Sidewalks are a pain, literally. When they exist, they’re bumpy and are rarely well kept. More often than not, though, if someone in a wheelchair lives in rural areas or even suburbia, sidewalks, never mind curb cuts, simply don’t exist.
I’m not one to sit at home on pleasant days. I hear the road beckon. Yes, at times, I think of my wheelchair like others of their Harley’s, feeling the need for speed and the wind in my hair.
At other times, I take a more practical view: these wheels are my legs to get me from here to there. Sometimes this means taking my wheelchair where others wouldn’t dare set foot.
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Now, I must say, the recent addition of bike lanes in some areas have made my hazardous driving somewhat less tenuous, at least to me, but they aren’t everywhere yet. And, I have become quite adept at navigating the shoulders of busy streets to get to my intended destination.
Note: this is not for the faint hearted. Feeling the back draft of an 18-wheeler as it passes by three feet from you is enough to make anyone’s heart rate rise. Yet, staying focused, aware, and present on my intended course keeps me on track.
For me, this mentality started early in life. Learning to cross the street independently at age four as my mother watched with great self-restraint gave me the building blocks to trust myself and my capacity to overcome challenge, despite perceived limitations.
Years later, I still see that same persistence and determination impacting my life from navigating torrential downpours in order to get to my first job interview to transforming entire organizations as they let go of ingrained patterns of limiting thought.
I can’t count how many times I have been waiting for my husband to come home, especially when he is rolling in his motor wheelchair in poor weather.
I am used to friends calling to tell me they saw Barton zipping across a busy road, stunned that Barton would take the bus on his own or walk across town to attend a meeting.
I have been there, on the phone with an accessible taxi driver questioning why they didn’t pick Barton up where they were supposed to, and it’s now 11pm at night and he’s waiting on the side of the road.
Or hearing about Barton’s off-road adventures in a nonchalant voice as if it was a part of a normal day. While I control my own impulse to be an overbearing caregiver waving my finger in Barton’s face about being more careful, I understand the importance of my husband navigating the road on his own.
While Barton has an independent streak that cannot be contained, I must let go, seeing Barton for who he is, a man who has trained in martial arts, meditation, and teaches community awareness and self-defense for people with disabilities.
And, in the work we do speaking to other families and people impacted by disability, I see how fear plays such an integral role in limiting the independence for people with disabilities, whether they are on the road or in other areas of life.
It is a cultural inclination to want people to be safe, and particularly for those who use adaptive equipment. Yet, in wanting to protect them, we have inadvertently limited the world around them. We are faced with a world of “you can’t,” and people with disabilities succumb to this belief.
Suddenly, stepping outside is momentous obstacle.
I know that I cannot protect Barton from the elements on the road or the challenges in life. It is more advantageous to learn how to move through these hardships.
Yes, we need more curb cuts, smoother sidewalks, accessible parking spaces, and wider bike lanes. We also need a cultural shift.
One where we see people with disabilities for who they are, people navigating the world in their own brilliance.