Ms. Cooper contacted me to discuss her options because as she explained in her letter she encountered issues with accessibility when she attended a conference, I suggested that she contact the Human Rights Commission in her area and also asked if she would consider writing something as a guest writer for my blog; here is her story:
My life was turned upside down for five years as I dealt with severe arthritis in my knees and knee injuries. My life quickly went from being able to stand, to use a cane, a walker then a wheelchair.
I used to drive for special needs children – so was used to watching for barrier free facilities, ramps, and power doors.
What I found surprising was what it was like being on the inside of the wheelchair, instead of pushing it.
Difficulties occurred within my service work and my personal life.
I worked from home, but had to arrange monthly meetings. I would pick up and deliver items for my work- park the car, get out the walker, load it up then carry on. That did not bother me. What bothered me were peers that I worked for and with, teasing and making fun of me. Depending on the level of my knee pain- I could use either a walker or a cane. A friend would pick me up on bad days and push me in a wheelchair. I was jeered at because sometimes I used one and not the other, or told, “Ya right, you are faking it.”
I am an active member of my service club. Conventions are held twice yearly with people from all over the province. Some of these “service minded” people did exactly the same as my coworkers. “I was faking it.” I was on our executive board, along with a couple others: one with breathing problems and the other with heart problems. We were to attend an executive meeting on a second floor, only accessible by stairs. No consideration was made for us. I was the only one to speak up about OUR concern and we were told ‘that they were sorry, too bad; we’ll find you when we are done.’ The general meeting was accessible but the hospitality rooms were not. Hmm, our main charity that we raise funds for is Cystic Fibrosis. The person with the breathing problem, which also was excluded from the meeting, has cystic fibrosis.
My personal life changed radically. I am a very outgoing person. I would go on spur of the moment road trips, visit family, go to movies, shop; you name it – I went places. As I became less and less mobile, and was house bound: I had to rely on mostly my husband, my two children that lived out of town and my home service club members. I couldn’t shop for groceries or household items unless someone was with me. Very few wanted to go with me because they had to drop me off at the store door and wait while a mobile scooter became available or they would have to push me. The distance from the parking lot to the store was too far. Some store wheelchairs or scooters are at the back of the stores so I wouldn’t be able to use them either, so I didn’t go there anymore.
Two stores that had mobility scooters that I could use were Costco and Walmart. The shopping experiences were different as night and day. While in Costco – the land of “too big” items, I couldn’t not only lift items into the basket on the scooter, but couldn’t open doors, or even see the titles of my favourite book counter. The books were too high and the doors were too heavy and hard to maneuver. To the other shoppers, I was invisible. If anything, I was in their way of their carts and their shopping experience. Each checkout had a wheelchair accessible sign on the post but you could not get through and have another customer go through the lineup next to you. So I again, inconvenienced shoppers and staff by blocking two lanes.
I cannot say enough about Walmart. Shoppers and staff, for whatever reason, seem more aware and are genuinely more helpful throughout. People would help me to reach something, would move over to let me though an aisle and even carryout my purchases to my car. People talked to me!
My eyes were open to a few of the daily struggles of those that have no choice but to use a mobility device. Barrier free public washrooms are scarce. Yes there may be a large stall, but there are one or more doors to try to go through to get to it. Once in the oversize stall, there may be safety bars but the toilet is too low to get on or off. It’s ironic how some places will have a fantastic wheelchair accessible washroom but they do not have a power door or even a ramp to be able to get in to use it!
I now have the luxury of two new knees! I can walk! I still have difficulties getting out of too low chairs or vehicles. Yes, I still park in a special needs parking space because I need to open the door fully to get in or out and swing my legs over.
I can’t say enough about friends and family that helped me through the last few years – getting groceries, driving me places, kidnapping me to get out of the house. They held my arm to steady me, walked behind me as I attempted stairs, checked out seating arrangements, so that I would be comfortable, and held me when I cried. I am blessed to have them in my life.
My life on the other side of the chair has made me more vigilant in accessing the needs of others to make their lives happier. No one deserves to be treated as invisible, as a fake, as a problem. Their disability was not created to inconvenient others. It’s up to the rest of us to open our eyes and change our way of thinking.