Unanticipated access advocacy

I've been a fairly harsh critic of "day in a wheelchair" activities and "awareness days" -- but I have to admit that sometimes -- done right -- they can work wonders. Fresno, CA, activist Ed Eames wrote on Ragged Edge back in 2003 that he'd found that putting Fresno officials in wheelchairs -- and sending them out and about with a disabled companion -- got results.

Mary Burrell, an editor at the Beach Beacon and Seminole Beacon newspapers in Florida, wrote yesterday about her experience using a wheelchair off and on --- for a month! Interesting idea:

Recently, two family members and I decided to take one month of personal experience with wheelchairs and rate the local spots we frequented during that time. Our original thought was that we could recommend some of the finer businesses in this column - and give them a kudo.

Well, it was a good idea. Fortunately, Burrell minces no words about what she discovered -- the same thing virtually any wheelchair user might expect:

Almost without fail, any facility we visited provided minimum accessibility for wheelchairs....

Often, when wheelchair users say such things -- such as attorney Ted Pinnock who found this to be the case in Julian, CA -- they're vilified as whiners and complainers who want to punish businesses. When people like Burrell -- "credible" nondisabled observers who get into wheelchairs and discover the same thing -- they're not so easy to dismiss.

Seems to me that one of the things this reveals is prejudice: Disabled people can be dismissed or vilified; nondisabled people can't.

Chew on that for awhile. Remember the 1964 book Black Like Me? I'm being very glib here: it was by a white man who tried to "pass as black" for awhile to report on segregation. (Here you can read a little bit about how the book was received back then and what's thought about it today.) As now for disabled people, more credibility was thought to be attached to a report by someone "like us":

Griffin writes of the small but humiliating obstacles in everyday life. For example, he spends much of his time looking for "a place to eat, or somewhere to find a drink of water, a restroom, somewhere to wash my hands." At a rest stop in Mississippi, the white bus driver doesn't allow the black passengers to get off to use the restroom. Griffin writes: "I sat in the monochrome gloom of dusk, scarcely believing that in this year of freedom, any man could deprive another of anything so basic as the need to quench thirst or use the rest room." (Read essay.)

Today, people like Burrell give credibility to the claim made by wheelchair activists that despite the ADA, access in most communities is spotty at best and often so scattered and poor as to make people pretty much decide to throw in the towel altogether and forget about pushing for access.

More from Burrell:

Retail stores, for example, seem to put every obstacle possible in front of the disabled, from narrow aisles to doors that are difficult to open, to restrooms that are absolutely impossible to use when maneuvering in a wheelchair.


Every building with double doors - and without an automatic opener - should be retrofitted. How a person in a wheelchair is supposed to open one heavy door, I don't know. To have one door after another, like at fast food establishments, is just cruel. Yesterday, I found some poor lady just sitting outside in the cold waiting for someone to come open the door for her.

As I've noted before, no law, anywhere, requires automatic doors. Access advocates in the 1970s and 80s were counseled not to try to get such a provision into access codes; it would be asking for "too much." And such a law would never pass in today's anti-access climate. Yet the lack of automatic doors impedes as surely as steps.

I'm not going to quote Burrell's entire article -- read it yourself. The site appears to me to be fairly accessible.

Still, I can't resist quoting one paragraph more:

A fellow at the mall was riding his wheelchair in the middle of the lot last weekend because there was no lip in the curbing where he could get out of traffic. Handicapped spaces are often far away from the doors, the curbs are cut in an inconvenient spot down the walkway, or the lip in the curbing is at an odd angle to the door.

I wonder if Burrell is aware of the numbers of wheelchair users who have been injured or killed by having to ride in the street due to lack of curb cuts -- the nationwide problem that's never been the focus of any national news coverage?

In yesterday's blog entry, I wondered if the "aging of the baby boom" -- noted in Ragged Edge a few months ago by Frank Bowe -- was starting, here in the new year, to change the way reporters and editors saw these kinds of stories. Now I find myself with more evidence: At the end of her article, Burrell writes, "With 71.5 percent Baby Boomers being over the age of 65 by the year 2030, it seems to me it would be well worth it in a consumer-driven society to keep those wheels rolling -- as barrier free as possible."

Maybe it is starting to happen. The realizations, I mean.

Burrell's revelations remind me of a similar "day in a wheelchair" article written a number of years ago by another journalist: Reporter Lilla Zuill of the Bermuda Sun spent less than a day in a wheelchair in March, 2001, to find out how accessible facilities were around the city of Hamilton. Here's how her article began:

"I DON'T have any out there, this morning, honey." That was the response when I called the BIU taxi dispatch, looking for a taxi that could accommodate a wheelchair.

I had been in the wheelchair for just five minutes, and already I had a taste of what it must be like to be confined to one. Perhaps, I thought, disabled people are penalized more by the inadequacy of facilities in Bermuda, than by their physical limitations.

Zuill's day is just beginning. If she were truly in a chair, she'd have not ever gotten to town; she had to give up finally and take her own car, as she could find no accessible transportation at all. Stores had steps; heavy doors; she couldn't get in... and on and on...

Zuill's article remains for me one of the classics -- the kind of article reporters should be writing. Read her entire article here.

Over at the Ragged Edge website, we've just started what Cal Montgomery has named "Project Cleigh." Cal's going to collect stories -- if you will email them to her -- about incidents like this that happen to you. She says people encounter them so routinely, every hour or so, that it gets exhausting trying to recount them. And she's not just talking about access issues -- she's also talking about the people who treat you as though you're asking a favor to be out and about; who ignore you, or who insist on helping when you don't need it, or...

The interesting thing to me about all this at the moment, the thing I keep focusing on, is how prevalent it is. It's encountered constantly. If you think crips who say this are just whining, I refer you to Burrell and Zuill.

January 06, 2006 | Email this story


Comments (newest comments at bottom)

As I thought about the value of disability simulations, I also went back and reread Black like me. I had wrongly remembered the book as clueless, and I was pleasant surprised by the author's analysis. I learned why from a critical study Man in the mirror: John Howard Griffin and the story of Black like me, Robert Bonazzi, Orbis Books, 1997.

John Howard Griffin was acutely conscious of the dangers of a racism simulation -- because he spent ten years as a blind man. (This story was finally published posthumously in 2004 as Scattered shadows: a memoir of blindness and vision by Orbis Books. He was blinded by a head injury in the Army and sighted again by an unexplained remission a decade later.)

He understood viscerally how bigotry is a social construction. He had the experience common to all people who acquire an impairment in adulthood: he'd grown up with privilege and power. One simple change to his body rendered him incompetent in the eyes of his friends, family, and larger society.

Black Like Me began as a series in JET magazine. In that context it was clearer that Griffin's point was, "I'm a white guy, a privileged, well-educated son of the South. Simply darkening my skin was enough for most of the white people I met to assume the worst of me: that I was yet another embodiment of the stereotyped 'shiftless Negro.'"

Perhaps this is the point of the "well-connected, capable, can-do reporter encounters barriers upon barriers" stories like Zuill's.

Posted by: Jesse the K on January 16, 2006 08:39 PM

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