I was literally stuck in a foyer between two entry doors at my orthopedic surgeon's office. With one casted foot held up, I half stood, pouring sweat in the humid Midwest heat. Where was that blue Handicap button that automatically opened the door? How did people do this every day of their lives?
I was happily living on my own after a divorce; physically dependent on no one when I fractured my ankle walking down a steep hill while taking a short cut on the way to the World Expo of Beer Festival. I couldn't blame it on the beer because I hadn't drank a drop of alcohol. Maybe if I had, I could have rolled with the fall and walked away unscathed. Complete strangers were incredibly kind and my fiancé was wonderful as they worked to stabilize the ankle and get me to emergency care. I had the dubious honor to be the first beer festival injury. I was x-rayed, diagnosed with an oblique fracture and put into a temporary cast.
Then I began to encounter challenges. The hotel where I was staying had no wheelchair, so I had to ride on a luggage cart up to our hotel room, a hit to both my body and my pride. The next problem was the break itself. After returning home I saw an orthopedic surgeon who determined I required surgery. The next day, I left surgery with rods, plates, and pins holding me in place. I couldn't place any weight on the ankle , which required me to move from one place to depending on the kindness of a leg scooter.
Now, I am learning what it's like living with a condition that seriously impairs movement, learning what it like is to experience the world with one leg resting on wheels. From this perspective, I see very differently. I view handicap bathrooms as something more than a more spacious alternative to claustrophobic stalls. Blue Handicap buttons have become so much more than a convenient way to open doors when my hands are filled. Cracks in the pavement became something more than minor bumps in the road.
Before my injury, I took for granted that public places claiming to be handicap accessible were indeed handicap accessible. Not so. Instead, I discovered small doorways, narrow hallways, and uneven carpeting, all of which spelled handicap inaccessible. Once I could move around after surgery, my fiancé took me to Target, my favorite store, to get some things. First, we had to ask where the motorized carts were and then the fun really began. I wanted to look at T-shirts, but I couldn't manipulate the cart through the tight racks to get to the T-shirts shelving. I sent my fiancé into the racks to find me some shirts. We managed and laughed, but then I thought of all the other people in motorized carts or wheelchairs without someone to help. How do they shop?
Then, as I waited in the car for my sister to get a handicap sticker for the cars (and the people) who will ferry me around, I anxiously watched a woman push a man in a wheelchair through the doors to a Michigan Secretary of State office. The doors had a huge doorstop and she was struggling to get the chair over the raised threshold and then through the next door in a small entrance way. My thoughtful sister helped them through both doors, but this was a state office. The entrance should have been easily entered by anyone.
Even places with the seemingly obvious elements of accessibility, such as ramps, are fraught with difficulty. When I went to another doctor, I was confronted by a long, steep ramp obstructed by a heavy door, followed by narrow hallways. I mentioned to the office staff that the office didn't seem very accessible and I was surprised at the defensiveness of the staff's response. I have so many more situations of going into banks, restaurants, grocery stores, malls, and other places where getting into and around the public space was fraught with anxiety, hidden pitfalls, bumpy tile and incredibly small restrooms. I was so grateful I had loved ones to help me navigate, but always, in the back of my mind was the thought how do people do this every day of their lives?
Prior to my injury, I had visceral reactions to people in wheelchairs, walkers, and other modes of transportation required helping them move through the world. I felt sorry for them, opened doors for them, helped them in the grocery store, waited for them to cross the road, all while feeling so good about myself - see how nice I am? But deep down I also felt so much gratitude I wasn't in that chair, that walker, or had a painful limp requiring permanent crutches.
I thanked the fates I didn't have to have anyone help me move. I was inordinately proud of my physical independence. I equated needing help as being helpless. Now, as someone depending on the help of others, I see my behavior and attitude as disrespectful. People don't need my pity for their helplessness; they aren't helpless. Like me, they just need help.
As I heal and look forward to leaving my knee caddy behind, I'm committed to ways I can do something beyond hold a door or wait at a crosswalk. I'm becoming an aware, vocal and active advocate for the vulnerable confronting a world fashioned for those who are physically able bodied.