The disabled yet at risk
By Bonita Phillips
I am often pleasantly surprised when passers-by rush to my assistance because they think that I will either be killed by oncoming traffic, or that I’m simply putting my life at risk. I am not irresponsible; I have no alternative.
I am a wheelchair user and often cannot manoeuvre sidewalks when there are challenges, which include, plant pots, garbage bins, benches, building debris, and large cracks and holes that would cause me to tip out of my chair. I am forced to use the road because some sidewalks are dangerously high, with extremely steep kerbs, often with a vehicle parked across my only exit.
Unfortunately, many of us, including caregivers and those who have experienced the harsh reality of using mobility aids for short periods, often do not speak out.
Too many of us seem to be content with accepting the struggle.
I have to acknowledge that it is not always easy to advocate for self. I have found it much easier advocating for others; but where individual safety is at stake, I feel that the challenges should be addressed.
I was meeting friends, frequent visitors to the island, for lunch at the Careenage in Bridgetown. The now aging gentleman developed knee problems; he was using a cane and struggling to get around. I quickly discovered that my only access to the restaurant from the bridge was down a very steep ramp.
Quick assessment was that the ramp was not built for wheelchair users. Driving my wheelchair forward could mean my falling on my face; reversing could mean my chair tipping and my hitting the back of my head. Nevertheless, I had no choice and gingerly reversed down the very steep narrow ramp that had no sides to stop my wheels from rolling off.
As I neared the bottom one of the back wheels slipped off the ramp and I was hurled to the ground, my head crashing against a stall. Fortunately the heavy motorized chair did not fall on me. However, my back, shoulders and head struck the ground really hard. The pain and shock were as such that I cried uncontrollably.
Stall holders rushed to my assistance, bringing water, painkillers and ointment. Their comments and understanding about the inaccessible environment, as well as their kindness and concern, were amazing.
With tears still rolling, I met six tourists for lunch. Understandably, they were upset by my experience, and they feared their own challenges.
Yes, I went to FMH and had treatment, but like many others, I did not lodge a formal complaint, and did not make a claim for hospital treatment or my damaged chair.
It was not until I was with a large party of visiting conference participants that I had to acknowledge that it is in everybody’s interest that we do something about the inaccessible environment that surrounds us. After an enjoyable walk on the Richie Haynes Boardwalk, we decided to end the evening at Bert’s Bar. We could not all fit into the car and decided to walk.
As we walked I saw expressions of horror, heard their gasps of disbelief and screams of “Oh, my God!”, as we had to come off short, sometimes inaccessible sidewalks to face oncoming traffic. One of the group took out a flashlight and waved it around, while looking towards the ground to ensure that she did not trip. The standards which visitors expect became a reality.
As persons with disabilities we have had comments like “What is the point of complaining? Nothing changes”, and “What is the point? There is no money”. We will however argue that solutions put in place for people with disabilities will benefit everyone. The parent pushing a stroller, the person with a temporary mobility challenge, the health-conscious individual trying to jog or take a brisk walk, the senior citizen with increasing mobility challenges, and the person with a heavy load.
Poor access has an impact on everyone, if not at this moment in time. With an aging population, we need to have an accessible environment. So lend your support to the Multiple Sclerosis Society as we campaign to have access for all.