The hospital that houses the wound clinic I go to is undergoing some massive renovations and remodeling, and as a result of the construction, you have to valet your car to park. For most people a free, valet service is no big deal and probably seen as a good thing, but when it takes you up to 10 minutes to get out of your vehicle, using a valet can be a little difficult. The valet attendants need to keep things moving, and especially at a busy hospital, they don’t have time to wait for me to unload. Making things even more difficult, the road through the valet area is usually narrow and on a hill, which means that there isn’t usually even a great spot for us to pull over, get me out, and then valet the car. This is one of those unexpected obstacles that I have grown accustomed to handling over the years, but I forget that this type of problem is something that “normal,” able-bodied people rarely encounter, and as a result do not know how to deal with. I was reminded however, last Friday as I listened to my nurse try to figure out this parking problem.
Last Friday I had another check up at the wound clinic to see how my pressure sore is healing. Everything went well as we were getting ready to go, and we even made great time and encountered little traffic on the way there. When we pulled into the hospital parking lot, we realized that we would have to valet the van, so we made our way to the valet area. There was a line of vehicles in constant motion, and we waited our turn as we crept towards the entrance. When we reached a parking attendant, my nurse explained that it would take us a few minutes to unload me so he could park the car, and then asked where we should pull over to do it. This teenage, parking attendant who couldn’t look you in the eye, looked around confused, and then replied, “Ummm…I don’t really know where you could do that. Ummm…this area has to stay clear. If you get him unloaded though, come back and we will ummm…park your car.” At this point two things were obvious. First, this rocket scientist was not going to help us figure this out. And second, our educational system needs some improvement.
We had already been holding up the valet line for several minutes, so we had to drive through, come up with a plan, and then come back around again. As we pulled away I was scoping out the environment and looking for a nearby place to get me out, when my nurse surprised me by saying, “Scott, they aren’t going to help us. What do you want me to do?” I wasn’t surprised by her question, but by the amount of anxiety and frustration I heard in her voice. There was an edge and aggressive tone to her voice that I hadn’t heard before, and I could tell that her emotions were starting to overwhelm her and take away her objectivity. So, I quickly tried to defuse the situation by calmly saying, “Let’s just pull around and try again. This time I will be on the lookout for any place that could work, and if we don’t find someplace, we will talk to the head valet attendant. We cannot be the only people who have this issue with it being a hospital. It will work out.” She silently agreed, and we made another go of it. This time through I spotted an unoccupied area near the curb that was out of the way of traffic, close to the valet area, and would allow us to get me unloaded. This solved our little crisis, and we valeted the Drotarcade and continued on to my appointment without any more problems.
Later that day, I started thinking about the intense, emotional reaction my nurse had after her encounter with the parking attendant. To me, logistical issues like this are just something that happen when you are out in public. Services are designed for able-bodied individuals, and if you want to use these services as a disabled person, typically you have to take charge and figure out a way to adapt to your environment on your own. That is just the way it is. Employees in service positions, like valet attendants, wait staff, and salespeople, just don’t have the training, experience, or authority to be much help most of the time, whether they want to or not. So when the parking lot genius was absolutely useless, I just shrugged it off and started working on finding a solution as I always do. My nurse however, wasn’t used to having service employees throw their hands up and say, “Sorry. I don’t know how to help you, but you need to make way for other customers.” She wasn’t used to having to work out on your own how to adapt to the able-bodied world around you. She wasn’t used to feeling defeated and helpless, when doing something as simple as parking your car becomes a huge debacle.
Her reaction made me think about how different my experience of the world is compared to the experience of an able-bodied person. An activity as simple and mundane as using a complimentary valet service looks completely different to the two of us. While you see it as a nice, little perk that makes your life easier by not making you park your vehicle (I’m assuming), I see something very different. As I am pulling up and see the mandatory valet service, I am immediately taking in my environment, looking for where the curb will let my van lift down, and deciding whether there is room to stop and get me out without stopping the flow of traffic. What is a convenience for able-bodied individuals, is actually an added obstacle for disabled people.
This is a perfect example of how hard it can be sometimes living as a disabled person in an able-bodied world. This is just one example of the types of arduous situations that frequently pop up as I go about my life using a wheelchair. Learning to navigate my way through these trying times has taught me a lot about thinking creatively, staying objective and optimistic, and not giving up when things get tough. It has also helped me develop a thick skin when it comes to being treated differently because of my disability. As thankful as I am that I have acquired these valuable skills however, it would be nice if I could go through life without having to worry about whether the “able-bodied services” will accommodate my disability. I would love to be able to run on autopilot in these trivial, day-to-day situations like most of the world, but fair or not, that is not the hand I was dealt. While this fact of life doesn’t bother me much anymore, the social standing of disabled people in society is something that I hope to change, so that future generations don’t have to struggle against the same difficulties that I do.
I hope that by sharing my experiences and my stories with you, that the inequalities in the statuses of disabled and able-bodied people will start to be seen for the problem they are. The next time you are handing your keys to a valet, trying to get a table at a restaurant, or finding your seats at a concert, think about how that task, which takes next to no thought for you, could be an enormous challenge for someone who is physically disabled. Think about how difficult it is for them, not out of pity, but as a means to ask yourself, “Does it have to be this way?” If enough of us ask this question, and keep asking it, eventually the world will realize that there doesn’t have to be this great divide between the way able-bodied and disabled people experience the world. With a little thought and effort, we could change from the able-bodied world we currently live in, to a world that caters to all people regardless of physical ability. We could create a world where we don’t even categorize individuals on the basis of physical ability A world where people are seen for who they are not what they can do. A world where all men are created equal, free, and left to pursue their dreams. A world that I would be proud to be a part of.