Friday, May 1, 2009

Blogging Against Disablism Day: On Wheelchairs and Safety

A photograph of a mangled wheelchair lying on its side in tall prairie grass. The fabric on the wheelchair is a pretty sky blue.
Polk County Sheriff's Department

More BADD posts here.

An unnamed Philadelphia man
Rashad Costley of Waco, Texas
An unnamed San Antonio woman
Boris Farber of Atlanta
Amalie Henrietta Shean of Fayetteville, North Carolina
James Smith of Jackson, Mississippi
David Finley of Kansas City, Missouri
Macelin Azor of Tampa, Florida
Phyllis Seidman of Palo Alto, California
Boris Farber of Atlanta
John Byrd of Escondido, California
Kum Lim of Garden Grove, California
Elizabeth Bansen of St. Louis
Piedad Macedo of Tampa
A New Orleans man
Stephen Mills of Kentucky
Kathleen Perisino of Springfield, Missouri
James Coogan of New Jersey
A Suffolk County, New York, man
An Everett, Washington, man
Hubert McDonald of Fayetteville, North Carolina
A Palo Alto, California woman
Britt Herbert of South Bend, Indiana

What do these wheelchair or scooter users have in common? All of them were killed by drivers of cars, all but one in the past eighteen months, most in the past year. There are many others. Many were killed close to home. Let us not forget the activists, Elias Gutierrez of Fresno, who advocated for curb cuts but who died because they were not put in, and Fred Lupke of Berkeley, forced to use the street rather than sidewalks.

While using a wheelchair or scooter is clearly a risk to us, many of us have been publically singled out and warned that we need to be careful on our wheelchairs or scooters--that we are a danger to others--before entering a public place, have been banned outright even before making an appearance, or have been admitted to a place of public accommodation as a favor or an exception. Wheelie Catholic, Ruth Harrigan, notes that she has been "allowed" to bring her wheelchair into a club with a new policy against bicycles and scooters, William Peace of Bad Cripple describes how he and his mother have been newly banned from entering the paddocks at racetracks, and Katja of Broken Clay writes about the special agreement she mistakenly had to sign to enter an upcoming race in Boulder (people assumed her husband would push her). Mobility scooters are not permitted at one public display we'd like to visit, and use of slingseat manual wheelchairs provided there is required. At stake in each of these cases is the need for "safety" of other people from wheelchairs, or sometimes, in a patronizing way, our own safety (employers used to ban women from certain occupations for their safety; the court cases should set some precedent).

According to the ADA, "Public accommodations must comply with basic nondiscrimination requirements that prohibit exclusion, segregation, and unequal treatment." There are similar laws in some other countries. There is no exception for the perceived hazard of wheelchairs or scooters to other people (and yes, scooters are covered by the ADA, so long as they are within the size requirements, as most are). Yet across the U. S. wheelchair and scooter users are banned from participating in even the family events or fun walks of 5Ks or 10Ks. Here's an example from an agreement race participants must sign:

I also am fully aware that baby strollers, baby joggers, pushed wheelchairs and wheels of any kind (except competitive wheelchairs in a separate race), animals and headphones are strictly prohibited and I agree not to have them on the course.
This is the Tulsa United Way, which presumably helps people with disabilities. I should also point out that baby strollers have been assistive devices to many of us at some points, as it was for me, and that their banning in many public venues has made it impossible for those of us who are physically unable to carry our children to enter. Another example:

In accordance with the guidelines issued by USA Track & Field and Wheelchair Sports USA, only runners, walkers and wheelchair participants will be allowed on the course. The term “wheelchair,” as defined for this event, means push-rim
wheelchairs only. In addition, guidelines for participants in wheelchairs state that all chairs must be equipped with brakes and participants must wear helmets.
This is fine for competitive racing, but all noncompetitive wheelchairs are banned from every event. In addition, this would put unnecessary stipulations on noncompetitive wheelchair participants. Many wheelchairs and scooters contain only a parking brake or an electromagnetic brake that works when controls are not actively pushed, not a dynamic brake.

