My day in a wheelchair began at noon with the realization that my home is not equipped for wheelchair use. The doorways to my bedroom and bathroom were too narrow to allow the wheelchair to pass through, and the entryway does not have a ramp. Had the wheelchair been my only means of movement, I would not have been able to leave my bedroom, shower, or leave the house without assistance. I left the house and rolled out to my car. I used the handles on the side of the car door to pull myself inside, and found it difficult to collapse the chair and move it into the backseat. After a few tries, I finally succeeded and was on my way.
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My first stop of the day was to the gas station. After realizing that I did not have enough room to open the door and take out my chair, I had to inch my car forward until I had enough room. Taking the chair out of the car was much easier than getting it in. I forgot to put on the brakes and nearly wound up on the ground when the wheelchair moved behind me. After my second attempt, I was in the chair with my debit card. I tried to reach up to swipe my card, but the access point was too high. I entered the gas station (fortunately, the station was also a convenience store with automatic sliding doors) and made my purchase. The clerk asked if I would like assistance pumping gas, and I thanked him. When we reached the gas pump, he showed me a button with a picture of a wheelchair which he informed me that I could use to ask for help from now on. The nice man stayed and helped me put the chair back into the car. I was impressed with the fact that he was neither condescending nor reluctant to help.
After the gas station, I headed to the grocery store. I knew from previous occasions that in the front of the store, there was a cart that could be fitted to the front of my wheelchair. When I arrived, however, there were no such carts available. I approached the store manager and told him of my dilemma. He looked around the store and found a cart for me. It was a bit awkward to position the cart in front of me while using my hands to move the wheels, but at least the cart was low enough for me to put my groceries inside. More than once, I had trouble reaching items that were on the top shelves, and I had to ask other shoppers or employees for help. While I found it difficult to find employees who weren’t busy with other tasks, the other shoppers had no qualms about assisting me. Halfway through my shopping trip (I only bought half of what I usually do; I didn’t want to make the trip impossible), an older woman with teenage children asked her daughter, Chelsea, to go around the store and help me. I thanked her profusely and took her up on the offer. Chelsea was sweet and didn’t ask me why I was in a wheelchair. I had been waiting for the question and planned to tell anyone who asked that I was not paralyzed, but that I would regain the use of my legs with intense physical therapy. When I reached the checkout counter,
Chelsea unloaded my groceries on to the belt and returned to her mother. The checkout process was easy, as the debit card machine was portable and the checker handed it to me. When I finished my transaction, the bagger walked me out to my car, loaded my groceries in the cargo net inside the trunk and, to my delight, offered to put the wheelchair inside the car for me as well.
It was only two in the afternoon, but I had already come to many conclusions about life in a wheelchair. First, people were more than willing to help me, but in most cases I had to ask for the help. One lady at the grocery store told me that she wanted to offer, but did not want to hurt my pride. Though it was still early in the day, I discovered that while many businesses have made wheelchair-accessible accommodations, the issue of height is often overlooked. Without assistance, there was no means for me to shop for groceries above the second shelf, or to pump my own gas using a debit card outside.
I returned home and realized that I had no means of bringing the groceries inside the house. I could have asked a neighbor for help, but I wanted to do it myself. I had four plastic bags to bring in, so I used the garage door opener and wheeled myself into the garage to look for a tool. I had to keep moving things out of the way as we use our garage for storage rather than our cars. I finally found a Radio Flyer wagon, and I used my feet to push it in front of me as I returned to the trunk of the car. I had the bagger put the groceries in the cargo net so that they would not slide all over the trunk where I would not be able to reach them. I put the groceries in the wagon and put my feet on it, the handle between my knees. It was awkward, but I was able to wheel myself to the front door. It was at this point that I had to give up the pretense of the chair in order to get inside the house (once again, there was a front step and no ramp). Once inside, I put the groceries away on low shelves in both the cupboard and the refrigerator.
I made plans with a friend to go to dinner at five o’clock. I knew that a restaurant would provide the biggest challenge for a wheelchair-bound individual. I had to get out of the chair in order to shower, but I dressed in the chair (it is difficult to put on underwear while sitting down) and finished getting ready in the bathroom. It was hard to reach toiletries on the counter. I arranged for my friend, Jake, to pick me up at home. Realistically, if I were in a wheelchair I would want my friend to drive occasionally to go out. It wouldn’t be beyond the realm of possibility for my friends to insist on helping me.
We went out to dinner at a local steakhouse. They did not take reservations, so we put our names on the waiting list and moved to the side to wait our turn. Jake sat on the bench and I positioned my chair next to him. I had many sympathetic looks from other patrons, which made me a little angry. It wasn’t as if I was impaired in any other way, and I was uncomfortable with the stares. After a ten-minute wait, we were brought to a table and seated.
Jake helped me into the chair and the hostess offered to move the wheelchair until I needed it again. After ordering our meal, I had to use the restroom. Our waitress retrieved my chair and offered to help me into it, but I decided to get in myself. It was much easier this time after so much practice all day. I had difficulty maneuvering through the restaurant and the tightly-packed tables and chairs. I had to announce my presence every few feet, saying “excuse me” quite loudly more than once. The bathroom door was heavy and difficult to push open from my vantage point. Once inside, the handicapped stall was taken, so I waited for it to open. A young woman with no visible handicap walked out, glanced at me, and went to the sink to wash her hands. I found myself getting angry that she would take up the one handicapped stall when she was perfectly capable of using the other, smaller stalls. I myself did not use the larger stall if the others were available. Once inside the stall, I realized that I needed to go out again and turn around, backing myself into the stall. The most difficult part of this experience was that I needed to touch everything. I hate touching anything in a public restroom. The sinks were a bit high to wash my hands, but I managed.
In conclusion, I realize how difficult it is to be a handicapped person in our society. Most businesses make concessions for the disabled, but they are few and far between. Not everything, such as sinks, ATM’s and grocery store shelves, are accessible from a wheelchair. In general, most people were helpful without being condescending, and no one asked me about my disability. The difficult part of the assignment was that I did not have a home or car that was equipped for a person in a wheelchair. If I were truly disabled, I would need to widen my doorways, install ramps and shorter, wider cabinets for easier reach. I would have no problem completing this assignment again. It was enlightening to get a different perspective on the world, and I will use this knowledge in the future. I will probably offer assistance to those who appear to need it (this is something I do already), and I will be more aware of handicapped facilities and I will avoid using them in order to keep them free for someone who truly does need a wider stall or lower checkout counter.
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