Friday, July 15, 2016

Actually, you CAN'T get there in a wheelchair!

I'm about halfway through my temporary disability, and the novelty of getting around by wheelchair is wearing off.  It takes a lot of mental and physical energy to figure out workable travel routes and maneuver myself around our streets.  And as my friend Rant Woman points out, I'm not exactly a typical wheelchair user.  Aside from my healing hip, all the rest of my body parts are functioning very well.  I can see and hear just fine, my arms are strong, and I can use my lower legs as well as my arms to propel myself around.

And even with all these advantages, there are places I just can't get to on my own.  Closest to home,  I can't figure out how to get to my favorite neighborhood bar, the Bottle Neck Lounge.  It's only a block and a half away - but that block and a half is too steep for me to manage on my own.  I could take the bus one stop and roll down - but there are no curb cuts at all on the west side of 23rd, and the sidewalk by the Bottle Neck is a rough, temporary patch by a construction site.

I'm accustomed to using a combination of transit and biking to get around, so I'm familiar with the transit network.  But the steep hills, missing curb cuts and broken pavement are much more of a concern in a wheelchair than on a bike - I can't just get out and walk!  None of the information sources available to me tell me about the slope at bus stops or the condition of sidewalks and curb cuts between bus stops and destinations.  For example, Google Maps tells me I should walk from 25th two blocks to 23rd to catch the #48.  It doesn't tell me that those two blocks are among the steepest in Seattle, that the pavement on 24th is riddled with potholes and the curb cuts are substandard.  I know that because I live here!  When I travel to an unfamiliar destination, it's very challenging or impossible to figure out what obstacles I might encounter.  This sidewalk cliff certainly isn't featured on any maps!

In fact, missing and substandard curb cuts create such barriers to travel that Disability Rights Washington has sued the City of Seattle for failure to comply with the American with Disabilities Act requirement that cities install and maintain curb cuts.

And friends, please don't think this is just about "those people."  As I'm experiencing right now, and most of us will experience sooner than we expect, we're all just "temporarily able-bodied."  Sooner or later, we're all going to need those curb cuts.  Pay attention on your own travels, and post the obstacles you find #CrappyCurb.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

You Really CAN Get There in a Wheelchair!

I've been traveling around Seattle by wheelchair over the last couple weeks.  In my previous blog post, and in reports on facebook, I've highlighted the obstacles to wheelchair travel - which are significant.  But I don't want to leave the wrong impression - in fact I've been able to get where I need to go with only minimal problems.

Overall I feel extremely fortunate to live in a place where independent wheelchair travel is possible - despite our notorious hills and infamous rain.

Here are some positives:

1. Every single one of our public buses has a wheelchair ramp and can carry two people in wheelchairs.

2. With few exceptions, bus stops are accessible.

3. Bus drivers know how to operate the ramps and how to secure wheelchairs on board, and are cheerfully willing to help wheelchair riders get on and off.

4. Sidewalks near most bus stops have gotten at least a minimum amount of repair to make them passable.

5. Link Light Rail is very easy to use by wheelchair; just roll right on.

6. Most public buildings and many shops and restaurants are accessible.

7. There are enough people out and about in wheelchairs that nobody finds it especially remarkable.  Twice I've had to wait for the next bus because a bus was already carrying two wheelchairs.

8. Buses and trains run frequently enough that I don't need to pay close attention to schedules.

9. It doesn't really rain in Seattle.  Hmmm... I guess I can't count on that one!

I certainly hope YOU don't fall and break your hip - but if you do, try getting around in a wheelchair. You might actually enjoy it.

Saturday, July 2, 2016

View from a Wheelchair

I broke my hip three weeks ago. It's a nuisance, but it could have been much worse.  The main problem is that for now, I have to figure out how to get around without putting weight on my left leg.  When I'm at home, I hop around with a walker, but for going out in the community, that's much too slow.  So I borrowed a wheelchair from friends at Seattle Neighborhood Greenways and have been using it to explore the city.

The first thing I notice:  in a wheelchair, everything is much farther away than it seemed when I was walking and riding my bike.  The long block between my house and the bus stop is now REALLY long.

The second thing I notice: obstacles that present a small inconvenience when walking or biking can be daunting barriers in a wheelchair.  Hills are steeper, pavement is rougher, cracks in the sidewalk are bigger.

Here's one example:  In the photo above, I'm in the street.  That's because there's no curb cut at the intersection down the block by the bus stop.  When I'm walking, I just cut across the grass. But now, I have to roll about half a block in the street, hoping no one zips around the corner in a car and fails to notice me.

Over the past few days I've been taking the wheelchair on the bus (we are very fortunate that all our buses are accessible!) and meeting with safe streets activists from Seattle Neighborhood Greenways to help evaluate streets that are supposedly designed for walking and biking - a designated "neighbohood greenway" and a historic boulevard.  Are these streets also safe for wheelchair travel?

Here are a few of the obstacles we encountered - a sidewalk cliff:

Photo: Bob Edmiston
A poorly-placed recycling bin:

Photo: Mark Spitzer
A gravel sidewalk:

Photo: Mark Spitzer
With the help of my friends, I could make my way around these obstacles (and many others).  What if I had been alone?

Today I went out by myself, taking the Light Rail to University Station with a plan to explore a bit in familiar territory in the University District.  I was pleased to find a transit map on the Light Rail platform, so I was pretty sure where to go to find my bus.  I could see the row of bus shelters across the way.  When I rolled up to the shelters, I looked for a sign confirming which buses stopped there.

The sign was at the far end of the row of shelters, completely hidden until I'd rolled all the way to the end.  If I'd been walking or on my bike, the distance from one end of the row to the other would have seemed insignificant.  But in the wheelchair, already feeling a bit tired from rolling across the busy street from the Light Rail station, it felt like a long way.  I had a panicky feeling that I was at the wrong bus stop and would have to roll all the way back to get on the right track.  Fortunately the sign confirmed I was in the right place.

I got off the bus at 15th Avenue and Campus Parkway.  This is a big transfer point, where a lot of buses stop.  I wanted to cross the street to stroll along Campus Parkway - but wait!  There are no curb cuts and no crosswalks at this big intersection!  I've been here before, walking and on my bike, and it never seemed much of a problem to go one block out of my way to cross the street.  But today in the wheelchair, I felt defeated.  I could go one block uphill to the north, then roll back down; or I could roll down one block to the south and push back up.  I looked longingly at the far side of the street.  Then reluctantly rolled downhill.

The weather has been sunny and mild since I've been using the wheelchair, so I can only guess how much worse all these obstacles would be if it was dark and raining.  Even on these sunny days, I'll only venture out alone in familiar territory.  I'll probably be back on two feet in a few weeks - but what if I'm not?  What about the many people who have to get around by wheelchair every day?  When I advocate for safe streets for people, I'll keep in mind the view from the wheelchair, and insist that streets be made safe for everyone.  That's how I roll.