When it comes to traveling through life in a wheelchair, little things can make a difference. Changes in elevation of less than two (2) inches have stopped me, and my wheelchair, in our tracks and prevented entrance into many different stores, restaurants or other public attractions. During the last quarter of a century of wheeling around, I have learned to expect such obstacles in unexpected places but still find the situation to be unacceptable when it continues to happen.
Fortunately there is a whole cadre of designers, engineers and manufacturers that have dedicated their careers to helping us deal with changes in elevation. Their solutions usually involve complex ramp systems or mechanical devices designed to lift and lower us as we travel through life. Some of the solutions involve larger elevator cars, lowered elevator buttons, platform lifts or a variety of lifts and ramps that are used to help us enter and exit accessible vehicles.
These features are definitely a godsend, but only if they work. When they don't, outside intervention or assistance is the only solution.
If you want to watch professional basketball or a hockey match from your wheelchair in Washington, DC, the best seats on the first level require the use of a platform lift. My friends who use manual wheelchairs don't seem to have much trouble with that lift, but it has created problems for me on several occasions. If trying to get lowered down to the accessible seating section before the start of an event, the solution to an inoperable platform lift usually arrives in the person of arena staff who scramble to eject people who are not disabled from the wheelchair accessible spaces they are occupying at the next higher level.
When the lift refuses to cooperate while trying to get raised from the lowered seating back up to the main concourse, it becomes a bit more difficult. Muscle power is the only thing that can work at that stage.
Carrying me and my wheelchair up the six steps so we could leave the arena is no easy task. Together, we weigh over 500 pounds. Like many power wheelchairs, mine was designed without handholds so carrying it is problematic. Even without the wheelchair, I am a heavy load at over 200 pounds and I was designed without handholds as well. Their solution? Transfer me onto a flimsy folding chair that is similar to the ones used with the card table stored in your garage and use that to transport me up the stairs. While I waited at the top they, four of them, then carried the wheelchair up so that I could be transferred back into it. No damage done, but my guest and I were some of the last people to leave after the event.
Such instances are an inconvenience, and can sometimes be embarrassing, but unless there was an emergency evacuation it would not be a life or death situation. Unfortunately, navigating other changes in elevation can become a critical situation if the mechanical assistance we depend on stops working. Such imagined crises occupy my mind whenever I am driving or riding in an accessible bus or van that must be accessed via a wheelchair lift. Any type of accident, especially if a fire is involved, could restrict my quick exit and might even be life threatening.
A few days ago, the morning news covered the story of a large articulated bus that caught fire during rush hour on an elevated freeway bridge. Even though the fire department arrived in a timely manner, the bus continued to burn for quite a while and when the fire was finally extinguished the damage was extensive.
(Seattle Times Photo)
As I watched the live TV coverage, I shuddered to think of what would have happened if there had been someone seated in a wheelchair or scooter who had to be evacuated. Was that one of those several buses that I have been unable to ride on due to inoperable lifts at different times over the years? I later learned that there was a woman in a wheelchair riding on that bus. How did she escape with the bus pulled up against an adjacent guardrail? She escaped the old fashioned way, as fellow passengers carried her off the bus. Her exit might not have been in the style that she imagined it would be when she boarded the bus to head for work that morning, but it sure beat the alternatives.
My personal van causes me the same type of concerns. Even though I make an extra effort to have the wheelchair lift serviced every few months, there have been too many occasions when it has failed. In an earlier blog
I wrote of the time when a hydraulic line was punctured so that the lift dropped to the ground and would not raise up so I could exit the van. Fortunately the staff at Absolute Mobility
were eventually able to extricate me and no real harm was done.
Not all emergency situations are caused by massive failures. A drop of water proved to be my undoing last week, as the remote control that I use for operating the side doors and lift of my van got wet in a driving rainstorm. Without that remote, I was unable to raise the lift up and close the doors after I was unloaded.
While my biggest problem that evening turned out to be simply getting cold and wet, the incident was another lesson learned for me. My remote controls, and all electronics, need to be protected from moisture at all times. That is just one more area of concern in the battle to remain independent, and there are many.
© 2013 Michael Collins