I have found a couple of variations of this phrasing, which is used as boilerplate language for a large number of races, indicating two major insurance companies are responsible for the prohibitions. Can people participate safely? Sure, and they do in a number of events, in races and walks including those of the Arthritis Foundation, the MS Foundation, the Komen Foundation, United Cerebral Palsy, and many, many others. The difference is that the races sponsored by these organizations more directly assist people with serious illness or disability and allow everyone. They also have liability insurance but choose not to discriminate. It's a choice to discriminate, and insurance company requirements do not excuse it. Ironically, many of the races that do discriminate--many allow only racing wheelchairs and no power wheelchairs or mobility scooters--often benefit orthopedic hospitals, healthcare nonprofits, and other charities. Yet apparently they do not see the hypocrisy of giving money to help people while denying their civil rights, and they have no qualms about blatantly ignoring the law. These races claim that they follow Wheelchair Track and Field rules and U.S. Track and Field Rules prohibiting other kinds of wheelchairs; if they are to ban noncompetitive wheelchairs from noncompetitive events, then they also need to ban noncompeting walkers and runners in noncompetitive events (family runs and walks). For those who ask, "Why participate if you can't compete?," I ask you to consider that most events are fundraisers and often families, coworkers, or large groups of friends participate, often with far more people participating in the noncompetitive portion than the competitive portion. They're fun but also emotionally moving for many who have survived or are coping with an illness or disability. And who wants to be excluded?

As my self-made banner in the margin of my blog says, equal access is a civil right, and we need to continue to assert that right. The problem with rules that ban wheelchairs is the multiplication effect--other people who read the rules will also think that they can ban wheelchairs and scooters from their business for "safety" reasons.

The reality is that pedestrians and vehicles are a danger to us. People climb over our laps or scooters, try to squeeze between us and walls, walk smack in front of us rather than giving us time to slow or showing the same consideration they would toward a bicycle or another pedestrian. They don't give us enough room to make a turn or physically prevent us from backing up by refusing to wait for us to do so and starting a wave of people-traffic behind us. I know most of us have been at a very crowded event or place when people block us from moving at all by standing directly in front of us while we'd like to leave or moving past us, person by person, while cutting in so close (an inch, if that) as to never allow us to move through an exhibit or hallway or exit until someone repeatedly intervenes on our behalf. Yes, wheelchairs and scooters can be dangerous. They can run over feet or smack into people. We have the responsibility to watch and try to be careful, but others also have the responsibility to watch for us and not refuse to yield the right of way as we try to navigate past. At many public venues, scooters or wheelchairs may now be rented, and from personal experience, I'd say such temporary use has its hazards of accidents, to the user unschooled in going down ramps straight, maneuvering tight spaces, or navigating through people. The risk increases with fatigue, as I can say from experience.

As a friend says, it takes three times longer to navigate through a store with a scooter. It takes me two times longer, but I have more experience. People often remark negatively about our speed (when we can finally make some speed!) or make backing-up jokes but never realize that they slow us down and exhaust us (we have less energy not more) by their choices. More gravely, they risk injuring us or hurting us.

Drivers are frequently aggressive, as Ruth notes in a poem of hers, and pedestrians' rudeness or obliviousness can make navigation difficult, as can be seen on videos made by Wheelchair Kamikaze (here and here). The risks cannot be understated, and I know that I place my life in my own hands each time that I load my scooter onto my lift. Even when I'm fortunate to have an access aisle to my right, drivers often "forget" that I am loading even before they enter their car and sometimes come very close to hitting me when they back out before I am finished. Yesterday I had the pleasure at a downtown courthouse with the wheelchair lift being directly in line with the lane of traffic entering a parking garage--because of lack of adequate space in the garage. Drivers often don't understand why we are in the way or that we are forced off sidewalks by a lack of curb cuts, disrepair, objects, or misparked vehicles.

People who use wheelchairs are not only victims of driver inattentiveness or aggressiveness, but they also experience deliberate acts of harassment, up to robbery and murder. While we don't wish to be more vulnerable, people perceive us to be and act upon it.

I have no doubt that we need to raise awareness of the hazards to people in wheelchairs and do more to reduce the number of needless accidents. It is no joke when a wheelchair user ends up attached to the grill of an 18-wheeler or the driver of a firetruck or bus does not even realize that they've hit someone, as in San Antonio. Wheelchair users are also injured and killed because of malfunctioning equipment, ramps too steep, elevator malfunction, and by problems at rail stations that trap wheelchair users (multiple cases).

The issue isn't whether wheelchairs are safe for others; it's whether the world "permits" or, better, welcomes us, whether people impede or intrude upon our freedoms, whether we are segregated out or included.

