Sherri Winans
Whatcom Community College
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Karen Hartsfield
English 201
Essay 2
October 2001

A Chair with a View

Sticks and stones can break my bones but names can never hurt me. This saying has become a cliché amongst children in our culture, but it is patently untrue. Often children get in trouble for calling one another "bad names." However, if we were more exacting in our language, we would realize that what they are doing is applying an unpleasant label. All humans use labels, pleasant or not, to classify things. It is our way of organizing our world, so we can understand sensory input. Unfortunately, the effect of this method is that we tend to compartmentalize things, and once things are compartmentalized, we cease to think about them. The irony of this is that we hate to be labeled, because we feel it boxes us in. I recently fell (literally) into a new category with a lovely label attached: I am now Temporarily Handicapped.

This has been an extremely enlightening experience, and has changed the way I think about people who don’t have abilities most of the rest of the people in the world have. Before I became temporarily disabled, I had put people who had a physical difference in functionality in a neat little box in my mind, and because I had them classified, I ceased to think about them. To apply another cliché: Don’t judge a man until you’ve walked a mile in his shoes. Or, modified for my condition, wheeled a mile in his chair. Listen to my story, and you may rethink your casual use of the labels "handicapped" or "disabled." You might, by hearing some of the difficulties I have faced, decide to take people out of the neat box in your mind which governs how you see and treat them, and apply some thought the next time you meet someone who has more difficulty just getting around or communicating than you do.

About four weeks ago, I broke my foot. Walking. My doctor told me I must keep my cast on for two weeks straight, and not to even try walking on my foot. I acquired a pair of crutches at Goodwill, and I almost killed myself within the first two days. It is extremely exhausting to propel yourself on crutches, and doing it with a thirty pound backpack (average weight for a full time student) gives you bruises under your arms you wouldn’t believe. Bill, a gentleman who works in Disabled Services at Whatcom Community College, became my savior when he arranged for a wheelchair I could use on campus. Having that wheelchair has made my life so much easier. I am not in any way implying that being in a wheelchair is a piece of cake, but rather that it is wonderful when compared to crutches. At least with a wheelchair I approach normal mobility, and I probably would have dropped out of school without it.

I now have a whole new perspective, about at waist level to most people. Things look a lot different from two feet lower than I usually view them. I have tried to keep a somewhat objective view, and to learn from this new experience. It hasn’t been easy, because not being able to walk to the bathroom in the morning just SUCKS! However, I do have some interesting observations to share with you. For instance, our campus is not flat. It has slopes all over the place, and a slope is a terrible thing to face when you are in a wheelchair. (Let me tell you, I was thanking my lucky stars I don’t go to Western Washington University.) The number of people who have offered to help me up slopes in the last three weeks: three. One was my boyfriend, who has been kind above and beyond the call of duty. I don’t think the rest of the people who passed me on their way up the slope (on this campus, that number is in the hundreds) even thought about it.

Although very few people have offered to push me up the slopes, I have had many people try to hold doors open for me. Just recently, a woman coming out of the bathroom asked me if I wanted her to hold the door open. I said, "No, thank you." She continued holding the door open for me. She used the polite form of asking, but then she did not listen to what I had to say. Asking is good, not listening to what another person says is BAD. I think she had put me in her little "handicapped" box, and could not hear me through the cardboard.

On this campus, holding doors open for someone in a wheelchair is almost totally useless. Any doors that I might actually have trouble with in my chair are operated by push buttons, and I would appreciate it much better if people would just push the button for me. The button is often put in an obscure, out of the way place, which would be much easier to reach on foot. Holding the door open for me usually means some part of your body is blocking my chair.

The button-operated doors are wondrous things and I appreciate them very much. I must interject, however, some bad words about the door on Baker Hall. Apparently someone else thought that door rotten enough to kick it in, and I would understand if it were a handicapped person that did it. The opening of that door is absolutely glacial, and it closes faster than any other door on campus. It is also possessed of a sill which sticks up about an inch. This means that if I do not have enough speed built up to take my wheels across this sill, I am stuck in a closing door. Whoopee. It’s the thrill of my day, I can tell you.

Another fun and exciting thing is the lovely brickwork of which some of the walks on our campus are made. When these brick walks meet up with the concrete of the sidewalks, there is often a height difference of about an inch. If I hit one of these when I am going at a good clip, I am flung out of the chair onto the ground. This happened to me the other day at the crosswalk, and the poor guy who was walking across the crosswalk nearly had a heart attack. "Are you O.K.?" he asked, panic tingeing his voice. I replied that I would be, assured him I did not need help, cursed the sidewalk mightily, and continued across the street to Cascade Hall.

