Observations from a Silent Wheeler
It is said that “the squeaky screw gets the grease.” That’s true, and the same thing can be said for the squeaky wheel. There may be a lesson in this for us. I have an education, a good-paying job and a full life. I also have a wheelchair, which is my only way to move around efficiently and without great pain. Major strides have been made here in the United States in terms of accessibility for paraplegics and individuals with other disabilities. But I’m constantly observing that certain situations continue to fall through the cracks, as it were. I recently went on a focused tour of my city with my trusty camera, and I want to share with you what I found and what I know about the stories behind these barriers to a person in a wheelchair living a completely unhindered life, even in this typically enlightened and sensitive community.
Immediately to the left in the above photograph is the nearest accessible parking spot to my office. When a large vehicle is parked in the regular space to the right, which is frequently the case, it is not possible to move in a wheelchair to the right of the post. Instead, I have to maneuver myself under the heavy and drooping chain between the two posts. Because I have excellent upper-body strength, I am able to do this. So I say nothing. I am a silent wheeler.
This lift is the only way a wheeler can access a terrace overlooking the river. Above this sidewalk are two upscale restaurants and a bar. There is a similar lift at a chain sandwich shop to the left and around the corner from the position from which this picture was taken. One early evening, I went to this lift and rang for help. It took approximately three minutes for me to arrive on the landing above. Following a respite to enjoy a beer in the bar, it was, again, about a three minute wait before I was again at street level. These times are certainly not at all bad. But I’m sure the wait would have been much longer during busy times, as the bartender herself had to leave the bar to turn the key to open the elevator for my use. Also, I would be somewhat embarrassed to delay friends with whom I am drinking or dining three minutes both in arriving and departing. Accordingly, when going out with others, I always suggest other restaurants and bars. I am a silent wheeler.
Above this staircase and to the right of the doorway is situated a bar which is very popular with young drinkers out late at night. The only way to get to this section of the building without climbing steps is through a corridor from the main lobby of the building. However, that corridor is now used as an office for a tech company and is always locked at night and on weekends. But I’m no longer a young drinker. And besides, there are two very accessible wine bars within a block of here. I am a silent wheeler.
Above is a photo of a bank of clothes racks in a large area department store. No way to push your wheelchair into the interior of this display. Of course, I have no problem in asking staff to get something from an inner rack so I can examine it. But to a younger person or one just getting used to life in a wheelchair, this could prove embarrassing. As for me, I simply thank the employee for showing me the item and then just quickly roll away. I am a silent wheeler. What Can Be Done By the Disability Community? I believe that there are a number of positive actions which we who use wheelchairs and others can take. When in a store or office in which it’s easy to wheel around, be sure to compliment the owner or office manager on how wheelchair-friendly the establishment is. Encourage your friends in chairs to also patronize such establishments and to also compliment the owners on their accessibility. Encourage people you know who have mobility problems to try using a wheelchair instead of, say, canes and crutches. I’ve spoken with many people who are reluctant to use wheelchairs because they fear that they will be restricted in where they could go. Obviously, it shouldn’t be that way! As a matter of fact, if a fully able-bodied person were willing to go places in a chair with you, that would be a positive in my eyes. After all, the more people seen out on wheels, the better accessibility becomes for all of us! What Can Be Done For the Disability Community? My advice to business/office owners/managers: Ask your clients in chairs if they experienced any difficulty in accessing your services. Correct any deficiencies reported. If you don’t have many customers/clients in chairs, ask yourself and others why? Barriers to accessibility may be readily apparent when you go around your establishment thinking of how it would be on wheels. As I’m sure you can tell, I believe in a very gentle approach to correcting accessibility problems. I think we have to understand that you don’t think about things like ramps and wider isles until you actually find yourself on wheels. Increasing understanding here is, in my opinion, another reason for promoting sensitivity training session such as “Spend a Day in a Wheelchair” events.