Sources for names of individuals killed:,0,4175933.story


Anonymous said...

Great point and delivery! Go Girl! That picture is frightening.Thanks for coming by and leaving a comment!

seahorse said...

Gosh this really brings home to me why it's so important to fight for the things I've been fighting for

Katja said...

Another case of access denied: What the...Man in wheelchair asked to leave historic store

Ruth said...

This is a great BADD post, Frida -in memory of those who often go unnamed because transportation and safety issues aren't being addressed enough.

FridaWrites said...

Thanks so much, starr--hope the picture isn't too much for anyone.

Seahorse, as Flannery O'Connor said, the life you save may be your own, or someone else's.

That's an appalling story, Katja--and I have to wonder if that's not what the fire marshall intended, even if that's what the store manager said.

Wheelie, I'd like to list out more of those killed when I have a chance. It's almost unbelievable how many have been. I think municipalities and emergency services (fire, police) should be educated about this, what it means when there are no curb cuts or when someone blocks them.

Never That Easy said...

What great points - I have never tried to enter a race/walk as a PWD, so I didn't know about these restrictions... thanks for bringing them to our attention!

FridaWrites said...

You're welcome! What a mesmerisingly cute baby in your id picture.

RehaDesign said...

That was an amazing post. You put alot of time into researching that and did a great job making your point. What suggestions do you have for wheelchair users?

Full Tilt said...

Hi FW,

Fabulous posting and tribute. Tampa has one of the worst wheelie death rates in the country, but you don't hear about it much. This posting brings that and other issues surrounding it home. Thank you!

FridaWrites said...

Thanks so much, Wheelchair Pride--that means a lot. I'm not entirely sure about suggestions yet and maybe there should be some kind of forum of wheelchair users for possible solutions. Awareness of our vulnerability in this regard is important so we can steer clear of cars as much as possible and advocate with facts to back up what may be perceived as fears. Reflectors may be good at night (there were some very subtle, pretty striped ones--blues and yellows, not orange--mentioned on Wheelie Catholic's blog under Disability Expo). I also think it will take continued advocacy for curb cuts, safe crosswalks, and driver education, as well as a public awareness campaign, though how much the media is willing to print relevant story's is anyone's guess. Unfortunately, I don't see a quick fix.

Full Tilt, I'm definitely not apt to move to some of these cities after seeing these statistics! I'm fortunate that I live where there generally are good curb cuts and where people drive more--and to have my own car. While I'd prefer to live in an area with more "walking," I see the advantages of having little distance to travel. I do see wheelies who must traverse the streets in an adjoining big city and at a local university because of a lack of sidewalks and curb cuts.

Blocked sidewalks (broken sidewalks, trashcans, bicycles, cars) are a huge problem and can require people to go a long distance on their own in the street.

Bicyclists are also in danger in many cities--having bicycle lanes would is helpful--perhaps having them wide enough for wheelchairs would also be helpful, though I can see that might also be disastrous.

Ruth said...

I've nominated you for a blog award- come on over and pick it up whenever you can :)

FridaWrites said...

Thanks so much! I am very touched by this.

Megan said...

This was an amazing post! I was very interested in it and learned a lot!

FridaWrites said...

Thank you, Megan. :)

RehaDesign said...

Hi Frida:

I wrote an article about wheelchair safety, partially inspired by your blog. Please have a look and give comments for improvement.


TomFX said...

PLEASE take a sneak preview at
for an amazing solution to the wheelchair safety issues. These patent-pending state-of-the-art L.E.D. Lighting after-market kits have LED strip lighting attached to both armrests, and to the seat frame in the back. Ther are also several clusters located under the seat to illuminate the base of the chair and the ground around the chair. Products will feature such options as fade, flash,million color(you can change the colors with yur remote controller), and even Music reactive capabilities! I am a Mobility Specialist that partnered with New York State Industries for the Disabled to provide both the safety You need, and the Style You deserve!

Marla said...

PLEASE LOOK at this situation taking place in Fresno, CA where Elias Gutierrez was killed. The ADA violations not only continue to increase (behind secret replacement of the city water system), our city officials are altering records to cover up the evidence, which allows them to deny knowledge and/or responsibility.

Sidewalks in Fresno Pose Serious Perils For Pedestrians