Friday, September 4, 2009

Need a new point of view? Try sitting in a wheelchair

Twenty years ago I was working as a television reporter and did an inspirational story about a disabled Vietnam Veteran. This war hero was paralyzed from the waist down, yet incredibly had achieved a black belt in Tae Kwon Do using only the upper half of his body. The story was beautifully shot by the photographer. He framed up several shots of the man from the waist up, keeping the wheelchair out of the shot so the viewer couldn't possibly know that the man had no use of his legs. Then, about thirty seconds into the piece, we cut to a wide shot of the vet in the chair, revealing the fact that he was paralyzed as he broke a board from a sitting position. I thought the effect of the camera work and editing was powerful, and went home feeling we had lifted some spirits.

But in writing the story I had used the phrase, "He is confined to a wheelchair."

The next day I heard from a viewer who told me, "Paralyzed people are not confined to wheelchairs. We're liberated by them."

I never quite understood that comment.

Until I landed in a wheelchair myself for twelve days.

Knee surgery dictated I would have to stay off my feet for a while. Since I couldn't seem to master the balance of crutches, I dragged my mother's wheelchair out of the basement. During the days before the procedure I was dreading the days of confinement to either my bed or the chair. I also knew that laying around reading, writing or watching TV would no doubt add a few pounds to the reading on the bathroom scale.

The day after my surgery I was already feeling the cabin fever of the bedroom. So my other half helped me hop into the chair and I ventured out, banging into walls and furniture along the way.

At first it was hard getting around the house. I discovered that navigating a wheelchair on carpet is a lot harder than on tile or wood. I could get between the kitchen counter and the refrigerator, but since the fridge door opened the wrong way I couldn't get anything inside. (Thank goodness for the invention of ice and water through the door.) I was thrilled to find that whoever had built our home had installed wide doors, so I could go anywhere except down the stairs to the basement.

Then, after about two days, something else happened. I discovered I wanted to do everything for myself. Sure, I cheated, hopping around on my good leg to get stuff out of the fridge and from high shelves. Besides, it was good exercise. I mastered 360-degree turns and stopped banging into things. The chair was making normal, everyday life possible. I had been liberated. I discovered muscles in my arms I hadn't used in years, and even lost weight.

After a week my journalistic curiosity got the best of me and I decided to try a "point of view" experiment. I wanted to find out what I could and could not do without cheating while staying seated in the chair. I learned that you can cook from a wheelchair in a frying pan, but a tall pot made seeing inside impossible. You can load a top loading washing machine but can't reach inside to unload it. And when a fluorescent light blew out in the kitchen, I had absolutely no clue as to how someone would replace it from a chair.

In the days after I was done with the wheelchair, other obstacles that had become visual wallpaper to me suddenly became crystal clear. How does someone in a wheelchair get something from a top shelf in a supermarket? Why do so many stores have handicapped parking but narrow aisles that make it impossible for anyone in a wheelchair to shop? Why are the tables in some restaurants so close together? Sidewalks without ramps made no sense.

I realized the term "handicapped accessible" falls a little short. Actually, a lot short. What we need in this country is "handicapped friendly." This concept won't be found in the Americans with Disabilities Act, but it doesn't need to be there. It's just common courtesy, that, I'm sorry to say, those of us who can walk don't think about.

Do supermarkets really need three rows of corn flakes on the top shelf? Why not stack things vertically, with one row on the bottom, middle and top shelf? They already put candy on low shelves for children; why not take care of those in wheelchairs with limited reach?

Why doesn't all new construction of both homes and businesses require doors made wide enough to accommodate wheelchairs?

Can't every place of business just buy a yardstick and make sure people in wheelchairs can get around?

And would it kill some cities to get a jackhammer and some cement to fix every sidewalk?

Little stuff, sure, but it could make life so much easier for so many.

I'm walking again, but I now know that if I ever end up in a wheelchair, I can still do a lot.

Funny, how surgery on my knee really opened my eyes.

1 comment:

Susan said...

I spent 5 and a half months in and out of a wheelchair, sometimes on a walker, and learned a lot about how difficult it is to do ordinary things from a chair or when you can't carry things like a glass of water in your hands. I learned to take a reacher with me everywhere I went and lost any sembalnce of reserve about asking for help to reach those corn flakes on the top shelf. It would do all of us a lot of good to spend a little time at the sitting level experiencing ordinary daily activities. I also no longer consider it a pain to return my shopping cart to the front of the store - I feel fortunate to be able to walk that far pain free!