My friend Anna says she has "Wheelchair Eyes." She works with people with mobility issues, so when she walks around the city, she always notices potential barriers for people with disabilities.
My own Wheelchair Eyes are still coming into focus. I have many friends who use wheelchairs, but when I'm out on two legs -- even when one's a prosthetic -- I tend to overlook obstacles.
This summer has brought some new challenges.
Without a strong "sound side," my usual life has been curtailed. I'm not volunteering at the rehab gym, or rock climbing, or even taking walks anymore. The stress of finding parking spaces and getting into buildings wears me down. If I have to stay off my right leg, it's easier to just stay home.
But at Mile Marker 2989, I hear an ad on the radio. Imagine Dragons is coming to the Wells Fargo Center.
Then a funny thing happens to me. I dare to IMAGINE. Instead of lamenting a weekend on the couch, I decide to use my Wheelchair Eyes!
I've seen people using wheelchairs at concerts, so I know it's possible. But how exactly does it work??
Thanks to Google, it takes less than 10 seconds to find out. On the Wells Fargo Center website, I locate a phone number for "accessible seating." I call and leave a voice mail message. An hour later, a woman calls me back. By 11 a.m., I've secured seats in Section 204A, sized to fit a manual wheelchair like mine.
We make it inside, soaked but excited. We stop to buy t-shirts. Then we search for the secret elevator to the mezzanine level.
|How do people manage in here |
if they can't stand up?
When we reach our section, an attendant helps me roll onto a wheelchair lift. She closes a cage around me like I'm about to ride a roller-coaster.
I wheel onto a makeshift balcony, bordered with glass and lined with folding chairs. At the end of the row is one open space, perfectly sized for my wheelchair.
Turns out, we've got the best seats in the house!
The next day Jen comes into the city for dinner.
I've told her that I can't leave the house, but going to the concert has sharpened my eyesight. Now I imagine myself rolling around Old City doing the things I used to do -- just on wheels instead of feet. We decide to take the wheelchair out for a spin.
But if the Wells Fargo Center was smooth sailing, the sidewalks of Philly are like guiding a sailboat through a typhoon.
First, the sidewalks slant toward the street. (This makes walking with a prosthetic leg difficult, but pushing a wheelchair is even harder!) I try to propel the chair on my own, but the slope veers me dangerously toward cars in the street. The only way to slow down is to run my hands along the wheels. After 30 feet of sidewalk, my palms are raw and my arm muscles give out.
|It feels like this!|
|Curb cut? I don't think so.|
We run into construction zones and tree roots and pathways too narrow to accommodate even my small wheelchair. We make a bunch of U-turns.
Our Wheelchair Eyes (and arms) get quite a workout!
|You want us to roll through WHAT??|
After struggling for 3 blocks, we end up at Pizzicato. There are so many barriers along Market Street, we can't get to any other restaurants.
Then we want dessert, of course. There are a half dozen ice cream places within our one-block radius. Do we dare? We've got to be able to get to reach one of them, right?
Fueled with pizza, we put our Wheelchair Eyes to the test.
Jen starts pushing again.
By process of elimination (a.k.a. nasty sidewalks and detours), we end up at Capofitto, an Italian gelato place on Chestnut Street.
At the door, a 10-inch step blocks our way. After the rough ride, it feels like a slap in the face.
"Go in and ask for a flavor list," I say to Jen. "Tell them your friend is in a wheelchair and can't get inside."
Jen pulls the door open, geared up for a fight.
"Here you go," he says cordially, pushing open the heavy double doors.
|Not the standard entrance,|
but it works just fine!
And I roll right into the restaurant.
A rainbow of gelato awaits.
It's worth the trip!
|Thanks Capofitto! (And Jen!)|
I'm not telling these stories to emphasize the trouble I've faced over the last few weeks. After all, when my leg heals, I'll be walking again. Many barriers, for me, will disappear.
But for people who use wheelchairs everyday, they WON'T.
Imagine that. Put on your Wheelchair Eyes for a second.
Ever wonder what "accessibility" really means?
The more I look around, the more I realize that accessible doesn't mean ideal. It doesn't necessarily make people feel able or comfortable. It doesn't ensure that they can take same path as their "non-challenged" friends. It simply means that -- with a little push -- a doorway might be wide enough.
Unlock Philly, I find an article that describes the obstacles wheelchairs face in Philly's Old City neighborhood. As of last summer, only 9 of 72 storefronts had accessible entrances. That's less than 13 percent! And at Mile 2990, I see that not much has changed since then.
People say historic buildings are exempt from accessibility changes, Don't believe it. There is no "grandfather clause" in the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). ALL businesses are required to be accessible. Hear that, Old City?!
Kudos to businesses that have found ways to make it work.
But to really get it right, this city needs more than Wheelchair Eyes.
It needs a Wheelchair Heart too.