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Lessons From A Wheelchair...



Lessons From A Wheelchair

 

I had the opportunity last summer to tour a museum from a wheelchair. Not as an experience of seeing what it was like, but because of a leg injury that made it impossible to tour anything on foot. It was a different but eye-opening experience.

 

I’m used to being unable to do many things, but this was an even deeper level of that. A level of being present but still feeling excluded. Being included but still feeling left out. I had well-meaning offers from those in our party, to take turns sitting and waiting with me. That way I wouldn’t be alone while others with us toured areas I could not access. I declined, and each time chose to remain alone. I didn’t want to inconvenience anyone or cause anyone else to miss out. I didn’t want any extra attention on me.

 

I spent a lot of time sitting and staring out of windows, and watching others enjoy the museum, while my party toured a garden I couldn’t get to. I watched people walking with ease, laughing, and enjoying their time completely unaware of anyone unable to do these things anywhere around them. Not that I’m saying it was bad that they were enjoying themselves, more the realization of how we take little things we do like breathing, walking, seeing, and hearing every day for granted.


I had suddenly become even more aware of people’s reactions to me. Since my leg injury was my thigh and was covered by my loose pants, I just looked like a “normal” person sitting in a wheelchair. I also had a cane with me in case I had to stand up or move at all, which I couldn’t do without assistance. I did not want to risk falling and injuring myself further.

 

The reactions of people were quite varied. Some were super kind and asked if they could help me in any way. I hated that my mind immediately questioned if they were truly being kind or if they pitied me. That is not my normal nature, so I was in awe of how this chair had not only affected how others saw me, but how I now saw them.


I perceived others looking at me like “Does she even need to be in that chair, she looks fine, and I can see her legs moving, she’s probably just being lazy”. Faces and eyes speak volumes that words do not. Remember that when you look at people in public places.  


But our minds also speak volumes, volumes that are not always true or accurate. Our minds often speak projections of our own fears and insecurities. I realized again I had shifted from my normal nature and that I truthfully had no idea what those people were thinking. Maybe they were judging me and maybe they were not. Of course, some will say awful things straight to your face, assuming they know you and your situation but I will waste no time on people like that here.


I did have several people ignore me completely as if I did not exist. You actually can tell when someone is going out of their way not to look at you. Humans, we are not good with uncomfortable.


The museum itself, however, was amazing. The staff was kind and accommodating. They even offered to let me see an area that was currently closed off since it was wheelchair accessible, and I could not access several of the open areas. I thanked them but declined as I knew it was being worked on and I didn’t want to add trouble for the workers.


The museum had small self-controlled open elevators for wheelchair users. But they were old and very small. A chair any bigger than mine would not fit and it was complicated getting in there and settled and then also figuring out the controls. I managed to smash my fingers more than once. Even more challenging was to get the chair to wheel over the bump to get back out since you could not fit anyone in the lift with you.  But I was thankful for them, nonetheless.

 

Even with the limitations, compared to so many other places I have been there were a lot of areas, statues, and artwork I was able to access at this museum. I had come prepared to be mostly doing nothing. But I was instead able to interact a great deal. Not only did they have those open small elevators to move from most floors, but several parts of the museum had ramp-style flooring, so you didn’t need to use the stairs to get close to the artwork.

 

I was most genuinely surprised at how I felt when I got to the beautiful grand staircase. Something I would normally find gorgeous and breathtaking became overwhelming and a little scary. I wasn’t even sure why it felt that way, other than it was so grand and stretched high above me and I had no idea what was beyond it, nor would I be able to find out. The base step I wheeled up to would be the furthest I was going to be able to go on it.

 

Though this was not my first experience having to use aids to walk. It was the first time I’d ever gone to a place like a museum in a wheelchair. I’ve noticed since this that I am aware of every spot where there should be access and there isn’t. Shocked at some everyday public places with zero accessibility. I’ve asked some owners why they don’t have accessibility and have been met with the same response. “We can’t afford it”.  I also have friends in wheelchairs full-time who cannot get access to vans or much of anything else they need also due to cost.

 

This experience opened my eyes to so many things. The first is that there needs to be far more accessibility and resources not only to help those who need accessibility but also for those who need to add it, this includes, families, businesses, schools, etc.

 

There needs to be a place online that makes those resources easy to access, learn about, and apply for. There also needs to be grants and funds for families who cannot afford access (Transportation and modifications to homes etc.), As well as for small businesses to help them modify existing properties to make them more accessible. If you are aware of these programs, please let me know so I can post about them.

 

I’ve had to do without a lot of things I needed medically at various times because insurance (which costs a small fortune per month itself) would not cover it and I couldn’t afford the outrageous out-of-pocket cost.

 

The whole experience was life-changing for me. It has made me aware of so many things. I realized that even with all the challenges I face there are things I still unintentionally take for granted. It made me realize that sometimes a “disability” isn’t what limits you, but the access society gives you to anything when they view you as having a disability. I am forever thankful for this experience, and I am now working behind the scenes to see what changes I can make to make a difference for myself and those around me.

 

Be honest, Be real, Be you

 

Bobbie De Leon

 

 

 

 

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