A Plan Is Hatched
We were having a discussion about diversity when a friend posed this question: “Why don’t we care enough to make the most basic adjustments to our streets so that people with disabilities can participate in the public realms of our city?” What was she talking about? I see curb cuts and ramps all over the place—isn’t that enough? At that moment, I decided to borrow a wheelchair and see what was what.
Getting the Chair
I called on the friend of a friend with an ambulatory disability to borrow a wheelchair for my experiment. During the visit, I was not my usual amiable self. I was afraid of saying something wrong or insensitive, and my fear was getting in the way of being relaxed and easy. My awkwardness was compounded by embarrassment over my anxiety — which I was certain was writ large on my face.
As I sat in the wheelchair in her apartment, I actually started to believe that I couldn’t use my legs. I had felt such enthusiasm about this experiment, but now, sitting in the chair, I felt depressed and deflated.
From the first moments of struggling to put the wheelchair in the car and myself in the shoes of someone who needed one, I experienced a conflicted relationship with it. The wheelchair represented mobility, a form of independence, a way to get from one place to another, but my need for it felt like a bad turn of events, one that I deeply resented. My friend turned to me and said: “Hey, it’s your new pet!” I strained to smile in return.
Wheelchair in My Living Room
Our brains are wired to make associations in ways that keep us safe and cause us to avoid things that invoke fear or discomfort. What I realized as soon as I had the wheelchair sitting in my house is that these defenses were being called up by the wheelchair’s presence.
Not having had any direct experience with a wheelchair before, I knew that some of my negative associations were related to its being foreign and unknown. In addition, I felt these threads of association going from the wheelchair to other pieces of scary medical equipment like stirrups, forceps, restraining devices, even electric chairs. Probing even more deeply, I dredged up negative feelings around vulnerability, decline, confinement, mortality, and loss.
Superstitions are the false pathways in the brain that persist even when we know the truth. When my daughter came home from school and saw the wheelchair in the living room, she said: “Mom, I hope you’re not jinxing yourself with that. What if using the wheelchair when you don’t need it causes you to actually need one?” When she said this, I realized how there were strands of this fear somewhere in the back of my own mind as well.
Before I had even tried wheeling around outside the house, I had already uncovered in myself some of the major barriers to paying close attention to accessibility: ignorance, fear, negative associations, embarrassment, and superstition.
Now I Understand
We drove to East Somerville so that I could go to the library with the chair. My first mistake was parking the car three blocks away. I was calibrating the parking distance with my walking brain, and I was about to learn how far this would feel in a wheelchair. I put two quarters in the parking meter—of course we’d be back in 30 minutes — and that was the second mistake.
I hopped into the chair and started wheeling my way down Broadway. Suffice to say that a task I had glossed over as an easy piece of cake was broken down for me in the most excruciating details. The hardest part to believe was that the curb cuts I had walked over hundreds of times and believed to be sufficient had suddenly become death traps.
Numerous times, I sat stuck and helpless at the bottom of a curb cut. It was either too steep to wheel up, or it was separated from the street by lateral or vertical space — just enough to catch and trap my front wheels. I had equal difficulty controlling the chair on the way back down. My attempts ended in jumping out of the chair to save myself from a major head injury. And what about the 21 seconds graciously provided at the crosswalk to get across four lanes of traffic? I was wheeling my little arms like crazy, and there was no way to make it in time. The cars at the red light were penned up like bulls behind a gate, and when the light turned green, I felt certain they would charge forth, not seeing me at wheelchair height in the crosswalk. I was terrified.
The Importance of Small Details
As someone who does not own a car, I am already accustomed to the life of a pedestrian and cyclist living around the edges of a world designed for cars. But I was completely unprepared for how much more dramatically marginalized I would feel trying to navigate the streets by wheelchair.
I’d like to emphasize that the ramps, ruts, angles, and changes in height that gave me so much difficulty in these three blocks looked completely inconsequential to my untrained walking eye. It was only when I sat in the wheelchair and attempted to move across this landscape that I discovered how impassable it was. Suddenly very tiny measurements in height (like .25 to .75 inches) and slope (like 4-6 degrees) had huge implications. And I mean huge. If I had not had legs that allowed me to jump out of the tipping chair, I would be in the hospital right now with serious injuries. Allow me to emphasize: These accidents would have been caused by allegedly accessible street features. I’m not even venturing to discuss the many buildings and intersections that were NOT accessible.
We have so much work to do in order to make our public spaces navigable for all our citizens, and it’s going to require something from each of us:
- Overcoming deeply engrained fears, beliefs, and discomforts around our vulnerabilities.
- Real exercises in empathy that test our assumptions.
- Questioning and rearranging our fiscal priorities so that safe mobility for all is rated as highly as other capital improvements.
- Changing our attitude about what comprises “good enough” accessibility.
According to the 2000 census, 20% of Middlesex County residents over age 5 are listed as “disabled.” Would you be surprised to learn that this percent is much higher than the percent of Hispanic residents recorded in 2009 (5.9%)? When I showed these numbers to my kids, they asked a question we should all be asking: “Then where are all those people?”
Mobility is what allows each of us to get out of bed each day and shape our lives in meaningful and sustaining ways. What are we telling ourselves and the disabled population when we ignore their needs to get where they need to go?