My daughter recently tore her ACL and was in a wheelchair for the better part of a couple of weeks while it healed enough for her to walk for longer periods of time on crutches and then finally on her own.
It’s never a good time to tear your ACL but there are certainly worse times. This felt somewhat in the middle, leaning towards “worse times”. She tore it while I was out of town in Croatia, which was horrible for me since I felt awful that I wasn’t there to take care of her (no worries, my husband was there and did a fab job but still, that mom-guilt hit hard). It was just one more reason why I wanted to get back home so bad despite the universe conspiring against me.
The other complicating factor was that she and I had scheduled a bunch of college tours during her Spring Break and that now meant tours with me pushing her all around campus in a wheelchair. Although she could get around over short distances with the crutches, there was no way that she could do a full walking tour of various campuses that way, especially since we knew some of the campuses were quite hilly. But we were up for the challenge! The day after I got home from Croatia, we loaded the wheelchair, crutches, and suitcases into the car and off we went on what we now call our Lucy and Ethel Tour.
We had a great time, made some memories, and had a lot of laughs but one thing that this experience taught me overall was not to take my mobility for granted.
Hotels, Restaurants, Elevators, and Oblivious People
I knew it would take a few trips for me to get her in and out of different hotel rooms each night as we worked our way around the state. Despite traveling light, there’s no way I could help her with her chair if she got stuck, plus wheel both of our carry-ons and carry her crutches. Once we got into each of the hotels, it was a different set of problems. In one room, the bed was so close to one wall that it was difficult for an able person to get in and out, much less someone working with a mobility issue/on crutches. I slept on that side and had to do some sort of sideways crab walk to get in and out of bed.
Then there’s the elevator. One of my pet peeves is when people try to crowd into the elevator before letting people get out. It’s even worse when you’re dealing with someone with a mobility issue. I usually give wide berth to folks in wheelchairs, on crutches, using walkers etc because I figured that they might need to space to maneuver and having someone cut too close to you can be off-putting since you know you can’t easily move out of the way.
Now, I was seeing it from the other perspective. Trying to get someone in a wheelchair out of an elevator while others are crowding in before you can get off is not easy. And when she was on crutches, it was worse. I was worried someone would bump into her or that she would try to make a sudden pivot to get around people and end up hurting herself.
There was one time when a guy and his buddy who got on the elevator the moment the doors opened and then saw us trying to get off. One of them said “My bad” by way of an apology, which was nice since most people don’t even bother with that, but instead of stepping back out to allow us to get out, they got on anyway. It was a small elevator and trying to maneuver my daughter in her chair around two other people to get her out the door was irritatingly unnecessary.
We had similar issues going in and out of restaurants and other buildings and moving through areas with other people around. Most were just oblivious that they were making it difficult for my daughter to get around simply by cutting in front of her or stopping abruptly, squeezing past her, and things of that sort.
There were also plenty of really nice and considerate people but they tended to be the folks on staff at places, rather than the general public, who seemed largely oblivious to those around them.
College Campus Tours
I’d like to say up front that I thought all of the tours and guides did a really nice job of making accommodations for us and making us feel included and I really appreciated it. I was also somewhat relieved to see that on each tour, we were not the only party with mobility issues so I didn’t feel like they had to go out of their way for just us, plus it was nice to have someone else to talk to when we had to divert for ramps and such.
I expected the campuses to be accessible due to Americans with Disabilities Act and they were for the most part. Accessible though doesn’t mean “easily accessible” in some cases. There were times when we had to divert from the rest of the tour group in search of a ramp instead of stairs for instance, but I didn’t mind. I was just happy that my daughter could fully participate in the tours and see the same things everyone else was seeing.
As a matter of practicality, there was also the restroom issue. At one visitor center (and this is a major university), the only accessible restroom was on the second floor. The irony was not lost on me of putting a flight of stairs between the person and the bathroom. There was an elevator but still. Why put it on the second floor?
At another campus, the opening presentation was in an auditorium that had “theater seating”. What’s the problem with that? Well the floor had quite a lot of slope to it with no “flat area” where the seats were so I spent the presentation guarding her wheelchair to make sure the brakes would hold and not roll her, injured leg first, into the seats in front of her.
On one of the tours, we had spent over 2 hours going up and down hills and ramps and I was beat (side note: major props to one of our guides who offered to push my daughter up the last GIANT final hill – thank you!!). The tour typically ends with the guides advising people to ride one of the campus shuttle buses back to the visitors center and we were all for that.
Boy did I get my eyes opened on how not-easy it is for wheelchair-bound folks to do something as simple as ride a bus. First was the fact that at that particular stop, there was no ramp to get her down to street level so I had to pull her backwards down a small hill next to the stairs. Then, it was an ordeal to get her on the bus since there wasn’t much room to make the turn from the door way to the aisle. Then the poor bus driver had to hook safety belts to the front and back of her chair and then strap what I’ve called the World’s Largest Seatbelt across her and her chair. The whole process took about 10 minutes which doesn’t sound like a long time, but you sure feel it when the entire rest of the passengers are waiting on you.
We got back to the visitors center and had to repeat the whole process in reverse to get her off the bus. There were 2 young men waiting to get on and they were very kind about it but I still felt bad about holding everyone up.
While on our one tour (and that bus ride), I chatted with the other folks in our group with a mobility issue. Turns out the mom has some sort of chronic nervous system illness and it was really eye-opening to hear the things she had to go through to get treatment and the difference it made to her in having accessible buildings, services, etc.
I shared with her that I have become so accustomed to seeing ramps, elevators, accessible restrooms and seating and the like in the US, that it hits me when I travel how limited the options are in other countries for folks with mobility issues. I’ve used public transportation in other countries where there’s no elevator in sight and stairs are the only way to get to the platform. Even if there is an elevator, the gap between the train and the platform in some cases would make it very difficult for someone in a wheelchair to get on the train.
Then there are the old buildings, historical sites, monuments, and the like (particularly in Europe since that’s often where my foreign travel takes me) that are completely inaccessible. I understand that there’s a real challenge, or perhaps impossibility, in making some of these locations accessible but it saddens me nonetheless that an entire group of people will never be able to see or experience being at these places simply because they can’t walk or climb stairs.
I’ve also been in my share of European restaurants where the bathrooms were tiny and quite often down a flight of stairs – impossible for someone in a wheelchair or using crutches/walkers/leg braces etc to use. Some US locations that are exempt from the ADA aren’t much different. It hit me how limited things must feel to people with mobility issues where there aren’t accommodations and accessibility options, how small their world might be out of necessity due to a lack of access. And that makes me sad.
The whole experience was eye-opening for me and my daughter to say the least. I have a much greater appreciation for how difficult (and sometimes impossible) things are for people with mobility issues. Things we take for granted, like enjoying a meal in a restaurant with friends, using public transportation, going to a museum or library or other public place. Or just simply getting on and off an elevator.
It has left me more mindful of how I, as an able person, move around and interact with others who have mobility issues so as not to create more difficulty for them or treat them as if they are invisible or an obstacle for me to work around.
Speaking just for my experiences with helping my daughter get around, simply waiting for people to exit an elevator or a train or whatever before you try to crowd into it is helpful (and it’s also just proper etiquette). Same goes for keeping an appropriate distance between yourself and a person with mobility issues and not cutting them off or squeezing past them simply because you’re able so you can. Awareness goes a long way in helping you avoid bumping them or making them have to make a sudden movement in response to your movement or just stopping altogether until you (and other people) have passed by to avoid the situation entirely.