Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of June 21, 2004
Everyone deserves a clear path
Wheelchairs, walkers, disabled folk are part of our everyday world
By SUZANNE ELSTON
I come from a family with bad knees. Over the years I've watched as both my younger brother and older sister went through the painful process of recovering from multiple knee surgeries. Even my husband Brian has had his turn under the knife to repair what he calls, "Basically not one of God's better designs."
Needless to say, I wasn't the least bit surprised when a minor knee injury that I received last Labour Day went from instant agony to daily ache. So last week, after months of trying to simply live with it, I decided to have arthroscopic surgery to repair a badly torn cartilage.
It's amazing how quickly your perspective can change on things. The simple act of getting in and out of a car was suddenly a painful ritual, getting dressed an exercise in contortionism and sitting through a family dinner just plain awful. But the real test came a week later when I had to attend a conference. I was fortunate to find a good neighbour who was also planning to attend, and she kindly offered to drive.
Cane realityIt's important to note that the surgery that I had was minor. I was able to stand and walk with the aid of a cane.
Despite this, I was shocked when I arrived at the conference. The hallway that I had previously zipped down seemed like a journey to the centre of the earth. The lunch buffet offered considerable challenges including trying to keep my food from sliding off my plate as I lurched forward on my cane. Carrying a beverage of any kind was impossible and I was left to rely on the kindness of strangers to carry my dessert. It was a character building exercise, to say the least.
However, the real challenge came that evening when my neighbourly chauffeur dropped me at the subway station in Toronto to meet my husband for dinner. With all escalators heading up, I was soon faced with the chore of limping down 75 stairs to the subway platform. (At the speed that I was going I had plenty of time to count them!)
Once I arrived at my destination, I was faced with three escalators - two of them out of order, and the third one heading down.
Angry EpiphanyBy the time I'd finally made it up to the ticket booth, I'd reached my limit. I asked the attendant what disabled people were supposed to do, and he shrugged. Right there in the Yonge and Eglinton subway station I had an epiphany.
I banged on the glass and asked him again. He sheepishly said something about calling maintenance and I hobbled off, a newfound sense of righteous indignation emanating from my soul.
It was as if somebody had turned the lights on. If I could barely get around with a temporarily stiff knee and a cane, how could a truly disabled person manage?
I called my niece Laura, the family expert on disability. Thanks to a congenital hip disorder, Laura spent much of her adolescence in a wheelchair. Rather than grin and bear it, Laura made a presentation to Queen's Park about how inaccessible our supposedly accessible society is.
Some of Laura's pet peeves include automatic doors that opened out, so that anybody who pushes the button to open the door has to stand (or wheel) back quickly to avoid getting smacked in the face; washrooms that have wide doors on cubicles to accommodate a wheelchair, but exterior doors that are too narrow to push a wheelchair through; wheelchair accessible curbs that really aren't (the small lip makes it almost impossible for someone in a weakened state to push themselves up); retailers that don't have aisles wide enough to push a stroller through let alone a wheelchair and virtually every storefront (outside of malls) that has a step up to get inside.
Despite considerable mobility issues, Laura says that one of the biggest obstacles that a disabled person faces is the ignorance of others.
She said that children would often stand and stare at her.
But rather than take the time to explain that some people's legs don't work as well as others, parents would usually whisk their children away with a hurried, "Don't stare," hissed at the curious child.
As Laura was quick to point out, these are just the barriers of the physically disabled.
What about those with visual impairment, hearing loss or mental disability?
So for my niece Laura, and the tens of thousands of other disabled persons trying to live a normal life in this country, it's time we created a truly accessible environment for everyone.
Recommended website:True accessibility is the function of good design, carefully planning and great legislation. Canadians should look to the American Disabilities Act (ADA), passed in July 1990, for inspiration. For more information, visit www.usdoj.gov/crt/ada/adahom1.htm or check out www.disabilityinfo.gov.
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