Prior to gaining my Stay-At-Home-Mom status, I worked in the school system for a few years as a one-on-one assistant to two different children in exceptional education classrooms. Both children used wheelchairs. It was the first time I had interacted so intimately with anyone in a wheelchair. Neither child that I worked directly with was fully capable of navigating independently. I, therefore, was in charge of helping them get from one place to another. This experience opened my eyes to the unfriendliness of the world to those with disabilities and mainly the folks who rely on a wheelchair to get around.
For the most part, the schools weren’t too unfriendly. One school lacked electric doors, but since I was doing the navigating, I could finagle a way to push the door open with my butt, enter the building backwards and continue holding the door with my foot until the chair made it through. Often a passerby would notice my struggle and grab the door, or if he/she caught me before entering would also hold the door. In general, individuals were aware of the chair and polite enough to offer help in tricky situations.
When we left the school building was when the real challenges began. It might be trying to push the heavy chair through the temporary sand at the pumpkin patch playground or the soggy grass at the baseball stadium as we attempted to cut the line because the electric function wasn’t powerful enough. I got my kids stuck in situations I could not get them out of without help from several strong men. I learned that most of the time it was easier to laugh about these situations than to get angry. There were times, however, that my role as an advocate (my most important role as I saw it) caused me to get pretty fiery. I’m sure anyone who knows me can imagine what this was like for my coworkers.
Now, as a mom with a stroller, navigating the streets and businesses of downtown Charleston, I feel that fire almost daily. Unfortunately, it has taken my experience working with wheelchair bound children and pushing a stroller to get a glimpse of the world through the eyes of those who rely on wheelchairs as I do my legs.
It’s easy to complain about the lack of accessibility for a stroller, but in reality, I can maneuver that beast through a lot because I have the agility my legs afford me. I can pop my stroller up and down a curb that doesn’t have a ramp with relative ease. I can also do this when there is a ramp, but it lets me out directly into oncoming traffic instead of onto the crosswalk created to avoid the traffic. I can still shop in stores with tight aisles because I can leave the stroller, walk to the item I need, and walk back to the stroller. I can easily move the trash bin that has carelessly been left in the middle of the sidewalk. For people who move their own chairs I feel like the obstacles may not be so easily overcome (though I’ve seen people in wheelchairs perform some pretty impressive feats). Each time I perform one of these tasks I ask myself, “If I were in a wheelchair would I be able to do this safely and with ease?” When the answer is no, I feel I need to do something.
Most of the time, the “something” has been to complain to my husband. I had seen another mom complain on the neighborhood Facebook page about the crosswalks. This approach put her in contact with the people in charge of making the crosswalks. And, good for her, she followed through. She contacted the people in-the-know and learned how the problem areas she saw actually do follow the law (perhaps, then, there is a problem with the law). Her actions inspired me. Instead of complaining to my husband who cannot, himself, solve the problems, I decided to start speaking up.
The other day while shopping at a business I frequent often, I noticed that my stroller couldn’t maneuver through the aisles because they had gotten new shelving. As I checked out I suggested to the business owner that he check the width of the aisles for ADA compliance. I’m not sure that my words will have any impact on their business practices, but I plan to continue reminding them. Perhaps this approach will be ineffective. I don’t know, but I believe if enough people look out for the concerns of people with disabilities and speak up about them, then change can occur.
I also know that well-meaning people can easily become complacent when change does not occur. I saw this in one of the schools in which I worked. The straps on the buses used to hold down the wheelchairs had been broken for awhile (long before I began working there) and most people had grown to accept that the kids in wheelchairs wouldn’t be participating in field trips as a result. As a newbie, I had not grown accustomed to this blatant in adherence to the law and extremely unethical behavior. My fresh perspective allowed me to see the problem more clearly than those who had been there longer and grown accustomed to the system ignoring such issues. I complained every time there was an outing. I even threatened to take my complaints higher. Eventually, either fed up with my whining, moved to do the right thing, or afraid of the potential repercussions, someone finally took action. The straps were fixed and the kids in wheelchairs were able to participate with all the other students in activities that required transportation.
It took my stroller escapades to remind me of this struggle and since being inspired by the Facebook mom. I’ve begun researching ADA requirements and plan to continue trying to find solutions. My hope is that I don’t forget about my neighbors using wheelchairs when my stroller days are over and I am once again navigating unattached to wheels.