Handicapped cities

When living with a chronic and debilitating disease there are things you or even your doctors cannot change, things that you really have to accept in order to adjust and move forward with creating a productive life. Then there are things that require a bit of adjustment, things that would facilitate both you and a large part of the population that we do not think need any assistance. These things require a society that works for the good of the whole, not just a collection of people that happen to be living close to one another in villages, towns, or cities. And they could change with a bit of understanding and action on everyone’s part.

I am of course talking about accessibility to people with mobility problems.

I am fortunate enough to be still capable of working and servicing myself. That means I can do most things independent of assistance from others. Things like drive, eat, personal grooming etc. And I can thankfully still stand for short time periods and walk for short distances – albeit with assistance and the use of mobility aides and despite continuing to test the reflexes of people catching me, the sturdiness of furniture propping me up, and the structural integrity of the floor when I do fall down.

So, I was arrived at the office on 30 December knowing that the office party was taking place that day. The event would be held at a nearby gallery, due to space restrictions, and I knew that, while within walking distance for most people, it was well outside my walking range. Even with use of my rollator – which is about 200 meters, or 220 yards if you prefer the imperial system. So I parked in the office basement (thankfully I have a designated parking spot there), and muscled out of the car my wheelchair.

That is where I started realizing how inaccessible my city is.

The first hurdle I came across was accessing the elevators. Now, I have to point out that my office building is relatively new (constructed after 2000). But access from the parking to the elevator requires going up one step. There is a ramp there, without any guard-rails and covering the width of less than one of the two swinging doors, and leads facing the door without any leveling off. So, if you try and push up the ramp there is no way of opening the heavy fireproof door without rolling back. I was lucky that a coworker was there and opened the door for me. Hurdle one cleared, with assistance.

Second issue was the size of the lift. If I roll in, there is absolutely no way I can rotate the wheelchair so I face the door where I get off. Which means I have to roll out of the elevator backwards, something which is harder than it sounds. Additionally, there is only enough room left in the elevator cubicle for maybe another two people, three if they squeeze a bit, and only if I enter diagonally and are out of the way so I am not blocking the door. I finally got to my floor and got out.

Now I had to get into the office. Again, there is a step at the entrance, and a ramp to facilitate entry – but I feel it is mostly so people do not trip on their way in or overstep and fall on the way out. The ramp is again facing the door, without any leveling off. And the door handle is on the right of a 2 meter heavy aluminum and glass door, while the entry keypad is on the left. So, by the time you use the keypad, and find a way to push open the door, the door, which has a 5 second lock timer on it, locks again. Again, I had assistance from that same colleague, so I got it.

The office itself is fine, for the most part. The bathrooms are really not wheelchair accessible, but everything else is easy to traverse.

The time comes to go to the party, which I knew would take time. I mean, 400 meters, that’s a marathon.

So I get to the lobby. There is a wheelchair lift at the back of the building – through a narrow door and with a small step – but we don’t have the key to use it and the security guard, that has the key, has been called off to other duties. The only other way out was through the main entrance and through a series of steps. Gladly, I was able to stand, and balancing on colleagues I got to the pavement, while more of my colleagues brought the wheelchair down.

Then started the real adventure in a less than accessible city.

The pavement was in bad shape. In many places there were no on and off ramps, so I had to again get up while my wheelchair was carried on to and off the road back to the sidewalk. Have I mentioned how lucky I am that I still have some use of my legs? At some point the sidewalk was too narrow. Because why wouldn’t we prioritize car traffic over pedestrians? With the help of a guard from the Greek Military Club that halted all the traffic (and to which I am oh so grateful) I got into the road, rolled down and on to the sidewalk in front of the gallery, and rolled right in. And all this in the rain.

The gallery itself was very accessible. Level flooring, large lifts, wide corridors, helping staff. The only issue I found was that the handicapped bathroom was on the ground floor.

The event finished, and we were on the way back. We took a different route back, admittedly better but still not very convenient. Cars parked on the sidewalk and ramps, cars that rolled on with complete disregard of pedestrians and blocking access just ahead of us, steps all over the place, uneven pavement. You name it.

Back at the office, there was no way in again but the (still not operational) elevator lift at the back of the building. Another one of my colleagues drove up from the basement and drove me down so I could bring my car and load the wheelchair.

So, off to the office lunch, at an upscale restaurant about a mile away. No disable parking anywhere around, or at the nearby parking lot. Thankfully, the attendant found me a spot near the entrance, and I opted using my rollator this time. The restaurant itself was nice, but the space between tables was too narrow and the bathrooms were only on the upper level and up a winding ladder. At any other time I would not visit the establishment because of accessibility issues, and while I am frustrated with that option it is an option. Not the same with public spaces though like sidewalks, or a place of employment.

I know that I had most of these issues because of wheelchair use. Accessibility however is not just an issue for wheelchair users. Mothers with prams, the elderly, those with a temporary injury like a broken leg, all face the same or similar difficulties. And if you think there aren’t enough people with mobility problems, I got news for you. You don’t see them because they choose not to put themselves through this ordeal. Because society does not give them an option, it ignores them.

So, what can you do if you have a mobility problem? Demand change, make yourself seen, do not stay hidden in your shell and surrender to the handicap of the city. Make society adjust and accommodate you. Raise awareness. This way you can become more independent, more useful, more productive, happier!

  1. Many thanks to all my colleagues that helped.
  2. Many thanks to my organisation heads, that are always willing to help making my workplace more accessible
  3. Many thanks to that random soldier, and everyone else that helped
  4. Some further reading I came accross while writing this post: https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2018/feb/14/what-disability-accessible-city-look-like

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