The Progressive Media Project


October 5, 2000

Wheelchair opens up new world

by Lisa A. Goldstein

On the 10th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), I was hit by a truck and found myself using a wheelchair. The experience of negotiating life from a wheelchair showed me that we have a long way to go before our society is accessible to everyone.

All my life I've been deaf -- an invisible disability for those, like me, who communicate by speaking and reading lips. My deafness attracts little public attention: I blend in. But with a wheelchair, it's harder to hide.

"Bob," a fellow wheelchair user, recently posted this advice to an online forum for people with physical disabilities: "Every person in the world should spend at least 30 days in a chair, without the option of standing up."

Well, Bob, I didn't volunteer for your challenge, but I experienced it nonetheless. I always thought being deaf was hard enough, but I learned that the physically disabled encounter more obstacles.

The first thing I noticed were the stares. Some people tried to be subtle, while others looked at me with the unabashed intensity of Superman using his x-ray vision. Kids were curious; one girl in particular kept glancing at me. She finally sneaked over and touched my wheelchair before running away. Perhaps if her parents had taught her early on about people with disabilities, she wouldn't have been so uncomfortable.

I'm the first to admit that I wasn't always conscious about this sort of thing. Before my accident, I used to make a beeline for the accessible bathroom stall. It's larger, more private, and usually a lot cleaner. I've vowed to never do that again when I've fully recovered. The accessible one should be left open for a large, elderly or disabled person. Laws created that stall for a reason. If you can use only one stall out of many, you shouldn't have to wait for it.

And just because the stall itself is accessible doesn't mean the restroom is. In almost every bathroom I went into, I could barely get the door open by myself.

I was also left out at the movies. My husband and I drove an hour just to see a captioned film. The only place for my chair was at the back of the theater, with no seats nearby. Because I wanted to sit next to my husband, I had to transfer myself into an aisle seat. We complained to a manager afterward. A surprised "Oh!" was the reaction when we pointed out that we couldn't sit together in the area reserved for wheelchairs. Clearly, this was something she hadn't thought about before: People in wheelchairs have friends!

Another thing hit me, this time when I was on the second floor of an art gallery and I saw that ever-present sign: "In case of fire, exit stairway." Everyone knows to avoid elevators during fires. But what if you're in a wheelchair? I guess you just have to hope for someone strong enough to carry you down those flights of steps.

And what about those parking spaces? It's illegal to park in a handicapped space without the proper documentation. Even if you're driving a car with the placard, it's against the law to park there if you are not the disabled person for whom it was issued. In fact, even if the person with the disability is in the car, it's illegal to park there if she or he doesn't get out of the car. It's upsetting to see able-bodied people walking out of their cars from these spaces.

Ironically, the most maddening form of discrimination I experienced was when I tried to find transportation to physical therapy. I was referred to a local volunteer organization, but the staff refused me service because of my deafness, citing it as a safety hazard, among other things.

In a few months, I'm expected to be able to walk normally again. Not everyone is that lucky. You, too, can achieve my new perspective: Just don't wait for a truck to hit you to do it.

Lisa A. Goldstein is a graduate of U.C. Berkeley's graduate school of journalism. She's currently an editor and reporter for CanDo.com, a Web site for people with disabilities.

Copyright 2000, Lisa A. Goldstein. Reprint or electronic distribution without permission is prohibited. Call the Progressive Media Project for information, 608-257-4626.