THE LITTLE BLACK STOOL
By Fatema Matin
When people think of accessibility, they may think of sophisticated software or state-of-the-art technology. They may think of equipment that changes lives in previously unimaginable ways and therefore equipment that is expensive. However, accessibility tools don’t always need to be complex. Sometimes, they can be as simple as a little black stool.
The little black stool that lived in our kitchen was like a member of the family. Well, it was to me at least. It was about fifteen centimetres high and I grew up using it every day. The top of the stool was designed with a pattern of circular holes and it had four reliable, stubby legs. It was made of cheap plastic, so it wasn’t worth much in terms of money but when we moved house twenty years ago there was no question of forgetting the stool and leaving it behind. The stool came with us. Whenever I needed to wash my hands or wash the dishes or help with the cooking the stool was there. Whenever I needed to reach up to put something away or to get something down, the stool was there ever loyal, ever helpful. I loved that stool. It meant a lot to me because I have Turner’s Syndrome and kyphoscoliosis which make me shorter than average. When you are shorter than normal, a stool like that is the best tool you can have.
But one day, my big brother stepped on it (the blob!) and it snapped into pieces. The stool died an unnecessary death after a long term of faithful service and my heart was broken into as many pieces as the stool. Slightly ridiculous, I know. We had another stool in the kitchen, but it just wasn’t the same. It was completely the wrong height! When I stood on it I was raised two feet above the ground! It’s kind of hard to explain but when you stand that high above the ground, you physically can’t bend your knees to reach the sink or the counter without the threat of unbalancing and slipping off. I also didn’t need to be two foot in the air every time I wanted to reach the lowest shelf of the cupboard- my family were mindful enough at least, to put most of what I used on a daily basis there. The only other option was to kneel on the stool for prolonged periods of time to be at the right height. but that was uncomfortable! My knees began to hurt so I stopped.
My brother didn’t see fit to replace the stool and no one else missed it like I did- no one else needed it quite like I did- so I wasn’t allowed to complain about it. Instead of replacing it myself- after all, I wasn’t the one who broke it- I do the stubborn thing and force myself to manage without it. My elbows may be by my shoulders, or I may be kneeling on the stool in front of the cooker flames just so that I can see into the cooking pot, but I still do everything that I need to do.
I guess that I’ve always been a bit stubborn. I remember, when I took a GCSE in Textiles, I reached the medals of the sewing machines reasonably well and got on with my practical work just fine. This made me so happy because I felt almost the same as all of my peers in the class. However, the technology department saw fit to arrange for the construction of a wooden pallet which slotted under the desk onto the floor. There was no need for me to feel quite as targeted by this as I did because the wooden block was meant to make the equipment more accessible to me by raising the pedal. It was meant to be a positive thing. Unfortunately, at the time, I couldn’t see it that way. I couldn’t help but feel singled out and I cried tears of shame. Needless to say, I refused to use it. I never touched it. Not even once. I told you I was stubborn.
It’s a pity because something I would have appreciated would have been making the jigsaw in the Resistant Materials Room more accessible. I learned for the first time how to utilise the incredibly sharp rotating blade which moved at incredibly fast speeds. There I would be, kneeling on a stool so that I could see what I was doing and be able to move the object forward towards the blade at the correct angle. The jigsaw was fastened to the counter and if you didn’t hold the material you were using tightly enough, the object you were holding would escape from you and rattle alarmingly around the teeth of the saw. My fear was one that one day I would get startled and topple off the stool backwards, injuring myself in the process. I felt confined and less mobile kneeling on the stool and I didn’t even want to think about falling forward onto the jigsaw! It just occurs to me now to wonder why I never spoke up. Why didn’t I say something about my struggle that a low stool would have alleviated? Things would have been a lot easier. I think that I’m just so used to getting on with the resources that are already available in all parts of my life rather than go out of my way to get what I need. Get a suitcase down from the top of my wardrobe? No problem. Put a board game back on top of my mother’s wardrobe? No sweat. It’ll be difficult but I get things done. Just don’t ask me how.
Anyway, that was thirteen years ago. The stool-less situation continued until my older sister Aysha glanced at me one day recently and asked me what I had been doing.
“I was washing the dishes,” I replied.
“Yes, but why is your chest wet Fatema?” she wondered curiously.
“That’s what happens when you’re shorter,” I sighed miserably.
My older sister is married and she has lived in her own house for about five years now. The next time I went to stay over at her house after we had this conversation, I noticed something new in the kitchen- a low stool, about fifteen centimetres high. I used it every day. No longer did I have to drag a heavy, solid wooden chair from the living room to the kitchen every time that I wanted to reach ingredients for myself and cook or bake. Everything that I needed to do in her kitchen, I could do more comfortably.
Then, each time I returned home, I would return to a kitchen where even getting a glass for water was sometimes slightly less than straightforward. You see, the tall stool is sometimes moved from the kitchen- I’ve yet to know why the person who removes it doesn’t put it back- so that when I need it, it isn’t there. I would get so frustrated that rather than hunting it down and fetching it back myself, I would place a foot on the washing machine door thereby raising myself to reach a glass from the cupboard. Okay, I’ll be honest, at other times I would just be frustrated at being so small. At those times, dragging the tall stool across the kitchen annoyed me. To get myself a glass, I would disregard it and place my foot on the washing machine door anyway.
My older brother got irritated when he caught sight me doing this because he thought that I would break the washing machine door over time (I won’t). He told me never to do it again but he never once considered my need for that little black stool. I doubt he even remembers that it existed which makes me furious because I think about it every day. I don’t feel comfortable enough to request that my family leave a glass on the draining board at all times for me to access.
“Sure,” I thought bitterly, “I’ll stop stepping on the washing machine when I stop being so short or when I stop being frustrated about it.”
I hate being so short. It’s one of the reasons why I don’t want to learn how to drive. When I catch the bus, I’m the same as every other passenger travelling alongside me, but the thought of getting into a car especially adapted for me makes me feel embarrassed about myself and different from other drivers in an awfully obvious way that makes me squirm. People think that you get used to being short just because you’re born that way but it’s been more than quarter of a century and I haven’t gotten used to it yet so I’m pretty sure that I never will. I know that I should be more grateful. After all, people need all sorts of accessibility equipment to move, talk, hear, see and even simply to breathe. However, maybe I could take some steps towards being patient. I’m going to stop stepping on the washing machine from now on. I could find a driving instructor to accommodate me…and maybe, just maybe, I’ll even let go of my stubbornness and buy a little stool.