Eliza Wahlers is 11 but she looks much younger because she’s small – and she will always be smaller than average. Eliza, who lives in Oconee County, has Turner Syndrome, which is a genetic condition that affects one out of every 2,500 girls born each year. Turner Syndrome can manifest in a variety of different ways, from small stature, delayed puberty and infertility to hearing loss or speech impediments. Each girl will have different symptoms although small size affects all.
Three years ago in 2014, Eliza and her grandmother, Diane Wahlers, were in the bathroom at the Athens library on Baxter when the two began their “accessibility” project.
“I suggested she check to see if she could reach everything,” Wahlers, 74, recalls. “She could turn the faucet on but couldn’t reach the soap dispenser.”
Wahlers’ social work career involved working with people with disabilities, and her daughter, Jamie, now in her 30s, is legally blind. Often, she says, people would give directions to Jamie by pointing, so Jamie had to learn to say to them, “I can’t see where you’re pointing – tell me.”
“So, I know how important it is for Eliza to have the skills to say, ‘I need this.’ I wanted her to be comfortable advocating for herself – people are anxious to help if they know what to do.”
Eliza says her mother, Sayge Medlin, has also taught her that advocacy “isn’t just for me – it’s for people in wheelchairs.”
Problem and solution
In the hallway outside the library’s bathroom, Wahlers and Eliza brainstormed whom she should approach, and practiced the interaction.
“I told her she would need to give a quick explanation of her condition, the problem she had encountered, and a potential solution.” At the time, the library’s information desk was very high but Eliza wasn’t deterred.
“I was nervous,” she recalls, as she spoke with the staff person on duty. “I know you want me to wash my hands but I have Turner Syndrome so I’m smaller than most people my age. Can I talk to your manager about this?”
When she spoke to then executive director, Kathryn Ames, Eliza suggested a stool to stand on. Ms. Ames assured her they would find a solution as soon as possible but a month later, Eliza’s mother got an email from the director that said their attorney had nixed the idea of a stool because of the danger of horseplay and potential injuries. Instead, the library installed another, more accessible soap dispenser.
“I remember feeling so proud of myself,” says Eliza. Wahlers notes that she and Eliza have checked out a lot of places in the last few years to voice their concerns, from restaurants, movie theatres, and even Oconee Middle School. Eliza was recently assigned to a different wing for 7th graders in which soap dispensers are installed at a higher, more inaccessible height than she encountered in the 6th grade wing. After Eliza spoke up, the school, too, has installed another, lower dispenser.
“Our little project is a long-term thing,” says Wahlers. “We want universal design to be the standard in our area.” *
* Universal design refers to broad-spectrum ideas meant to produce buildings, products and environments that are inherently accessible to older people, people with disabilities, and people without disabilities.