As you may have noticed, the campus is on both sides of a street. It is a pretty large campus. We have a big, beautiful green field next to Kelly Hall, on the same side of the street as Cascade Hall. Some people are not going to like my next complaint. I want a nice, concrete path right through that field. It can be off to one side, but as it is, there is no pedestrian (or however you get around) walkway to Kelly Hall, so in a wheelchair one is forced to go through the parking lot. There are a lot of people who drive like idiots in that parking lot. I would rather be on a nice, safe walkway than coasting down that hill in the parking lot toward a blind corner. I would almost rather crawl across the field, than roll through that parking lot, but I would get wet and muddy in our usual weather.

Here is a question for you: Can you tell me why the handicapped stalls in the bathroom are always farthest from the door? I have thought about it a lot, and I cannot reason it out. I mean, what if there was a line? I would have to roll over everyone’s toes to get to the stall I could use. And why is anything mounted at knee level in those stalls? I have now slammed my knees into the toilet paper dispenser and sanitary napkin disposal at least five times. I must mention that although I appreciate the sinks in some of the handicapped stalls, having them mounted about six inches lower would have been much more beneficial for people in wheelchairs. My conclusion from public bathrooms is that the vast majority of architects have never been in a wheelchair.

The biggest difference I have noticed, through all of this, is in the attitudes of people toward me. Some do what I have done in the past, which is to smile and/or greet the person if I know them, or just ignore them if I don’t. I find myself not appreciating that as much from down here, because sometimes that "ignore" factor gets to the point where I become invisible to some people. I just hate having to shout at people to get out of my way because I am below their line of sight and they can’t hear someone addressing them from waist level. "Excuse me, can you . . . ExcUse me . . . EXCUSE ME . . . CAN YOU PLEASE MOVE?" I do try to be polite to people, although sometimes I feel like saying "How about getting out of the doorway, nimrod?"

Through our lives, we build up ideas of how to treat people. When, as children, we see someone in a wheelchair, or who is using a cane, or talking with their hands, we look at them. It is outside our experience of how the world works. Then, our parents catch us, and say, "Don’t stare. It’s not polite." We are generally then hustled away. The adult person’s motivation may be to spare the handicapped person’s feeling, but I think children often come away with another impression—that those people who do not have the same abilities as us should not be seen. Children are not often allowed to assuage their curiosity by going up to the person and asking questions, either, so they never get to learn that people with disabilities really are just people.

I had a friend once who used a wheelchair. She explained carefully the behavior she wanted from me, and although it sounded slightly peculiar at the time, I understand it much better now. What she said was, "Ask me if I want help before touching my chair or doing anything for me." Period. That was what she wanted. She wanted to be consulted like an adult, not treated like a helpless infant. There are specific reasons, many of which have to do with the chair. When I was in the radiology office, having my foot x-rayed, the lady there asked me if I wanted to be pushed to the bathroom. "Why, yes!" I cried, not yet knowing the vagaries of other people pushing you. She ran my foot into a doorway. I did not think too kindly of her then. Another danger of someone else suddenly propelling the chair is that they will not be careful of where the person’s hands are. I would not like to have my fingers broken in the spokes of my wheelchair.

Someone once defined equality to me as treating different people differently. I can see that. But why have more complete and total strangers greeted me since I got into this chair than in the entire previous year when I was walking? Is this someone who has actually thought about the labels "disabled" and "handicapped"? If so, I think they are overcompensating. It is the swing of the pendulum the other way. It is noticing someone because they are different, as opposed to ignoring them. Would it be possible to find a middle ground?

This has been a time of thought for me. In another couple of weeks, I will be out of the wheelchair. I will walk again. I really was dis-abled. But what about those whose legs never did, and never will, work? Whose mouths never spoke? Whose hands never existed? Are those people disabled, or is it even fair to compare them? I have changed my way of thinking. They are as able as they ever were, and just have a different way of relating to the world. They are just like me. They are unique, just like the other six billion people on this planet.


Copyright 2001
Karen Hartsfield


Funded through the U.S. Dept. of Education, Title III Grant PO31A980143
Sherri Winans, Whatcom Community College, Bellingham, WA