Saturday, July 19, 2008

Nonaccess and a Lot of Assumptions

Ever wonder why people in wheelchairs or scooters aren't in clothing stores other than the outer aisles? Yes, that's right folks, ADA does not require adequate space between clothing racks, and often there are only about 20 inches, meaning only the smallest of scooters and wheelchairs will fit and average ones will not. Thus even brand new department stores don't allow enough space and stick those cute wheelchair stickers on their front doors, as if people can actually shop. And they stick benches underneath the wheelchair access button so you can't actually reach it from a wheelchair or scooter. I couldn't make this stuff up if I tried.

Twice I've been yelled at--no, taunted is more accurate--in my scooter for not turning my body around to look at someone when they're talking to me, once by someone with a disability. I physically can't do this, but rather than recognize the impossibility of movement, people choose to make assumptions and take it as an act of rudeness or personal affront. When I stand up, I can turn my whole body to face someone, but I can't turn my torso and can't turn my head over my shoulder, though I can look sideways, unless I have too much neck spasm that day. Twist backwards, though, no. That takes a lot of physical ability. I've also had people say hello to me from behind or start discussions and not realize I often can't know who it is. It's odd to me I have to point this out. Much more appreciated are the people who call my name if needed and then come into my line of view to greet me. I'm grateful for that kind of awareness. Why do people assume someone in a scooter is physically able to any particular degree? This applies to other functional limitations, too, such as the ability to reach or carry or open.

Often I see a lack of awareness from other people with disabilities, which appalls me. Even if the level of disability is far less, surely there's got to be some judgment free awareness of physical limitation? (More than just not parking on the access aisles...). It's not wheelchair versus scooter, canes versus wheels and a matter of who has more difficulty getting around. People shouldn't take advantage of others with disabilities (dashing in front of someone in checkout, refusing to hold the door for someone else when it's possible, impeding someone else's path, taking the van accessible parking space when the regular space would do for your compact car).

Along these lines, I came across a short essay written by a doctor who uses a Segway to get around. I had thought about the practicality of this a few years ago, when walking was sometimes very difficult but standing in one place could be okay for a while. They do have some very practical applications for people with disabilities and temporary impairments, especially in places that are inaccessible to wheels users, such as clothing stores. You can maneuver more tightly and see what's ahead (something I, as a tall person, miss doing). This particular doctor, Peter Poullos, experienced a spinal cord injury. He had trouble getting around in his wheelchair in Europe (hello, cobblestones). After seeing other people on Segways, he tried one out and found it meets more of his needs. But even when self-identifying his disability, he gets questioned and bullyied for using it. Even now that he's added the universal wheelchair symbol to the front, the bullying hasn't stopped. One group of teenagers tried to knock him off of it to see if it really would balance.

The reaction he receives when he confronts people is the same reaction I sometimes receive when defending myself: "how was I supposed to know?"

You can know, by observing.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for this informative posting. I'm doing a research project at the University of Iowa about wheelchair use, and I value your perspective. I would be interested in corresponding with you -- I'd like to hear more about daily life using a wheelchair, and the attitudes and assumptions you encounter from the general public. If you're interested, please email me at


D Phoenix said...

Interesting post. How about the restaurants that have a disabled bathroom and use it to store patio furniture?

I wonder if people make assumptions or are they just unaware and in their own little world? Maybe it's both. I have a friend who is quite aware of my pain/ability issues and because she uses a chair and I am standing, I think she forgets momentarily when she asks me to bend down and pick up something she has dropped or grab her dog. That stuff is hard for me. I think she goes into coping mode or something and is so used to getting able bodied people to help her that she sees me that way in the moment. Sometimes, people just have to snap out of it!

I read the Segway piece and was shocked that people shoved him over. I see how folks are not used to seeing that as anything but a gimmick or something. They've been portrayed in the media as a silly thing. I see why something so small and manoeuverable would appeal. I wish I had something like that that I could also sit on as I can't stand for long.

