Thursday, January 16, 2014
I thought about it again this morning as I struggled in a local parking lot, sheets of ice and ruts of dirty snow between me and my morning coffee. I picked my way through it carefully, penguin-shuffling over the icy patches until I reached the front door of the coffee shop. I looked back at the parking lot and once again I though about how tough some days I find it to get around in this community, and how even walking can be treacherous and difficult. And I can only imagine how tough it would be if you happen to have mobility issues.
I don't talk about my extended family a lot in this blog, but it seems pertinent for this one. I had a cousin, older than I, who was born with a severe form of cerebral palsy. And Cousin Em, as I will call her, always amazed me as while her body failed her from birth, her mind never faltered. She struggled to communicate on occasion, but you could tell that her thoughts had been unaffected by the effects her condition had on her limbs. She was confined to a wheelchair, and while her control of her arms was limited she could do many things with her feet, including astonishing acts like signing her name (something I could never do with my feet, I am quite certain). But one of her realities was that chair, and she was as reliant on it as I am on my two feet - but while my two feet can manage to take me most places her chair often stood between her and places she wanted or needed to be.
I can't even imagine her frustration, to be honest. To be trapped inside a body that failed her, and to then be further hampered by a world that seemed indifferent to her mobility issues? I am amazed even now at her resiliency, including her decision to later one day marry someone with similar mobility issues, facing life together from their wheelchairs.
And that is why I thought about her again today. I think northern cities, with seasons of snow and ice, are already difficult places to traverse even for those who don't have mobility issues. For those in wheelchairs, though, or on motorized scooters, these seasons must be a nightmare. I can only imagine their frustration at having places where they simply cannot go because they know they will be stuck in snow in a parking lot, or find themselves unable to gain traction on the ice.
We have come a long way in addressing these issues, but we still have a very long way to go to improve access for people like my cousin Em. I cringe every time I see one of those automatic doors that doesn't work when the button is pushed, because while no big deal for me it would have been just another barrier in life for Em. Every time I see a sidewalk that hasn't been cleared or a parking lot that hasn't been plowed or a crosswalk that is virtually impassable even for those who are able to walk I think about Em, and how it must have felt for her. Instead of seeing the world as accessible I look around and can almost see flashing "access denied" signs on every corner, and how incredibly frustrating - and demeaning - it must feel to realize that you do not have the same access or freedom as those who can walk with ease.
This morning I found myself entering the coffee shop with tears in my eyes as the injustice of it all hit me. Not just the injustice of a condition that afflicted Em with great challenges and great suffering, things she rose to time and time again with an indomitable spirit, but the injustice of a world that denied her the same access we all want to enjoy. I don't know entirely what the solution is, but I know this: we can do better for Em, and for all those who find themselves with access denied.