Living in a wheelchair is risky business. The able-bodied world holds danger at every corner and on every street.
Risk #1: The Street Risk. Mobility-challenged people are quite willing to acknowledge that the ADA has encouraged the implementation of friendlier access to public spaces and transportation. However, in many cases, the practical application has failed to provide the intention of the law. For example, curbs. The curb in front of my building was modified to accommodate the requirement of the ADA but failed in its accommodation for the user. Instead of having two ramps for each crosswalk, the developer saved money by making the ramp at the apex of the corner. Because of this design, I am forced to leave the crosswalk and place my wheelchair (and me) in the path of oncoming cars. You may ask me why I do not choose another way. The answer: the other way has an alleyway that does not have a curb cut at all. So, I am forced to roll into the street.
Another time, I was happily rolling along on my way to the store when I found my way blocked. Instead of a sidewalk, there was an orange cone in the middle of a gaping hole. Turning around, I backtracked to the nearest corner. To my dismay, the busy street had no pedestrian crosswalk to get to the other side. Again, I was forced into the street.
The street risks are endless. In addition to curbs and missing sidewalks, there is the all too common problem of cars sitting in the crosswalks or blocking sidewalks.
Risk #2: I Might Run Into You, After All, Risk. Most pedestrians are oblivious to the world around them and, especially, to the mobility-challenged. Whenever a physically disabled individual ventures into the general public, they carry the burden for the general population. For example, I live in an area where there is heavy foot traffic as well as street traffic. Everyone is busy. Everyone is oblivious. I am amazed at how many people do not pay attention to their surroundings. Because I am concerned about running into someone, I call out a warning. “I am on your left.” Many times, actually most of the time, it has no effect. I am invisible, and my voice is unheard.
There is a real risk of an accident. My electric wheelchair has no break. I control my movement with a joystick. If I let go of the joystick, I roll to a stop. It is a frightening experience to have someone walk in front of me. There have been too many times where I cried out in fear of hitting them. Their reactions fall into two general categories: (1) Oh, I didn’t know you were there; and (2) Watch what you’re doing!
Risk #3: The Swinging Door Risk. Public doors have the handicap symbol but do not have a handicap button. Yep, it’s true. The physically handicapped person has the following options:
- If you have the use of both arms and hands, try to open the door (before getting hit). Now, attempting to open a door and operate a joystick at the same time is very tricky. Doors usually open on the right; they swing open to the right; since I am right-handed, my wheelchair control is operated by my right hand. Imagine this: I grab the door handle with my left hand while seated; then I pull the door to the right while rolling backward. If I am successful, I am now behind the door to some extent, and I need to get around the door while holding it open. It is an almost impossible task; or
- Sit and wait for an able-bodied individual to open the door for us. This may sound as if it is an easy solution, but it is not. Think: snow, cold, rain, and appointments.
On a side note: One time, I was yelled at by the receptionist at my doctor’s office. Their office door is frosted glass; they have no handicap button and no door bell. I rolled up to the door and tried to open it and could not budge the heavy glass door. So, I knocked. No one responded. So, again, I knocked a little harder. Still, no response. On my third try, I knocked harder. This time, I got a response. A receptionist swung the door open in a rush, looked at me, and said, “You could have broken the glass! Why didn’t you just come in?”
I looked at her in amazement and calmly said, “How? Why don’t you have a handicap button?”
“Humph,” she replied and stomped away. But, she did hold the door open for me first.
#4: The Hidden Dangers of Parking Lots. Wheelchair-bound people are short. Well, we are all different heights, but we sit below most individual’s peripheral vision. As a result, knowing that we are already invisible to the general public, when in parking structures, we have to look for people getting into cars; watch for exhaust fumes; avoid being clipped as cars quickly pass us; and be on alert for backup lights. There is no safe place in parking lots for us. We are in constant danger of being hit by a car.
The above examples are just a taste of the risk involved for the mobility-challenged individual. I am sure that you could make a list of four more risks. We live in a risky world full of opportunities, challenges and struggles. As we gamble to venture out, we are making ourselves seen and heard.