My day in a wheelchairPosted: October 4, 2010
“Kelda, can you help get me out of the bushes?”
These are things that should be uttered after a short BK run at 3 a.m. on a Saturday. Not at 12:30 p.m. on a Friday, en route to the student center for a little homework time.
Alas, I’m mildly uncoordinated. Alas, I’m also in a wheelchair.
At the behest of the managing editor of the North by Northwestern magazine, for which I’m writing an article this fall, I rented a wheelchair from Student Health Services. No questions asked — I called, I showed up, I wheeled it out the door.
Which then left me approximately 5 blocks from my dorm, in a wheelchair, alone and utterly clueless, in addition to the major shame that I associate with posing as someone with a disability.
The first thing that became problematic was my inability to go straight. I haven’t been doing my left arm workouts, apparently, because I was constantly struggling not to veer left, off curbs, into people, and yes, into bushes. Hills that I never realized were inclines suddenly became insurmountable.
The Midwest is not as flat as you think it is — something you barely notice when your eye level is at five or six feet rather than four. Inexplicably, most sidewalks are not level, but oddly sloped horizontally. Good for water runoff, bad for a slow-moving set of wheels.
Momentum was everything, despite the fact that I could never get any. I would have stopped to give money to flood relief with NU Stand With Pakistan, but I was afraid I couldn’t back up adequately, and was more concerned with making it across the street and through the construction zone alive.
Kelda found and rescued me while some kind sorority girl was pushing me out of the grass and back onto the crosswalk. Without her, I probably wouldn’t have made it back up onto the sidewalk on the other side of the street, and would have slowly, sadly rolled backwards into traffic in defeat. The 5 minute walk turned into an insurmountable 20 minute marathon.
At the end of that particular journey, I had to stash the chair in an isolated downstairs room inside my dorm, because my room is 100% completely and totally inaccessible. Our rickety, scary elevator goes from the ground floor to the first floor. Even trying to carry the chair the one flight up to my room was impossible. The handicapped entrance, with the automatic door opener, is broken on the door that actually leads into the building. Furthermore, it is on the side of the building that is preceded by a giant fucking hill. Why it’s not on the flat side, I just don’t know. What if I actually was handicapped and lived here? I could never visit a friend on one of the upper floors. I would have to restrict my CRC adventures to the ground and first floor. Friends would have to come to me.
My attempts at wheeling across the two parking lots, one ramp and one downhill that separates my dorm from the student center did not go any better. Given the time I spent staring at the spiderwebs in the bushes outside of the journalism building, it’s probably not surprising that my try at getting up the two-part handicap accessibility ramp ended in “yeah, please push me.” The ramp doubled back on itself, but in the middle of each part, it had a few feet of flatness – a sweet respite from the belabored pushing and pulling I was doing for excruciatingly marginal results. We laughed and joked at the absurdity of how pathetic I was, probably at an obnoxiously loud level. Two kids out for a joy ride.
But going into the student center itself left me feeling incredibly self conscious. I had wanted to avoid going places where I was sure to see someone I knew, but somehow, I went where I was likely to recognize the most faces. I swear I saw every freshman I knew.
But it was strangers I was afraid of. I felt like I had a walking sign on my head that said “STARE AT HER. ASK HER WHY SHE’S DOING THIS. REMIND HER THAT SOMEONE IN NEED COULD HAVE WANTED TO RENT THAT CHAIR.”
To some extent, that was true. At least with the people I knew. “Shaunacy, what happened?” some friends asked me, looking stricken. I was hasty to assure them that I was faking, in the quietest voice possible. And as for the rest? They barely looked at me. At least one casual acquaintance said hi to me, but didn’t mention the change. And some strangers seemed to be working hard to not look at me.
Wheeling through Norbucks, feeling like I had it under control for the first time after my hour of sitting on my laptop, the spiky-haired blonde waiting for her latte made accidental eye contact with me. I couldn’t tell if it was normal stranger eye aversion, or a distinct discomfort. But it seemed more and more like not only were these people not silently judging me – they were trying actively not to seem like they noticed me. It could have been my imagination, imposing what would be my own thoughts on the outside world.
I felt more free, suddenly, to do whatever the fuck I wanted. I wheeled around displays of clothes in the bookstore, rocking back and forth and enjoying the perfect flatness of the tile. Until I started trying to make my way up the giant hill outside the handicap exit, and the struggle and commotion attracted stares and awkward thoughts of “Do I help? Does she want to do it alone?” no one was going to bother me.
It’s okay. I’ve had those thoughts before.
Unfortunately, the physical toll of rolling a mile in someone else’s chair meant I was fairly unable to continue testing my theories. After each outing, I sat on my computer struggling to type, my arms and hands aching. The wheels left raw red patches on my fingers and palms. I felt as though I had been lifting weights all day, the muscles stretching across my shoulders left tensed and sore. The idea of taking the 15 minutes of hard work it would require to get to the next building over to test out its accessibility proved too much, and I stayed inside watching The Office instead. I was afraid of going anywhere alone, for fear I would get stuck somewhere. I was unwilling to stand up in broad daylight and push the chair home. That seemed to be laughing in the face of the people who can’t get up, as if this experiment wasn’t already doing that.
Though, maybe my pathetic, stare inducing failures to just stay on the path or go up a hill might have been doing that as well. At a certain point I grew tired of explaining my project to those that offered to help me, putting them off with a simple “no, I got it” which came off a little bit as me trying to play the martyr. Yes, I’m trying to suffer, guys, it’s okay.
But, as one of my interview subjects told me, there are some really funny things about being directly at butt level.