of those “Good Grips” kitchen gadgets.

I recently saw a short TV story on Oxo, in which a designer said that he had designed a non-slipping mixing bowl (the bowl has a rubber bottom so that it won’t slip on the counter) so that his grandmother could continue to make cookies, even though she was 94 and becoming a little disabled.

Another easily recognizable Universal Design feature of the “built environment” are those curb cuts at corners. They not only serve people like me who use wheelchairs, but they also ease the way for women with strollers, people pulling/pushing wheeled luggage, and delivery people everywhere.

Back to the Pump

The lowered controls at the pump enable macho guys who use chairs to get out, get their wheelchair, and pump their own gas. They also enable older women with osteoporosis to better reach all of the buttons.

The only disability-usability difficulties that remain are these:

1) The credit card slider is one of those where you have to completely insert the card and then remove it “quickly”. If you have arthritis or another type of disability that affects your grip strength, that type of slider can be problematic. Sometimes the card slides out easily, and sometimes you really have to have a grip on it to pull it back out. I much prefer the type of card reader that you just slide the magnetic strip through on one side of the card.

2) In California, we have these accordioned nozzle covers at the tip of the nozzle to reduce emissions. I don’t know if they actually do any good, but they do make it harder to get the nozzle positioned in the tank to start refueling.

The Consumer Votes with Their Wallet

Even though I have not be a fan of Shell (or for any oil company, for that matter) for many a year, I have to say that I will think twice the next time I need to buy gas. When I have to buy gas, I’d rather pay for it (and pump it) at an accessible station.

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