Sunday, October 7, 2012

What if you can't walk?

Last week I gained a new perspective on active transportation in my neighborhood: my mother-in-law got a wheelchair to help her get around outside the house.

Just a few years ago, she walked everywhere, up and down the steep hills, carrying her groceries in her backpack. Then she started using the bus to manage the hills. When walking to the bus stop was too much she took the Access van or a cab - and just recently, she stopped going out by herself entirely.  I used Zipcars to take her to her doctor's appointments, and afterwards we'd go out to lunch - but otherwise she stayed in the house with her cats.

With the wheelchair (and someone to push it, mostly ME!), plus our Seattle buses all equipped with wheelchair ramps, I thought she should be able to go everywhere again. Here she is waiting for the #48 to take us to the Arboretum.

But it hasn't been all that easy.

Here are some of the challenges we face:

1. Sidewalk bumps. Uneven spots that I barely notice when I'm walking can stop us cold with the wheelchair.  I'm getting better at anticipating these spots but even so, we ran into a  bump today that knocked her hearing aid out!

2. Terrible curb cuts - or none.  Some corners reach a real dead-end in a wheelchair: no place to go, except turn around and look for another route.

3. Terrifying street crossings. In order to get to or from the bus headed East, we have to negotiate this daunting expanse of pavement.  Drivers generally don't realize they are supposed to stop for people walking (or in wheelchairs) at unmarked intersections.  And why is this intersection unmarked?  People are getting on and off the bus on both sides of the street here.

4 . Bus stops on steep streets, combined with terrible pavement.  The #8 and the #11 stop just down the hill from the stop sign you see in the photo above.  The hill is very steep, and the sidewalk at the bus stop is broken up.  Bus drivers sometimes have to try twice to find a spot to lower the ramp.  It takes a strong steady assistant to get a wheelchair on or off the bus without sending it careening down the hill.

5. Steep hills. Negotiating hills pushing a wheelchair is not the same as walking or riding a bike. On a bike, I can get off and push the bike up just about any hill.  With my mother-in-law in the wheelchair, there are some hills that are just too steep. I evaluate the hills with a different eye.  Going down is worse than going up; I can't risk losing control and having her sail down on her own!  For an elderly person alone in a wheelchair, these hills would be impossible.

But the biggest barrier at the beginning was simply that I didn't know where we might encounter these uncharted obstacles.  There's no map that shows the broken sidewalks or the missing curb cuts or the hills too steep to manage.  We had to figure this out by trial and error.

I've now taken my mother-in-law on several outings with the wheelchair with no major mishaps.  I'm confident we will be fine going anywhere Metro can take us on the bus.

But if I were on my own in a wheelchair, I think I'd probably sit at home with my cats. We citizens have a lot of work to do before our streets are safe and accessible for people who depend on wheelchairs for transportation.