It should be noted that I am not disabled in any way – with specific regards to definition of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) – meaning I don’t have a condition that would limit any of my movements, senses, or activities. On Thursday, July 23, 2015, the Americans Institute of Architects of Dallas organized a day of awareness and celebration on the impact the ADA has had on the built environment and the disabled community and I was asked to participate by spending my entire day in a wheelchair.
Now that I’ve gotten that out-of-the-way (for reasons I will explain towards the end of this post) I should explain that on the day I was supposed to spend in my wheelchair, I didn’t do anything differently; my routine for the day was the routine that I would have had on that day under regular circumstances. I don’t normally ride buses or cruise around the urban center of downtown Dallas. I go to the office, I sit at a desk for about 85% of my time, and I spend a lot of time answering questions. So this was going to be a day just like any other day.
But not really.
This was the wheelchair I was assigned … not very sporty. In fact, this was the sort of wheelchair I think I would get if I only needed a wheelchair for a short period of time, I guess … I don’t really know. While I design accessible spaces as required by law for our commercial projects, I will admit that I don’t really know a lot about actual wheelchairs. This one weighed somewhere between 40 and 50lbs – which seemed extremely heavy. As I loaded it into my car this morning, I couldn’t help but wonder “How do smaller people do this?” Not only is it kind of heavy, it is awkwardly shaped AND I didn’t just put it barely into my car … it had to go waaaaaaaaaay in there. I drive a Chevy Tahoe and I had to lower half the second row and all of the third row just to get this to fit.
There is actually a story I would like to share but I’m not sure how well I can write it … it needs visuals and I tell it much better in person. Here goes:
When I arrived at the office, I was a little self-conscious about having people see me get out of my car, walk around the back, pull a wheelchair out and then get in it like I was faking. I mean, I was faking but I didn’t want to be judged for faking.
I had all my “go to the office” stuff with me – which included the following:
– canvas shoulder bag
– 42″ roll of drawings
– bag of food (breakfast taco)
– large beverage that was in a styrofoam cup
No big deal, right? Normally not but this particular morning, I needed both hands to roll my wheelchair so I needed to figure out how I was going to carry all this stuff in “hands-free”.
I hung my shoulder bag off the handles in the back – that one was easy. The 42″ roll of drawings I just stuffed javelin style behind me … I “might” have crushed them a teensy bit but no worries – they are my drawings. I put the bag with the breakfast tacos in my mouth and bit down. Mmphhffh. [translation – this will work]. The tricky part was the large styrofoam cup. I looked up and down, could I stick it here? Maybe jam it in there? ….. No – none of those places was going to work. There was only one place I could put it …
Trust me, I didn’t like doing it either but this was one of those learning moments which was the entire point of my time in this chair today. So I stuck this squishy cup full of liquid in my crotch and I took off for the non-compliant ramp that would elevate me from the parking lot up on to the sidewalk.
I have substantial arm strength compared to 30% of the world’s population … assuming that 30% of the world’s population is below the age of twelve. But that shouldn’t have kept me from clearing this ramp. As I approached the ramp, I thought I should build up some speed – so I did – and about halfway up the ramp … I started to fall over backwards. My first thought as I was falling over backward was “MY DRINK!!!” followed a nanosecond later by “stop falling backwards.”
I was able to stop myself but not before my shoulder bag slid off the handles (with my computer in it) and about half of all my contents went spilling out into the parking lot. The drink was spared.
This was not the start I was hoping for as I begun my day. That’s when I said my first (of what would turn out to be many) F-word of the day.
At the beginning of each day, I measure in at 6′-1″ and 200lbs … or as I like to call it: “Genetically superior”. Not freakishly large but maybe a little larger than average. Guess what? My legs didn’t fit under my desk. This is commercially designed desk benching system and is designed to meet ADA standards. Also, that nasty looking scabby thing on my leg has nothing to do with this post but it did make for a very painful reminder every single time (about 100) my leg banged into my computer which was (previously) conveniently suspended below my desk.
I also spend a lot of time hopping from desk to desk to look at drawings – which is always a bit of a pain – but today it was extremely unproductive. I also couldn’t get very close to the monitors and I couldn’t just sketch something up on a roll of trace as I squeezed in to answer some question.
I thought I would include a copy of my office as a refresher for this of you who haven’t seen it before. I think it would be useful to see just how remote I am located in the office. See #9? That’s the copier … it’s kind of inconvenient to my desk. How about #12? Yes, that would be the Men’s toilet room – literally as far away as it could be from where I sit.
Since I sketch a lot in the office, I tend to use the copier frequently and scan them in so I can email them to clients. Have you ever tried balancing a few pieces of trace paper on your lap and then move from spot #1 to spot #9? They tend to fall off your lap.
