September 17, 2019

Imagine Yourself in a Wheelchair

There is a very high probability that sometime soon, you or a loved one in your family will need to use a wheelchair to get around, either temporary or permanently.  Right now, researchers estimate that about 2.2 million Americans use a wheelchair for mobility and that number is only going to rise. As the population ages, the number of people with mobility impairments will increase by an estimated 22 percent over the next ten years.

Even as we celebrate the 25th anniversary of the American with Disabilities Act, there are still many barriers people face using a wheelchair or another mobility-assistance device.  Too often, the designated entrances for the disabled are locked shut, as pointed out recently to me by a friend at synagogue, who is now pushing around her teenager in a wheelchair after her daughter's hip replacement surgery. “It is so hard to get around with a wheelchair,” she said to me, “I had no idea how a crack in a sidewalk can make your life so miserable” she added.  We nodded in sympathy, knowing that the broken sidewalks of Los Angeles are notorious for forcing wheelchair users to go into the streets and dodge drivers more intent on their latest text message than looking out for someone in wheelchair.

Other common problems are disabled parking spots without adjacent curb cuts, non-operative elevators, doors that don’t swing out at least 32 inches to accommodate wheelchairs and retail establishments that don’t leave sufficient space between sales racks to squeeze by. Sometimes the buildings are fully accessible, but the bathrooms are not. Auditorium seating arrangements too often result in seats shoved together too close, and the same happens with the round tables at galas, banquets and other happy occasions. And don’t even get me started on the problems of sand, gravel and paved stones (the Old City in Jerusalem comes to mind).

To raise awareness of the problem, the website Disability Network Today has proposed a “Wheelchair for the Day” based on the experience of The Braun Corporation, the world’s largest manufacturer of wheelchair-accessible vans, ramps and wheelchair lifts.

The Braun Corporation asked their able-bodied employees to use a wheelchair for one day to better understand what their customers go through on a day-to-day basis. According to their website, “What we quickly discovered is that even the smallest of tasks became complicated, whether it was doing a routine inspection at our factory or taking a trip to get lunch,” said Nick Gutwein, president of The Braun Corporation. “While our Wheelchair for a Day program does not fully reflect what people with disabilities experience, it offered an eye-opening glimpse into the daily lives of our customers that has allowed us to better appreciate their needs.”

So, give it a go. Close your eyes and imagine yourself in a wheelchair going to school or work, grocery shopping or attending a wedding. Help clear out the obstacles now, so it will be easier for you or someone you love later on.