FridaWrites said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
FridaWrites said...

Hi, Melissa, I will reply to you soon. Glad to hear someone's working on increasing awareness about such issues!

Donimo, fortunately I haven't seen the storing patio furniture, but trash cans and stepstools are often in the way.

I think people do forget very often what it's like for others. If it's not someone I know well, I ask if someone is able to pick up something for me or move a chair, because I know other people with herniated discs who definitely cannot.

Segway's website says they don't plan to enter the disability market or ask for ADA/DDA acceptance. Often Segways are not allowed where scooters or wheelchairs are, period. It does seem like there could be a niche market for a fold-down seat on one, much as walkers (different UK term?) now often have a seat.

Elizabeth McClung said...

Great post, but am disappointed that the US doesn't require spacing, which actually doesn't bother me as much as it did the first few months because, eventually I overcame my "nice" training and realized that the store was already being "rude" and so I just knock the display over. And then wait and when the person arrives say, "Gosh, I guess there wasn't enough space." I figured if they loved me they would have made it so I can shop, so losing nothing there. Have also had managers insist I back out of a shop I can't turn around in, shouting at the back of my head, "for liability". (I hate that word).

I agree that there is often a willing ignorance amoung those using different assitive devices. Someone might use a walker but say, "I just use to sit down some times, I still walk, it is not like I'm a cripple!" While it is fairly well known that SCI para's and neuro don't mix becuase while both use wheelchairs, one wants to be as close to AB as possible and the other doesn't have that chance. Scooters; I don't know, often I have found that people who use scooters (at least in my town) can be somewhat agressive, but maybe that is my town. Or just those people, like for instance parking a scooter so there is only space for a person walking to enter and then getting angry when management asks them to move it (after they are walking) for a wheelchair because, "They have the right to, they are disabled." (actually that probably was just a odd person, it was just thier aggressive behavoir which sticks in the mind while the dozens of scooter users who aren't fade. The only problem is who gets sidewalk. My rule is I wait for walkers, and electric wheelchairs, I try to make some eye or hand agreement with scooters (you go this way, I go that?).

After ALL that, I would still heartily recommend that MORE people use scooters, becuase if funding is available, they are causing themselves unneeded pain and exhaustion which could be spent on something OTHER than going to point A. People don't seem to have an issue with taking a plane when a train is there (faster, more convienant, doesn't take as long, doesn't tire you out for as long) - why is the same not true when dealing with many invisable disabilities?

FridaWrites said...

I haven't knocked a display over, but my clothing has caught on a rack, unbeknownst to me, and I dragged the whole rack with me. I told my husband to leave it, that they needed to know. I haven't been kicked out of anyplace yet, and sorry that you have been--I have had store owners who were leasing their property apologize to me and warn me of hazards and tell me of changes they'd requested (better ramping).

I've seen a lot of aggressive scooter users, too, and it bugged me since my bones were still very fragile when I was walking (and I had difficulty walking). I've been aggressive only once when I was really, really ticked. Others might perceive me as aggressive when I tell them not to knock into me or to go around me--some seem frustrated or irritated that I am there at all (maybe previous interactions with other scooter users?), but that's not the "driving." The other place I've seen presumably aggressive "driving" by electric wheelchair and scooter users is getting off elevators--but I recognize that's an issue of not being able to turn around.

Yes, I can't see not clearing the walk for other disabled people--I assume I won't be the only one. We *had* to park our van in front of a sidewalk recently because people kept parking in front of the walk as we tried to unload my scooter. My husband would ask the driver to move and explain why, and then someone else would park in it before I could cross (busy place). *But* my husband left enough room so that any other scooters/wheelchairs could get around our vehicle, unlike the people who we flagged down to move their vehicle (who all did so very nicely).

Yes, probably more people should be using scooters--something I'd like to address soon.