BRATTLEBORO—Thanks to a partnership between the Latchis Hotel and Theatre and the Inclusion Center, a handicap-access hallway in the Latchis has gotten a new name and a friendlier appearance.
In mid-May, members of the Inclusion Center, a Brattleboro-based drop-in center for people with disabilities, began painting a mural in what Latchis Executive Director Jon Potter called “an untended and untidy, dark, and not-welcoming” hallway.
This semi-public art project is no accident. It’s the response to a traumatic event experienced by a community member.
Last September, Reuben Tamler and his mother, Julie, attended an afternoon puppet show in the upstairs theater of the Latchis. Because Reuben uses a wheelchair, they could access the room only through a circuitous route that included passing through a hallway that Julie Tamler described as “really creepy.”
During the show, downtown Brattleboro experienced a power surge, which threw the elevator out of service.
In a written statement to The Commons, Reuben Tamler recounts his experience: “I was tired and stiff from sitting so long. I was ready to go home and get out of my chair.”
But without a working elevator, getting back to the ground floor was a challenge.
“I was scared, and wondering if I can get my chair down and bring it home. The chair weighs more than any other chair. It will be hard to carry it down the stairs. A manual chair can be carried, but a power chair, don’t even bother carrying it. It’s too heavy. I knew I could creep down if I needed to. It would hurt and take a long time and I was scared I might have to do this,” Tamler wrote.
Latchis Facilites Manager Travis Stout called emergency services, and the Brattleboro Fire Department came to try to help Reuben Tamler get downstairs.
“The fire department tried but could not fix the elevator so there was no way to get my chair down. Well, they could carry it down the stairs but it was pretty hard to do,” Tamler wrote.
Potter praised the members of the Brattleboro Fire Department. “They were excellent,” he said.
But, the experience was traumatic for Tamler. “My body was going into shock” during the ordeal, he wrote.
Julie Tamler said this event was physically painful for her son. His knees dislocated when the firefighters carried him down the stairs.
And, she provided an analogy for anyone who has never used a wheelchair: “being separated from your chair is like you getting separated from your eyes.”
Making it beautiful
When the Tamlers returned to reacclimate Reuben to the Latchis, Potter said the three of them sat and talked, “in-step and in-tune about how uncomfortable and unwelcome” the dark hallway made people feel.
Potter’s solution: “Let’s spruce it up and make it more beautiful.”
When Julie Tamler brought the news back to the Inclusion Center, the attendees worked together to design the project.
The center is “an all-volunteer program for and by people with disabilities, and we all make decisions together” about projects and activities, Tamler said.
They decided to paint a mural in what Stout renamed “Reuben’s Hallway.”
Krystale Aloise, a member of the Inclusion Center, stepped up as art director.
“I took the Latchis logo and made dragonflies out of it,” Aloise said, noting the insect is an “image used by many people in the disabilities community, maybe because the dragonfly seems fragile but is very beautiful.”
When the members of the Inclusion Center designed the mural, Aloise said they were intent on including everyone. One question they asked: Would the mural exclude people who cannot see?
“Initially, Julie asked me if I wanted to participate in the mural,” said Inclusion Center member Micah Ranquist, but, “as a visually impaired person, painting isn’t my thing.”
“I’m a carpenter, an artistic-minded person,” he said, and he came up with an addition to the mural that reflects his talents and needs.
Ranquist plans to make large braille characters out of wood and spell out a quote attributed to author Jerry Ellis: “We’re all only fragile threads, but what a tapestry we make.”
Aloise said her plans for the mural incorporate caulking to create extra texture.
“Touch is very grounding for visually impaired people [or] when you have anxiety,” she said, noting Reuben’s panic that day in September could possibly have subsided had he had more sensory elements to soothe him.
“It’s been very satisfying to become friends [with the Tamlers] and work together,” Potter said, noting that “everyone on our staff has been enthusiastic.”
“The mural is such a simple solution, and it’s so effective,” Julie Tamler said.
“I’m happy the Latchis and Jon are interested in making changes,” she said, noting, “usually we hear excuses from people for not making small changes” to increase access to businesses and public spaces for people with disabilities.
Julie said that it’s most important for people to realize that, as a disabled person, “you have to go through back alleys or freight elevators” to get into stores, movie theaters, music venues, and other places non-disabled people access through the front door.”
At least at the Latchis, the hallway outside the passenger elevator will have “a bright new look so that patrons who use the space don’t feel shunted off to some forgotten corridor,” Potter wrote in an email to The Commons.
“I’m okay, now, sort of, in the elevator,” Reuben Tamler wrote.
And, he said, “The hall is fine now.”
“It looks much better to me,” he added. “The mural looks really good.
“People who use the hallway will like the mural, and they won’t be scared now."