Ragged Edge online



  Itzhak Perlman

20 years
of hit-or-miss access

by Norma Sherry

Feb. 4, 2002 -- Twenty years ago I watched as inept airline personnel strapped my young paraplegic husband to a 18-inch-wide luggage carrier, tilted him backward and announced to all the onboard passengers, "Please be seated while we transport a handicapped passenger". Legs tied tight together, waist strapped, midriff with arms by his side, all strapped snugly; he was wheeled to his assigned seat. Obviously a sight heretofore unseen by much of the boarded populace, eyes peered above and around their seats to watch the unusual spectacle. Two crewmen unstrapped my husband as he reached to steady his hulking frame. One grabbed under his knees, the other under his arms. In their uncoordinated and unsynchronized effort they lifted him helter skelter and in the process dropped my husbands pants mooning the staring passengers.

Former Director of Veterans Administration and now Senator for the state of Georgia, Max Cleland, a triple amputee as a result of his Vietnam enlistment, remembers remorsefully and in a tenor tinged with renewed anger, "There was a time when the airlines wouldn't allow me to fly without an able-bodied companion. Apparently they thought the flights too unsafe for me to fly alone!"

World-renowned violinist Itzhak Perlman knows what it feels like to be treated differently as well. When he travels through airports he often opts for a wheelchair -- "it's just too exhausting to crutch it through massive airports" -- yet when he's standing, he says, people talk directly to him, but when he's sitting in his wheelchair, "without fail the airline attendants will ask the able-bodied person pushing my chair for my ticket. I interrupt and answer, 'His ticket, (pointing to himself) is in my pocket'."

Ray Charles says airline attendants always ask his traveling companion, "'Would Mr. Charles like anything?' I guess they assume because I'm blind, I don't know my own mind."

We still have a long way to go.

It's true curb cuts have become more common, but it's also true they are oft times angled poorly or with an unsafe incline or with grooves that may appear more aesthetic to the eye, but when navigated in a wheelchair can become a harrowing experience if the smaller front wheel catches the groove precariously. Then there are the townships and cities that have some sidewalks with curb cuts, but not others. Sometimes one can get off one curb to find there is absolutely no access to the next block.

No curb cuts causes death of wheelchair user Elias Gutierrez


Ramps too have become more commonplace. Mostly, they're not built to conform to the needs of wheelchair users who have little or no balance due to the extent of their paralysis. The law requires the incline to be no steeper than one inch per every foot. For the individuals whose disabilities are such that their balance is compromised, any steeper incline increases the hazards of falling out of their chair. But many places ignore the technical requirements, so there are many ramps that still require assistance up or down in order for entrance to be safe. So much for independence!! Then there are the ramps placed behind the building, on the side of the building -- usually next to the trash bins. "Oh well, at least they can get in!" goes the thinking.

Not so very long ago, my husband and I were traveling and arrived at our designated hotel a little past midnight. Both "handicap" parking spaces were taken, but only one had the required permit showing the user was indeed disabled. I decided to go in and complain to the desk manager. As it turned out, the second car belonged to the hotel manager -- who responded to my confrontation by saying that "usually when we have people like that staying here they're not out this late." Perhaps he thought disabled people turned into pumpkins come the stroke of midnight.

I'm still amazed at hotels and motels that define rooms as being "accessible." In 20 years of travel from one coast to the other, I can count on one hand the times my husband could actually sit under the sink without having to reach the full length of his sitting body girth plus sink and counter depth to actually avail himself of the sink. But this in itself would almost be livable for a night or two if he could take a shower. Even now, years since enacting access laws, I can't fathom why hotel designers have not consulted with a disabled architect when designing accessible rooms and bathrooms. Since most of the rooms have been rebuilt in the last years to accommodate the law, it would have been just as easy to install a prefab roll-in shower that someone standing or sitting could use. It would take no more room -- just a conscientious effort at truly being considerate of the individuals the rooms were intended for. Furthermore, it would make the rooms inclusive for all instead of exclusive -- for only a disabled guest.

Have you had experiences like this? Do you consider it discrimination?

You tell us.

While I'm on the topic of accessible rooms, I'll air another complaint: it seems these accessible rooms always, without exception, in the same place no matter where one stays be it the Hilton or the Holiday Inn: either on the second floor atop the bar, above the music that plays loudly late into the night, every night -- or at the furthest end of the plush carpeted hall. This might be a coveted spot if one were not pushing one's weight through the deep threads. But try this in a wheelchair, or with a walker, or on crutches! You'd soon feel like you ran a twenty-four mile marathon without water.

We have made progress, but only minute progress. Real undersatanding of access has not filtered down into the consciousness of everyday living for all of us. Ignorant, arrogant people still use parking spaces clearly set aside for those that truly need them. Shopping malls are filled with department stores and specialty shops that someone in a wheelchair could never traverse. Ever notice how close the clothes displays are to one another? Most people can't walk through them without brushing against the hanging garments. Try this in a wheelchair. Most likely the clothes will get caught in the turning wheels. Frustration quickly overtakes the would-be shopper.

Public bathrooms that are mistakenly thought accessible simply because the toilet is raised and there are bars to grab. More often than not, there isn't any space next to the commode to permit someone in a wheelchair the ability to transfer. In other words, unless the wheelchair user can park their chair in front of the toilet, swing their body around, and hop onto the toilet -- well, they are simply out of luck. Yet this would be a task almost insurmountable to many of us that have full use of our limbs and balance in our torsos.

And there are still maitre d's that seat wheelchair patrons near the kitchen, the pretense being that the wheelchair won't be an obstacle to the wait staff.

Years ago, while attending a theater production in New York, my husband transferred for the first and last time out of his wheelchair. A young usher came over and asked to remove his wheelchair. My husband declined his offer. The young man came back and said he was told he had to remove the chair; it would be a fire hazard. My husband looked back at his young face and said, "And that is precisely why you may not take my chair." Bewildered, the usher left only to return moments later insisting that he had to take my husband's wheelchair. At that point my husband struck a bargain with him:

"I'll tell you what," he said. "you can take my chair, if you leave me your shoes." The chair stayed.

Modern-day designers of theaters now plan spaces for wheelchair-using patrons. Some have built platforms with large mahogany borders, much like a cage, to assure a place. I suggest that exclusion is not the answer -- simply removing a few chairs would suffice. Seating all wheelchair patrons in one place is not the answer either. Why not remove two chairs every sixth row or so -- and the same from behind -- so there is room for a wheelchair? This way everyone could be accommodated equally, including the guest with the person who is in the wheelchair. Instead of a folding chair (which is what every theater my husband I have have attended avails me), I too, could sit in a theater seat. A folding chair in the aisle forces me to sit at such an incline that I have to hold myself in conscientious uprightness so as not to slide out of the chair altogether.

We are in the new millennium. With each ensuing year more and more of us will be find ourselves with some disability. Before long what seems important only for the other guy will be important to us all. To be true to our credo, "we are all created equal," we must design, create, and perform with the mindset of inclusion, not exclusion.

Norma Sherry produced the award-winning documentary, Our Largest Minority, The Disabled, shown on NBC-TV

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