Saturday, February 1, 2014

Disabled and Displaced

The sight of a person confined to a wheelchair for life, either from serious birth defects or as the result of injuries sustained later in life, causes numerous reactions from others. Depending on the viewer's perspective, these reactions range from empathy to averting of one's eyes to pretending not to notice to being overly solicitous - or better yet, simply seeing that person as a human being.

From the vantage point of people in that mobile chair, they have to contend with their own reality, which differs in certain areas from the majority of two-leggeds who can go where they wish freely. How this psychological component is navigated, from the vantage point of the chair, can make the difference between a life well-lived and one not so well-lived within the interior emotional landscape.

However, one factor that is often overlooked by people graced with full use of their bodies is the way our villages, towns, and cities build their infrastructure. Until recently, the disabled were confined to few areas where they could go in their chairs - because steps, small elevators, sidewalk curbs and a myriad of other obstacles prevented them from getting to where others go so effortlessly.

The real meaning of "disabled" refers not only to the physical condition of the person in the chair. It means that the disabled have been dis-abled from entering most places in our world because architects, city planners, businesses and others disallow them from entering anywhere they wish - because the environment is not designed to allow for the passage of wheeled vehicles a minimum of 3+ feet wide.

Of course there has been progress in this area, with rules governing the construction of buildings that are "handicapped" friendly, although this word is not fondly viewed by people with disabilities. But not enough has been accomplished yet.

Recently, I was at a dinner party in Paris, France. After navigating deep staircases on the Metro and squeezing into the tiny elevator in the apartment building of our hosts, I wondered how anyone in a wheelchair could live in Paris. It was absolutely and completely disabled unfriendly. When I mentioned this to my French host, he said, "You Americans make too much of this disabled thing."

I pray that this man may never know the hardships of being barred from society by its disregard for the needs of the disabled. In the meantime, supporting laws to enforce access to the land of the living is a human rights issue. The time has come to wake up to all of humanity's needs.

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