Before this spinal cord injury swept in to inflict havoc upon my life I would have to admit that I was uninformed. Well, saying that I was oblivious to the struggles of the disabled population would be putting it nicely. More accurately, I was content to be blissfully ignorant about disability in general. It made me uncomfortable and for that I am ashamed. However now that I have been thrust in to this new reality I have come to learn first hand about the day-to-day difficulties that people with disabilities face. A lot of these struggles are out of my control; a lot of the struggles are things I must learn to manage. But there are some things that I come across that, while still out of my control, leave me frustrated with those of the non-disabled variety. Let me enlighten you.
Nobody likes the front row at the movie theatre right? Well, those of us that can’t walk up the stairs find the front row to be the best seats in the house. Okay fine they’re still not great, but they are my only option. So when I get inside of a theatre and see the front row being used unnecessarily, it frustrates me. We went to one movie and I actually asked this family of three to either move over or up so that I could sit with my family (the theatre was still empty at this point AND I was very sweet and charming) and they just said that they liked where they were and wouldn’t move. Thanks compassionate strangers, my family and I will now watch this movie in separate rows. I kind of laugh to myself now when I see people walk in to a theatre and painstakingly contemplate where they should sit. Just enjoy the option; enjoy the option of an entire theatre (minus one row up front). Because I know where I am sitting…no contemplating necessary.
Another luxury I no longer have is choosing a bathroom stall. It doesn’t matter how many empty stalls there are because my chair only fits inside one. There have been many times I get to an empty bathroom to have the only other person in there using the handicapped stall. 99% of the time it appears they are using it unnecessarily and that is usually confirmed by a profuse apology when they emerge and see me waiting. I smile and say “no problem” hoping their momentary guilt will be enough but it probably won’t.
When we went to Disneyland there was a lot of bathroom stall waiting but there is one time in particular that I won’t forget…however it was a bit backwards I suppose. We were at a restaurant and there were two separate washrooms. I used the first that was clearly marked for handicapped use and there was an arrow and a sign to the second. A standard catheter trip for me takes about 7 or 8 minutes. This time though there was a bladder leak involved and so I was also changing and getting organized – add on another 5 minutes (at least). For once I didn’t have to wait for the stall and I was thankful for the privacy because of having to change…until I heard someone come in with a child and wait. I always try to avoid rushing to conclusions about people and hoped that they really needed to be there. Nonetheless I always start to get hot and flustered when I know I’m keeping people up. Then another group tried coming in the washroom. When they said to the girl waiting that there was another washroom up the stairs she just laughed and said, “Oh I know. I just don’t feel like finding it. I’d rather wait”. Really? You’d rather wait here making me feel uncomfortable than taking a few more steps to the other bathroom? I didn’t smile at her when I came out. I actually probably did…but I shouldn’t have! If she had left she probably wouldn’t have taken the stairs – she probably would have sought out the elevator instead.
Elevators have become much more necessary in my life over the last year. I have seen wheelchair users navigate escalators but I’m not brave enough for that yet! I totally understand that there are many reasons for using an elevator: wheelchairs, strollers and physical ailments that make climbing stairs difficult or painful. But it actually drives me (and even my level headed husband) crazy when there is an escalator and an elevator right beside one another and yet there is a crazy long able-bodied line for the elevator. The escalator is no different…you stand. I want to say sometimes “Here, you sit in my chair and go up the elevator and I’ll take your legs and go stand on the stairs!” but that would be really rude…so I don’t say that. I probably even still smile at them. I may have a problem… However there is one offender that I definitely don’t smile at (I don’t think).
Handicapped parking. I’m going to let you in on a secret. Those blue parking spots…very obvious, usually also have a big sign in front of them. Those are spots designated for people with disabilities AND (this is going to blow your mind) they aren’t actually just a suggestion. I have seen lots of people parked in handicapped spots that shouldn’t be there – they are using an expired tag, someone else’s tag or no tag at all. If my husband is running in to a store and I’m staying in the car…he won’t even park in a handicapped spot (because he’s a good person).
The parking spots are there for those of us that need them. Not only is it important for me to have a wider parking space in order to get my chair out beside me, it’s also important for the space to be close to the store. I no longer have the advantage of being seen. Even in the smallest of cars, it would be hard to see someone of my height out the rearview mirror. I think it is understandable to want to avoid being hit by a car…I think…and the further I have to venture through a parking lot, the more likely I am to get hit.
And I know sometimes it’s raining and you’re going to get soaked from your car to the store. But keep in mind that by the time you get out of your car and get into the store, I have maybe just locked my car and am wheeling to the front doors. I’m not getting any less wet than you are because it takes me longer to get where I’m going. Also I can’t really use an umbrella. You could though…you should buy an umbrella.
Again, even in this situation, I try to give people the benefit of the doubt if they don’t have a tag (maybe they forgot it or don’t have one yet). Before I had my tag I had a handwritten note that I put in my window promising that I was really in a wheelchair. I even included a stick drawing. It wasn’t legit but you can’t say I didn’t try.
When all is said and done, there are a lot of things that make the world tricky for a wheelchair user. From what I have learned, accessibility has come a long way but it’s certainly nowhere near perfect. But what can help is consideration when in public spaces…keep in mind that many many things are accessible to you so try not to take up the few things that are accessible for me. Don’t take up the front row seats first. Use the regular sized bathroom stalls. Take the stairs if you can or even the escalator if possible. And seriously…just find another damn parking spot.