Accessing America

My disability is not that severe, at least according to my friends.  Most people have difficulty even seeing it once […]

My disability is not that severe, at least according to my friends.  Most people have difficulty even seeing it once they have the opportunity to pit my abilities against my disability.  Still, it’s a big part of who I am, and therefore I’m probably more conscious of others with disabilities than most people without are.  As such, I’ve become extremely aware of accommodations—or the lack thereof—designed to make living easier for people with disabilities.  So whenever I come across something that appears it might be difficult for a handicapped person to handle, I look around for an offered solution—some sort of design application that wouldn’t preclude a disabled person from getting the most out of life.

One of the first things I noticed about Minneapolis and St. Paul was their openness, to everything—from being queer to being physically disabled.  Even if you don’t belong to a particular minority group, there are ways to get educated and involved with those who do.  It’s almost as though a person chooses to become a member of, or at least an advocate for, a minority by getting involved in that group—and, in that way, looking at the melting pot that is the Twin Cities, there are no minority groups.  Just one big majority.

I have wondered if this is a universal characteristic of any metropolis, or whether it is unique to this particular Midwestern urban area.  My boyfriend and I took a vacation in California this past holiday season (Christmas in California—does life get any better?) and I took an active look at the handicapped facilities made available by the cities we visited.  It’s interesting to point out that, though I don’t personally need to utilize most of these, I try them out to test their practicality and functionality.  There was a time when I did need them and I remember what it was like—how frustrating it was to come across something that made no sense.  Like the handrails in the stalls of public restrooms.  Sure they seem useful on the surface.  But in reality, when you park your wheelchair next to the commode, the rail on the wall to the left of the seat is too far away to offer much support when transferring your body from one seat to another, especially when you have limited use of your left arm.  And the light switches were always too high for me to reach from my wheelchair without straining.  Things like that, which most people normally wouldn’t think about, became an absolute problem for me—one for which I still seek solutions.

Out On The Town

In Old Town Sacramento, we ate at a mediocre little Mexican place which was on the second story of the shopping plaza.  I was pleased to see that, although the elevator was not in plain sight, there were clear signs pointing the way for patrons using wheelchairs and walkers.  It was also interesting to see that they specifically had the blue handicapped signs directing the way to the elevator.  I’m used to seeing signs that just say “Elevator This Way.”  Instead, this seemed to be saying:  “If You Need Assistance Getting Upstairs, Come This Way.”  In my opinion, this is a big difference—the difference between putting in an elevator because you have to and putting one in because you should.  I should also note, and this made me smile like a little kid, that the light switch in the restroom (at least at this restaurant) was set significantly lower than most.  I almost couldn’t find it.  It was actually quite inconvenient for those walking upright, but when I saw it, I thought:  “Yes!  Score one for us!”

I Left My Heart In San Francisco

One of the coolest things I saw, or rather heard, was the audible crosswalks for the visually impaired.  (I’ve been told we have them here but I’ve never actually encountered one.)  I remember hearing the chirps in Sacramento, San Jose and San Francisco, but it didn’t dawn on me what they were until we were in Berkeley.  There’s a repeating beep for the north/south crossing and a chirp for the east/west crossing.  I know what you’re thinking.  What the heck is the difference between a chirp and a beep?  It’s a significant enough difference that, should you need to use the sounds to help safely cross the street, you could easily learn the distinction.

To take it a step further, it is a mandatory state law in California that all traffic must stop when any pedestrian is crossing the street, whether they are in the designated crosswalk or not, and whether or not they are crossing against the light.  So there’s that safety net if you make a mistake and cross the wrong way at the wrong time, though that is putting too much faith in drivers actually obeying the traffic laws for my taste.  And it really doesn’t take into account drivers from other states who might not know that’s what you’re supposed to do.

The other really neat thing I saw (mostly in San Jose and the Silicon Valley area) was the wheelchair paths cut out of the crosswalks.  Because of the bike paths that are everywhere, there’s quite often a bike path that cuts through the sidewalk, separating the crosswalk from the sidewalk.  Therefore, you have to step down off the sidewalk, cross the bike path, and then step back up to wait at the crosswalk.  What the city did to save space (rather than make the crosswalk ramp-accessible) is cut a path in the crosswalk, so a wheelchair-user can just roll, street-level, to wherever he or she needs to go.  It was such an ingenious idea that I knew it had to have taken a disabled person to come up with it.  Because, as the old adage goes, necessity is the mother of invention.

When The Lights Go Down In The City

Probably the most important part of getting around anywhere is the people.  If you don’t have the support of the people, it’s extremely difficult no matter what accommodations are made or what facilities are offered.  Everywhere we went, I was treated with the utmost respect.  It sounds bad to say it like that, because a person should be treated with respect regardless—but I was constantly being asked if I needed assistance, or if there was anything that could be done to make my experience more comfortable.  As much as this was appreciated, after a while I almost wanted to say, “Just leave me alone.”  Yet I know that, to a person meeting me for the first time, my disability is going to be the first thing noticed (after, of course, taking note of how cute I am).  So I know that I, too, need to show the patience and tolerance that I expect the rest of the world to show me.  And when I’m offered assistance, it isn’t because it’s believed I can’t do something—it’s simply a way to show that people actually do care, and that it’s OK to be handicapped.  And that often, the only stigma attached to being handicapped is that which we, ourselves (as members of the disability community), attach to it.

Like I said, I don’t need any special accommodations, but I’m usually pretty conscious of them—or the lack of them—on behalf of those who do need them, and I was pleased with the accessibility I found during my vacation.  The greatest part is that I found the cities we visited to be accessible without being blatantly so.  It felt natural, not forced.  The things that make life livable, like sand on the boardwalk, were just there.  If you really gave it some thought you’d realize that it probably wasn’t there when they originally built the boardwalk, but over time it nestled itself in the cracks, just there ¼ under your feet, collecting in your sandals and simply becoming a part of the whole experience.

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