by Katy Blake
So, I know I said my next blog would be about the dangers of disability predators, but I had an experience yesterday that I just had to share.
My girlfriends and I were going to go out for dinner down the coast. It was an unbelievably gorgeous day and we wanted to have dinner outside on or near the beach. We decided on a popular place on the beach and decided to call ahead to restaurant A (I’ve decided not to identify said restaurants) to check if they had outdoor seating and the accessibility of it. The first restaurant said they only had ONE wheelchair accessible table outdoors and they did not take reservations. Yes, we could have sat inside, but we were insistent on being outside. Disappointed but not defeated, we called another restaurant (B) we had heard good things about. We got a yes on the outdoor seating and, after a slight hesitation, another yes on the accessibility. Score! We were on our way.
We get to restaurant B and it was packed. There was a Saint Patrick’s Day parade earlier right down the street and, as I mentioned, a beautiful day, so I was expecting it to be busy. Instead of looking for the handicapped parking spot in the small and crowded parking lot, we opted to park in the large empty lot across the street. Interestingly enough, as we were parking, a large truck parked on the sidewalk next to the parking lot, thus blocking the handicap accessible sidewalk and forcing me to drive in the busy street.
Since it looked so busy, two of my friends were gonna run in and see what was up. We were told that it was seat yourself and there was only one open table outside but it was only big enough for two people (we had four); however, we could wait there until another table got up. It was my decision and my social anxiety began to kick in. I glanced at the patio that was so packed, looking at the aisle -or where there might have once been one- and began to doubt that my power chair would navigate between the tightly squeezed tables and chairs without having to have everyone get up and make room. Then, my friends mentioned the curb I would have to go over to get outside -not a threshold, not a bump, A CURB. In my manual chair, that would have been ok; but in my power chair, it simply wasn’t happening. I guess this was the reason for that slight hesitation from the hostess when I questioned the accessibility.
Now that restaurant B was out of the question, we decided to go around the corner and down the street to restaurant A. We knew we were taking a gamble on the one outdoor accessible table, but we figured we could get some drinks and wait at the bar or down by the beach for the table to open. Upon arriving, we discovered this place was busier than the last. Surprisingly, the van accessible handicap spot was available and the zig-zagged 20 foot ramp loomed over me like a challenge (one I would never take in my manual chair). No matter the elevation of the building or the length of the ramp, at least it was fully accessible and free of curbs. And as far as the one wheelchair accessible table outside, the hostess didn’t realize my power chair doubles as a transformer and that my seat would elevate so I could sit at the high-top pub style tables. After learning it would still be an hour wait, we decided to stick it out and traveled up the sloped maze to the patio and bar.
The very first thing that happened, literally within the first minute of being there, was a guy -picture late 40s, sporting a wife beater, a NASCAR hat and carrying a Budweiser- who approaches me. After introducing himself to me as Alvin (as in Alvin the Chipmunk, his words not mine) a total of 3 times, he proceeds to tell me he wants to buy me a drink because he had a friend in a wheelchair who died. No other explanation or details offered. And I’m sure he meant it as a kind gesture, but it was embarrassing and only reminds me of how different me and my wheelchair are. Then, there are the countless people staring as I roll up to the bar and try to position myself, despite that fact I cannot get close enough to the bar because my footplate was getting obstructed. It’s never easy for me to feel comfortable when so many people are watching just because of the wheelchair.
I guess that’s the point I’m trying to make. I feel like I’m just a disabled girl in an inaccessible world. I can admit my ignorance that it was something I never noticed or even thought about prior to my injury, but I was never really exposed to the life of someone in a wheelchair because I didn’t know anybody. However, I do know that I never thought twice about someone in a wheelchair when I saw them out and about. That might sound rude, but it’s probably the best compliment to give somebody in a wheelchair. I didn’t think twice because I didn’t see the chair – it didn’t seem unusual or significant. But now that I’m in a wheelchair, it’s astonishing to see the way people can act. Is a power wheelchair so fascinating that people feel the need to stare? Or is it unusual to see a young person in a chair? Or even more bizarre, an attractive person in a chair? One time, I actually overheard somebody say, “she is so pretty to be in a wheelchair.” I’m sorry, but a disability does not have boundaries or guidelines. Any person of any age, race, gender, class, and level of physical attractiveness can become injured and now regarded as disabled or handicap, different from what’s considered normal. And as easily as it happened to me, it can happen to you.
I wish we didn’t live in a world of such inclusion; where I’m rejected from places because of lack of accessibility. A world where, for the majority, disabled people are treated so differently. It’s hard to get accustomed to the new “social status” you acquire after a disability. It’s sad but true, you’re no longer treated as equal. You are looked at differently. I have gone to stores where everyone who walked in the door was greeted except me. There have been times when someone, maybe a cashier or waitress, will address my mother instead of me, as if though the wheelchair also means that I cannot talk or hear. And how about handicapped parking? I won’t even talk about the people who park there illegally, but do you know what the blue lines are for? They’re called hash marks and it is illegal to park there because that is for unloading wheelchairs. So even if you park just a foot over the hash marks, you’re potentially blocking somebody from getting into their vehicle. And when I’m driving by myself and somebody blocks my ramp, there is nothing I can do – except maybe call the cops and let my ramp down on their car a few times (hey, it’s not my fault you couldn’t read the “Do not park within 8 feet” sign on the side window of my van right next to your drivers door). And for the record, that’s the difference between handicapped spots and van accessible handicapped spots, we need the room to deploy our ramps/lifts or to assemble our manual chair and transfer into it. Just food for thought for those who you who may be handicapped but not in a wheelchair, please don’t take the van accessible spots if you can help it.
This blog turned out a lot longer than I expected and I still haven’t said everything I’ve wanted to say, but I think for now I have said enough. I know my fellow chair companions will understand and hopefully I have opened the eyes of people who don’t realize how their actions highly affect others. I wish I could challenge everyone to live life for just one day in a wheelchair and experience what life is like from four wheels and looking at everyone butt-level. I’d be willing to bet you’d not only learn a lot about society, stereotypes, and accessibility, but begin to appreciate your two feet and your abilities a lot more. I will roll off my soapbox now!
Reprinted with permission from Katy Blake. Read the full post in Katy's site, "Rehab for Kay: The Journey and Journal of a Quadriplegic Queen": http://rehabforkaty.org/?p=952.