Obstacles To Freedom
The benefits of having a wheelchair far outweigh the problems, but those problems still exist. Most of these issues stem from thoughtlessness - the designs of new buildings, the entrances to shops, people who don't notice or don't care that you're struggling. I am in an unusual position amongst wheelchair-users - I could not have a normal life even if the world woke up one day and decided to remove these obstacles. I am too sick to go to work or university, but many people in wheelchairs could have a totally integrated life if people would just think for a minute.
The main problem I encounter when in my wheelchair is that of raised shop entrances. A step up to the shop can determine whether or not I am able to go in. It would take a chisel and a hammer and could be dealt with overnight, but no, that's too easy. I am a member of the Clydesdale Bank and, in the city where I live, I am unable to get into any of the three banks within my area. I am lucky that I am able to walk up a few steps, so I can go inside if absolutely necessary, but not everyone has that ability. One bank has four steps up to the main door, and then heavy swing doors to get inside. Another has a step that is over eight inches high - very difficult to conquer, even with a carer lifting the wheelchair. And, once you've navigated your way onto that step, the door opens outwards! There's no way in. When the wheelchair is on the step, you can't get the door open, and if you back off the step, the door is too far away to hold. It's ridiculous. All they need to do is make the door swing the other way. Oh well. The last one is the classic, though. It has an automatic door, and a nice ramp into the building. Then it has a lift to the bank's main floor, which is great. The lift is, of course, only big enough to fit a small wheelchair in if the person holds their breath a bit, but it works. So, you're thinking, 'Wow, they've really done their homework on this one. Could do with some improvements, but they're doing well.' Then you hear the ping, the door open and you make your way out to the bank. And you're faced with three steps up the counters. No ramp, no other way up, three steps. Unbelievable. Really, it is. Did they just stop thinking after the lift part? Did they think that, if they'd put in all that, that we'd be able to suddenly get up and walk the rest of the way? 'Clydesdale Bank cures cripples' screamed the headlines in dreamland. Come on, guys - THINK for a minute.
It's something that really gets to me - if you're willing to make something wheelchair accessible, why not go all the way? Why not actually make it wheelchair accessible? The pavements in Aberdeen have a problem with this. The new ones are great - they are actually smooth ramps, but all the others have this weird deformity that makes them dip slightly towards the road, but not enough to make it smooth. My carer still has to tip the wheelchair in order to get it up onto the pavement. If you're going to go to the trouble of making them dip, why not just make them ramps and be done with it? What is the point? I really do not understand it. And why don't they get people in wheelchairs to test their wheelchair facilities? In a local shopping centre there is a disabled toilet, which is quite progressive of them. Please note the sarcasm. Only one, of course, and unisex. Now, for the love of god, I don't know how they came up with the design. First of all, you have to press a button to be allowed in. You have to wait ten seconds while it decides if you're good enough or not. Then the door unlocks. Fine. The door, however, is so heavy that it's almost impossible for me to open, and I do actually hurt my arm quite seriously whenever I attempt it. You have to wrench it open, which is quite difficult when you're on bloody wheels, and then somehow maneuver yourself inside, while holding open this ridiculous door. So you get inside, and there's another bloody door to go through. It's like a tiny corridor for no earthly reason. So you get inside, that one, do your business, and then try and get out. Note the 'try'. If I wasn't able to stand up and get myself around, then I would have been stuck - I tried it out of interest. It's a matter of an inch or so, but there's just not enough room to turn the chair around in that room. You cannot do it. And, sorry, but I don't think that going to the toilet should be some bloody obstacle course or exercise in advanced problem solving. Why didn't they get someone to test it - it's only a couple of inches - it wouldn't have been that much of a problem to sort out when they were building it. Is it really that much of a leap of the imagination to think of getting a person in a wheelchair to check that the wheelchair facility was actually usable? Or am I just asking too much?
I sometimes think that I'm losing my faith in humanity. I had always thought that if a person saw another struggling, they would help them. I find it so difficult to deal with the harsh truth that, most times when Drennen and I are struggling to open a door or get into a shop, there will be people standing not a metre away just watching with mild interest. They won't move to help us, they just watch. Or people let doors swing back in my face, or glare at me for taking up too much space, or for being slow. People kick Drennen's ankles because he's not moving quickly enough, they get upset when they can't go through the already-open doors for those in wheelchairs or with children because we're making our way through. They think they have a right to our facilities, even though they have the option of all the other facilities available. They get annoyed with me for being in the way in shops, they lean on my wheelchair if we're in a lift, they get upset when we're not the ones to move out of the way on pavements, even though it's a matter of stepping aside for them and a fairly complicated maneuver for us. They mutter under their breath about people taking up too much space, but make sure it's loud enough for us to hear. They even push us out of the way, on occasion. They jump in front of the chair and get annoyed if we don't stop in time. They look at me with expressions ranging from fear to disgust to pity. They rarely look at me like I'm just another human being. They seem horrified when I kiss my partner in public, either because they think he's taking advantage of me or because a disabled person should be asexual. When did the world get like this? Where was I when it all changed so much? It's become bad form to make fun of a disabled person, although many people still do that, like the woman who walked past me one day and asked if I wanted to dance, but I can mostly cope with that. I can get angry about that. It's the millions of tiny rejections and problems that we face every single day that really get to me. The same things over and over again that shock me every time because I still want to think that people are basically good. But some of them are.
There are still enough people that smile at me in the street without condescension, that ask me if I want help in a shop, that carry food over to a table for me, that look at me when they talk to me, that cross the street to help and that are genuinely nice to make me not lose hope. These people are the rays of light in my world - they lift my spirits and can make an otherwise ok day wonderful. The smallest kindness doesn't go unnoticed, I remember them and I talk about them to my friends, my family. Just someone looking at me like I'm a person is enough to make me happy, and I remember these people. They are angels to me, and I am grateful to them for reminding me that not all is grey, not all is hard and not all is impossible. Maybe we can change the world a little at a time.