They say the best way to know a man is to walk a mile in his shoes. But how to know a man if he cant walk? One solution is to roll a mile on his wheels. Which is exactly what I spent my day doing. As part of my education in Occupational Therapy I was to take a wheelchair out into public and see the world from a different perspective.
The first challenge of the day was simply getting the wheelchair from the fourth floor of the College of St. Catherines to my car at the far parking lot. Did I mention that it is about ten degrees and icy outside? I didnt? Well
it is. Welcome to Minnesota.
With my backpack draped over the back of the chair I navigated my way towards the tiny elevator. Another gentleman was using the elevator and allowed me to wheel inside first. Which was very nice, but when he stepped in right behind me, I couldnt turn around. Although I knew this particular individual was safe it was never the less unnerving to have my back to him with no real way of turning around. It added another level of vulnerability to the cramped quarters of the elevator.
After fighting my way up the steep ramp to get out of the building I headed off towards my car. Halfway there I ended up with one of the large wheels caught in an uneven crack in the pavement. I tried a few things, but the other wheel was just spinning uselessly.
@#&%. I muttered.
It was very temping to just get up and pull the chair out of the crack. However I spent a few more minutes problem solving and escaped. Despite the mechanical advantage of the wheels it had now taken three times as long to get to my car (normally I cross through an area with steps, but today I had to find another way around).
On my way to the car I made another discovery. Two years ago I snapped my collar bone in half. I have some restricted range of motion in my right shoulder because of it. Normally this is not something that I notice in my daily life. However it means that my stroke on the right side of the chair isnt as strong as the left. Which of course if Im not paying attention causing me to drift towards the left.
Before heading out to run some errands I stopped by my house and picked up my padded bike gloves and a canvas bag. Petsmart was easy to get into with their wide automatic doors. The isles there are also very wide, and in the fish and bird department I could actually reach the top shelves. I didnt have such luck in the dog isles because those were higher. However there are so many employees at this store that help was not far, they even carried the 45 pound of dog food that I bought out to the car for me.
I spent about an hour moving around Petsmart. Their bathroom was easy to enter because the door was very light and didnt have a strong spring on it. There was only one sink, but it was at my level. I even found that the cash registers were set wide enough apart to easily navigate, and one of the employees carried the food through the register for me.
After an hour moving around my broken shoulder was aching from the motion of spinning the wheels. My palms were killing me, despite the fingerless gloves, and I knew that by the end of another hour I was going to have blisters on both thumbs (I do). However, I still needed to hit the grocery store.
The grocery store and the Petsmart are in the same parking lot. Normally I would move my car over to the grocery because the way the parking lot is set up it would be hard to return the cart if I didnt. However getting the wheelchair in and out of the car was such a hassle that I decided to risk wheeling my way across.
I quickly learned that the parking lot is gently sloped upward. On one occasion I truly feared that a car was going to run me over. But I made it into the store. Normally Id grab a cart, but now I wouldnt have any way to push the cart and the chair. This was one of the reasons I brought along the canvas bag that was now over the back of my chair. This limited how much I could buy at one time, but without help I couldnt see any other way.
Unlike Petsmart everything in the grocery store seemed to be out of reach. The way the produce was on slanted tables meant I only had access to a small amount of it. The refrigerated veggies were even harder to get to because they had one bottom shelf that held the air cooler that you needed to lean over to reach the goods.
I found myself wanting an item on the top shelf, but luckily there was a manager near by who was more than happy to bring the product to me. On three other occasions I had to ask for favors from fellow shoppers, all of whom helped me.
There was one danger in the grocery store that I had never thought about. The first time I reached out to get something off a metal shelf a one inch blue spark arched from my finger to the shelf and gave me a nasty shock. To make it worse I was wearing my iPod and the jolt traveled up into the earphones. Ouch!!
The smooth tires on the floor were building up a charge. The further I moved without grounding the more intense the shock became. Im embarrassed how long it took me to figure this out.
I mean here in Minnesota the dry air causes static shocks every once in a while anyway. Then I recalled the words of the immortal author Ian Fleming: One is chance, twice is coincidence, but three times
thats enemy action. After the third shock, I realized that there was an enemy at work and that it was the chair.
It got so bad that I had to take my keys out of my pocket and touch the keys to the metal shelf before touching any of the product. The key acted as a grounder and the spark arched from the key to the metal. In experiment I wheeled from one end of the store to the other and then brought the key to a shelf. I ended up with a two inch spark that made an impressive noise.
The register was a little difficult to get through, a touch too narrow. However I managed. The credit card swipe machine was on a pivot so that I could easily access it. Getting the groceries back into the canvas bag was a little difficult due to the confined space at the end of conveyer belt.
At the end of a few hours my arms were tired and my palms were painful, and even a few hours later Im having trouble gripping objects without pain. The whole experience was very enlightening. Although I had many advantages over many who are truly living in wheelchairs.
The most obvious of which is that I knew that at any time I could leave the confines of the wheelchair if I had to or if I felt threatened. Also not being paralyzed I have the advantage of trunk strength and balance. I also did not have the equipment to transfer from the car to the chair, which is one of the more difficult maneuvers.
My own personality helped as well because I am not self conscious and therefore was not disturbed by the way some people were uncomfortable. A lot of people would practically leap out of the way if they were caught off guard by my approach. I noticed a lot of people greeted me with a smile, but that may simply be because I did the same.
So I did not truly learn all the struggles of a life with disability, however, I do have a better appreciation for the every day tasks that I take for granted.