I have to come to appreciate lately that while you can make a building accessible, you can’t make the minds of the people in the building accessible.
Over the past few weeks, Maclain and I have had various issues with accessibility. We have had trouble getting into a bowling alley, restaurant, and a large well known bookstore. The bookstore was perhaps the most frustrating of the three because their automatic accessible doors at the front of the store, gave the initial impression of an overall accessibility. Once inside however, we realized that the children’s book section was on the second floor, for which there was no way up other than an escalator. I won’t lie and say I wasn’t a tad bit furious, and I know that I will not ever go back there again, but what saved the day was the efforts of the staff inside the store to meet our needs. I was fuming, and Maclain was starting to cry as I told him we would have to leave because there weren’t any books for him there. We had a staff member approach to ask if she could help. I said we couldn’t get upstairs, and that we would have to leave. She apologized for an accessibility issue that was not her fault, which I really appreciated, and then she said, ” well, if he can’t go up to see the books, then I will bring the books down to see him”. She asked what he liked, and she proceeced to make multiple trips upstairs to load a basket with every Cars, Dora, Backyardigans, and Mickey Mouse books she could find. We found a spot to sit, and we took the next hour and a bit to go through all the books until he found one he wanted. She could very easily have allowed us to leave the store in a huff, but instead, she chose to find a way to make the books accessible to Maclain.
This was also the case at the bowling alley that we went to last week. We were so excited to participate in a birthday party with one of Maclain’s classmates from school, and the fact that he loves to bowl made it even more fun. My enthusiasm was quickly erased when we got to the alley, and saw that it was upstairs, about 2 flights up, with no elevator. I felt even worse for the mom of the birthday girl, who when booking the place, didn’t even think about the accessiblity. And I didn’t blame her, it was a totally natural oversight when you don’t normally have to consider such issues. And to make it more of a challenge, we couldn’t even get him to the lanes, because the benches were too close together to wheel him through. But again, despite these obvious barriers, everyone rallied, and we lifted him up in his chair to get him to the alley, and to the lanes. Once the kids swarmed him, and the parents welcomed us, the challenges of getting there were forgotten. It became very clear to me, that while physical barriers can make things so very frustrating and difficult, they are more easily overcome than the invisible barriers that exist.
Here is the flip side to the accessibility issue. We had another community trip last week to a botanical garden. I took Maclain to see a Dinosaur exhibit, just the 2 of us, while his brother was at hockey camp. I was looking forward to an easy day. The place is totally accessible, and as his companion, my admission was free. I packed up our stuff, and off we went. We had no problem parking, and of course we could make our way around via ramps and elevators. There was one area in the greenhouse that we couldn’t get to, but it was ok, because it was nothing we really wanted to see, and it was an area that could not be made accessible to a wheelchair because of the slope of the grade.
We tooled around and checked out all the stuff. We roared at the dinosaurs, and touched all the things that could be touched. I was in a little bit of a happy place because most of our day trips are not without their struggles. It was for this reason that the attitudes of the staff totally caught me off guard.
After we were asked to move the wheelchair out of the way in the gift shop so other people could get in even though we were still looking, and then given a scolded look when we moved some chairs aside to make room at a table in the restaurant, I started to get my back up a bit. That was twice, and I was trying to remain optimistic that there wouldn’t be a third.
We went to find a place to sit for the reptile show that was going to start in a half hour or so. I found us a spot off to the side, because that was the only place Maclain could go and still be able to see everything like the other kids. At first one of the employees suggested we take a place up where the older people could sit, so that the wheelchair wouldn’t run over any of the kids feet. I politely declined, and had to stop myself from running over her feet. I decided to stay where we were, it was a good spot to see the show. I did manage to stifle a laugh when Maclain started to kick some of the kids that has decided to take up residence right in front of his chair, after their mom, who was late to the show, told them to squeeze in front of the wheelchair, because he could see over their heads. Sorry to say, that I didn’t tell him to stop the kicking, and the kids decided to squeeze in somewhere else 🙂
We got all settled in and I figured we were good to go. That was of course until the people putting on the show thought that the place for the upright easel was right in front of Maclain, which blocked his view of the stage area. I asked them to move it, and was told that was the only place for it. I didn’t say out loud that I could think of another place they could stick their easel, So I then said, “well, this is the only place for the 5 year old in the wheelchair, so find another place for the easel”. They gave Maclain a pitied look, and moved it.
The show starts, and the translator ( it was French day, lucky us) decides to stand in front of Maclain. COME ON, REALLY??? So right as he is talking to the crowd, I walk up and ask him to move, so Maclain can see. Didn’t we just go over this? He moves back, and now Maclain is grinning from ear to ear in anticipation of the animals coming. Until the guy doing the show decides to only show the animals to the kids sitting right up front. OK, NOW I AM GETTING MAD! How can you not see my son in his orange tiger stripped wheelchair, with his headband and cochlear implants? He does not really blend in with the crowd. So, up I go again, in the middle of the presentation, and ask him to PLEASE show the animals to the side of the stage area. Finally, they light goes on, and they start to realize that Maclain cannot see what is happening, and they begin to respond accordingly. He was thrilled and loved it, and I was happy to see him having so much fun, but I could not get over what a hassle this had been. The building was totally accessible, this should have been a trouble free, easy, day. But it was those invisible barriers that I could not see, and couldn’t prepare for that almost ruined our day. It was more than wood, and bricks, and ramps and doors. It was the inability of people to make their minds accessible to the needs of people with a disability.
The reality is that there are many buildings and locations that need to be modified to meet the needs of the physically disabled. The government is working to make that happen with initiatives like the one here in Ontario, Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act(AODA). I remain hopeful that one day the majority of places in this world will be accessible.
But what legislation can we pass that will make the minds of able bodied people barrier free? How do we address attitudinal barriers? I know this is a common question for which there are many answers, and I am not the first, nor will I be the last to ask it. It is just one more thing for me, as the parent of a special needs child, to try to work through. I will continue to provide ongoing communication, education, exposure, and advocacy, and hope that we can make a change to people’s thinking one person at a time.
The one thing I will not do is let either visible or invisible prevent us from participating in the world, so buck up people, we are coming in!