It’s time we started thinking about disability

By Teresa Swartz Roberts

Blog post 14. Copyright 2017

Alternative wheelchair user icon
Image from The Accessible Icon Project

            I was watching “Dancing With the Stars” last night and said out loud what I’ve thought so many times before when people with disabilities or physical challenges were on the show: Why is it that the 20-year-old Olympic gold medal gymnast gets to stand in place to hear her scores while the past-middle-age guy with 26 screws in his spine has to climb a huge staircase to be interviewed and hear his scores? Granted, if they’re on the show, there’s an expectation that the stars are physically able to climb stairs. But it’s not always true. Derek Hough carried his partner, an amputee, because stairs were impractical if not impossible for her. Why? Probably because disability isn’t part of most people’s experience, so they just don’t think about it.

            How many times have we seen stars stumble up stairs with no railing to accept Oscars or Grammies? Even ignoring disability, which the stage designers do, formal designer shoes and dresses are not made for trotting up stairs without slipping or snagging a hemline and causing a very public wardrobe malfunction. Suppose an actor used a wheelchair or was recovering from knee surgery. (I wrote this post more than two years before Ali Stroker won.) I wonder what the accommodation would be if it took someone with a cane a few minutes to reach the stage.

            I read a post on Facebook this morning stating, “Everyone is a hypocrite.” Me included. Before my husband started having trouble with his hips, the middle-age consequence of a birth defect, I didn’t think about disability. Once I started thinking about it, I saw it everywhere and became one of those people who stares and tries to figure out how people with physical challenges cope with daily life. I even commented on it and asked questions, not meaning to be rude but trying to understand. Now that I’m a person with obvious disabilities, I’d rather people ask me than wonder and make up their own answers.

            I am still at a point where I can sometimes pass for normal, whatever that is. If I’m having a good day, I don’t use my cane much in my own home. I still use it when I leave the house because I never know when I stand up from the lunch table or movie seat how my first steps will be. To be honest, I think I also use the cane to let people know that I have a disability. I might run into you because I my body sometimes moves in unexpected ways. I might move more slowly than the crowd. I actually need the grab bars in the big bathroom stall.

            Speaking of the bathroom, many people use the larger stall for reasons other than disability. There seems to be an unwritten rule that women who need to have a bowel movement in a public building get to use the big stall and check their phones while they’re at it. Sometimes a woman needs to change clothes, a challenge in the smaller stalls. Even dealing with period supplies can make the stall with a wheelchair on the door seem more attractive. The diaper-changing table is always in the accessible stall. Women with children in tow bring everybody into the potty at the same time. Being overweight can essentially be a disability when it comes to using a tiny toilet in a tiny stall. And, of course, there are people with invisible disabilities. I try not to assume I know anything about the woman using the accessible stall before me. If I have my cane, people can see why I need that stall. Sometimes I exit the restroom rather than stand around waiting for the handicapped stall to avoid that awkward moment when the previous occupant comes out, sees me, and feels she has to either apologize or explain.

            We’re raising a whole generation of girls who don’t know what the accessible stall is for. Their mothers have taken them into that stall since they were in diapers. If you watch children in a public restroom, they will usually choose the disability stall because that’s where Mommy always takes them. They will even wait for it, as though it’s been assigned to them.

            I remember when I first started using a cane, around 2010 or 2011. I had been limping since 2006, when I tore my knee cartilage while building a flagstone patio in my back yard. A couple of people had noticed the limp, but the cane got everybody’s attention. I didn’t know it then, but I was already having Parkinson’s symptoms leading up to my 2012 knee replacement. In independent New England, where I lived for 18 years, the cane was viewed as some sort of failure–a crutch–well, yeah.

It’s time we stopped saying “confined to a wheelchair.”

            It’s time we stopped looking at a crutch or a cane as a failure. It’s time we stopped saying “confined to a wheelchair.” I will someday use a wheelchair to limit my confinement, to give me more mobility.  Anyone can suddenly become a person with disabilities, and we’re all facing an old age that’s likely to include some level of reduced mobility. It’s time we started thinking about disability.

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