Bending over to pick up trace isn’t that easy. The upside is that I have the arm length to body size ratio similar to a orangutang. I am 6′-1″ but my arms belong on a man who is closer to 6′-8″ tall. [Yes, buying shirts that fit is nearly impossible.] I discovered that while I could fairly easily reach what I needed to on the copier, the angle I was at made reading the digital screen on the copier almost impossible.
But long arms come in handy when you need to open a door. Surprisingly, this was not something that I had much difficulty in achieving.
but now I am thinking that the door to our office needs to be reversed.
Next challenge? Going out to lunch. Again, long arms to the rescue, but I am acutely aware of how freakishly long my arms are and as a result, I am acutely aware of how difficult going through a cafeteria line would be for people who don’t have the physical proportions of a simian.
But I did have one of my biggest “A-HA” moments of the day. As I balanced my incredibly healthy lunch tray on my lap, every time I rolled over a tile joint, all the plates on my tray would bounce up and slide perilously close to my white shirt. I could make it about 4 tiles before I would have to stop and then reset all the plates on my tray.
And then cover another 4 tiles. Reset. Reset. Reset.
When I arrived (last) to our table, I wondered where I as the 5th person was going to sit? Of course, I have my own chair so I can just sit at the end of the table, right?
Screw that … I made everybody pick up all their lunches and relocate to a new table. #Itsgoodtobetheboss
I’m not going to spend as much time as I could on the challenges of using the toilet room. I did go through the process and found it, ahem … difficult. This was definitely a source of amusement for the office but I am going to keep things clean. What I did experience was the challenges associated with closing the door once I was actually in the toilet room. I had to face a certain way to transfer from the wheelchair to the toilet using the grab bars but how do you close the door? I found that I would stick my fingers through the jamb and pull the door closed using my incredibly powerful finger muscles (developed from years and years of hand-drafting). And every time I did it, I wondered whether or not this would be the time I chopped all my fingers off.
Have you ever heard the expression – “In for a dime, in for a dollar”? It basically means if you commit to something you see that commitment all the way. So even though I was only asked to stay in my wheelchair through normal working hours, I decided to spend my entire day in this wheelchair – which meant going to a heavily attended charity cocktail reception where I was the only adult in attendance that was in a wheelchair.
I am glad I did – even though I had to explain to more people than I can remember exactly what I was doing in a wheelchair. No, I wasn’t hurt – everything was okay … I was doing this for ADA advocacy. My goal was to experience something and then share that experience with others, and what better place to share some of those experiences than at charity cocktail reception?
One of the things that came out of my cocktail reception – other than not being able to really connect with people since my face was crotch height with everyone at the event – had more to do with moving around during the event. Nobody was looking down and there were a lot of people at this event. I literally spent the entire time looking for trafficable routes between A and B. My normal pattern navigating a crowded room involves rotating my shoulders and hips to knife my way through the crowd – moving through a crowd in a wheelchair was like slicing a grape with a hammer … blunt force and with no finesse or grace.
If you are looking for more jokes or funny situations, you can bail on the rest of this post. I intended to take this experience seriously and see how I would be impacted by discovering challenges throughout my daily routines that normally wouldn’t show up on my radar screen. Everything was a bit harder, everything was massively more inconvenient, and everything was viewed from a slightly different vertical elevation. I know that some of the challenges I faced could be chalked up to rookie mistakes – things that if I truly had a condition that limited my mobility would either have been practiced enough times as to become much easier; or I would imagine someone would actually teach me some techniques (i.e. the best way to transfer from a wheelchair to a toilet). To a certain extent, I expected just about all the challenges I faced (and many, many more that I chose not to describe today). What I was not prepared for was the handful of people who actually spend their time in a wheelchair who basically called me out for not truly understanding the real challenges someone in a wheelchair experiences since I was only doing this for a single day.
I wasn’t prepared for that to be quite honest. I only know 5 or 6 people who “practice from the chair” but they all reached out at one point or another throughout the day and were all extremely supportive of this bit of advocacy. A handful of people wrote emails (they weren’t exactly hateful) that stated that my one day in a wheelchair didn’t amount to very much. For most, it had to do with the long-term effects, or infrequent – but very real – challenges, or the idea that the superficial challenges I discovered didn’t begin to scratch the surface of challenges mobility impaired people have to face, one of which is simply getting a job. Did you know that the unemployment rate of those who want to work is 30% higher for those in wheelchairs than those who aren’t in wheelchairs?
Advocacy is a good thing at any level. By definition, advocacy is public support for or recommendation of a particular cause or policy and me spending my time in a wheelchair recognizing the 25 year anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act being signed in to law on July 26th, 1990, was a good thing no matter how you choose to look at it. Yes, I barely scratched the surface on understanding the challenges people with mobility challenges have to contend with – but to think that I would have been better off not having gone through this – even for only a day – is ludicrous. I highly recommend that anyone reading this article take a day and go through this same challenge – everybody wins. A step in the right direction is still a step, no matter how large.