Have you ever been unable to get to your car because the elevator that brought you up from the parkade is now out of service? Have you ever gone out with your friends or family just to be left at the bottom of a staircase while they figure out how to get you into the building? Have you ever missed out on an event because there wasn’t a bathroom you could use? These are just a few of the too-many-to-count scenarios that come up when you use a wheelchair. Being able to move freely around this world with minimal planning or forethought was something I most definitely took for granted before my injury. I had a very limited understanding of what wheelchair accessibility was all about. I have since been given a crash course on the topic and it is not just about the absence of stairs. No, it is most definitely so much more than stairs.
I sometimes think I develop a false sense of confidence when it comes to accessibility in the world. It isn’t because I live in an overly accessible place, it’s because I’ve become accustomed to the things I’m faced with every day that are not accessible. Within our home, neighbourhood and community, I have become familiar with the alternative entrances, the routes to avoid, the establishments to avoid and the places where I cannot go pee. I feel confident getting around where I know how to get around but in the end, I’m just avoiding the places that aren’t made for me. Therein lies the problem: there are still so many places that are not made for me. And any false confidence I do have quickly dissipates as soon as I attempt to venture further afield.
I am apprehensive to go anywhere new on my own because of the challenges I could encounter. Accessibility promotes independence but without a thoughtful mandated standard, going somewhere new on your own can be intimidating and overwhelming. Even places that are meant to be accessible can fall short when ramps become storage spaces or the accessible entrance is locked and barricaded. Even certain doorknobs can be barriers for those with limited hand function. I have been assured a building is accessible because there are “just a couple of steps”. Really? This apparently isn’t obvious to everyone but I’m here to tell you even one step is too many. I have come across a door that I had to pull to open but it was situated right at the bottom of a very steep ramp. How I was meant to pull open a heavy door while wheeling myself backwards up a short, steep ramp is something I still can’t quite figure out. My point being, the meaning of “accessible” seems to be open to interpretation. This can cause a lot of difficulty and frustration for those who require these adaptations to be capable and present in their lives.
On a more personal level, accessibility not only dictates my independence but also my experiences with my children, family and friends. Being able to have faith in the accessible nature of all public spaces would mean never worrying about my children playing soccer at a new field or performing at a different theatre. It would mean being able to accompany them on any field trip. I wouldn’t have to decline an invitation to anything because the building isn’t suitable and I could confidently meet up with friends at a brand-new restaurant without a second thought. I could attend a concert or sporting event without splitting up my group because the accessible section is small and limited. I could live my life more freely and less anxiously if I could count on the fact that certain measures had been taken to create barrier-free spaces that work for everyone.
That brings me to this last Friday night. It was a great night. We knew where we were going and what to expect. The planned portion of the evening went pretty flawlessly besides the lack of accessible parking which – luckily – I can work with if I’m not alone. It was one of those nights where my disability felt unimportant and didn’t make a big difference to our evening, until we tried something new. Our friends suggested we meet for ice cream after the play with our kids. “It’s amazing and accessible and it’s on the way home”. It sounded great! And besides for a few little hiccups, it was great! But it was a perfect example of how good intentions regarding accessibility can sometimes go a little bit sideways.
The first little bump was the curbside parking. Not a big deal but my husband didn’t pull the car close enough to the curb. It was a busy street so instead of fixing the car he just piggy-backed me out onto my chair. It wasn’t the first time. It won’t be the last. Moving on. As we headed towards the entrance we saw a sign for the accessible entrance. It was pretty clear that was for me so we go to open it and it’s locked. Awesome. Nobody is there to open it or see us so we continue on to the actual entrance to see what we can do. The entrance itself was accessible but there were two or three steps to get down to the line-up and to order. I headed back to the accessible door to wait for Ian to come let me in. Now my husband has to go past a busy line-up of people all wondering why the heck he looks like he is just walking to the front of the line (attention drawn). He lets me in to said awaiting attention and we have to make our way back to our group through a bit of a crowd with lots of “excuse me” and “sorry, can we just get past you here”. It certainly didn’t ruin my night (and the ice cream was delicious) but it brought so much more attention my way than if the entrance had just been as easily accessed as the main entrance. Accessibility shouldn’t shine a spotlight on anyone. It should be a simple alternative and not a production. In this situation it gave me that familiar ostracised feeling as everyone else entered easily and we had to figure out how I would then get in. Sometimes it’s little things like this. Sometimes it’s a lot more.
Making this world accessible for all who live in it is something that everyone should take an interest in. Because above all else, accessibility is about inclusion. It’s about realizing that everyone – regardless of their physical abilities – has the same heart and desire to participate in life. The things I want to explore and experience with my family didn’t change with my spinal cord injury. I didn’t instantly decide that I no longer wanted to get out with my friends because I had to drag my wheelchair along nor did I decide that I never wanted to get out on my own anymore. The life I wanted before is still the life I aspire to have now and sometimes the only thing in the way of that life is inaccessibility.
Seeing the world through an accessibility filter is eye opening. My family and friends have all commented on the different way they look at the world now. They look at things wondering if and/or how I would be able to do what they are doing. From parking, ramps and restrooms to table heights, accessible seating and elevator access, it all plays a role in how someone with mobility issues navigates the world. The more accessible features that are put in place, the more independence and freedom a wheelchair user has. Whether that means a lifelong wheelchair user experiences that freedom for the first time or a newer wheelchair user gets more pieces of their life back, it is all a step towards equality and independence. Equality and independence matter. Giving people the freedom to live life on their terms matters. That’s why accessibility matters.