FOUR GENERAL RULES
1. “Ignorance before malice.” I’m not sure where this quotation comes from. Its original may be: “Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity.” The gist of the quotation is that before we assume that people are being mean, conspiratorial, or rude, we should consider the possibility that they just don’t know what is the right thing to say or do. When experienced in a wheelchair, the joy of the open road often depends upon our fully embracing this guideline.
Is the space in the store too narrow for the chair? The store owners—never having had to navigate in a wheelchair themselves—probably just don’t know that the aisles should provide at least 36 inches of space for wheelchairs.
Is the hostess leading you through a maze of tables to the one in the far back corner? Her back is to you, so she probably just can’t see the difficulty that long journey is causing for both you and her other guests who have to move their chairs and bags so that you can get by.
Is the “shower” in the room that the desk clerk assured you could accommodate a wheelchair accessed via a high-sided tub with a chair in it? The motel owners probably think that if the room meets ADA standards, anyone in a wheelchair can navigate it.
They aren’t trying to make life harder for you. They just don’t know how not to. You can help them understand by following the second guideline below.
2. Tell them what you need. If we assume ignorance before malice, the only way people will know what we need is if we tell them.
Tell them before you get there. Often it is easy to tell hostesses, owners, clerks, and managers what you are going to need before you even get there.
Call the restaurant and say: “We are coming in for lunch in an hour or so, and one of us is in a wheelchair. Could you hang onto a table close to the door for me?” Even restaurants that do not take reservations are often glad to hold an easy-in/easy-out table if they know when you’ll arrive.
Similarly, a call to a m/hotel to say—“Is your ADA room equipped with a roll-in shower?”—can save you a great deal of annoyance and pain.
Call the organizers of your presentation and tell them you’ll need to be able to control the slides while seated at a table rather than at the podium. Call them and ask how far it is from the parking area to the conference room, from the elevator to the seminar.
Or tell them once you’re there. There is nothing wrong with stopping that hostess and saying, “This table right up here would be easier for me than that one back there, if it’s okay with you.” You can always ask the salesperson, “I’m going to need to move this rack of scarves in order to get past. I hope that’s okay.” You can always say to the person who asked you to come give that talk, “I’m going to need a table here in front of me.”
And always, always ask about bathrooms. Those who have never been stuck on a toilet unable to get up on their own are not going to anticipate the need for grab bars. So although it may be hard for you (as it is for me) to ask if a toilet in a restaurant or m/hotel has a grab bar around it, do it anyway. Ask about toilets whether or not the manager assures you that the restaurant is wheelchair friendly. Ask it whether or not the clerk tells you the room is ADA approved. Always ask about the bathrooms.
3. Getting out is better than not, even though “not” may be easier. Life is out there. You need to be out there, too, for as long and in as many different places as you can be. It may be easier to stay in the space that is safe and familiar—the space where there are no children at stroller-eye-level staring at you with confusion, where young adults don’t look at you with embarrassment or horror, where people older than you are don’t look at you with pity or judgment. It may be easier to stay in that space where you know every navigational hazard like the folds in an old pair of comfortable shoes than it is to go out for coffee. But the path of fear breeds fear, and the path of courage breeds courage. Most of the time, choose courage. Go out there and experience something new.
4. Say “thank you.” Be grateful to the people who help us move through space. Feel it in your heart and mind—that gratitude. Feel it and speak it even when someone opens a door for you that you didn’t need to have opened, assists you in a manner you don’t like, or offers to help you in a way that feels patronizing. Just say “thank you.”
TWO SPECIFIC RULES
5. Starbucks’ bathrooms!! When traveling and needing a bathroom, find a Starbucks. Starbucks now has coffee shops in nearly every small city and town, and Starbucks’ bathrooms are perfect for wheelchair travelers. They are usually single-user and often unisex spaces, which gives us plenty of room to maneuver, privacy, and ease for bringing a traveling companion in to assist us. They are clean, well-lit, grab-barred, and usually dry-floored. The only hitch is that you need to buy something if you are going to use the bathroom, but there is always something small you can buy—a bottled water, a cookie, a fruit plate!
6. Foam mattresses. If you have any of my mobility issues, the act of getting on and off a foam, body-molding mattress is a process similar to a beetle flipping over from its back to its feet. I may have special difficulty with this process because of my girth, but I have heard thin people with mobility issues talk about having difficulty, too. Ask m/hotels ahead of time what kind of mattresses they have.