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.

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