Earlier this week, a Facebook memory reminded me of a news story I shared a few years ago — a city government official had taken a “wheelchair for a day” challenge to better understand what life is like for disabled people.
While the article is no longer published, the criticism I offered on my personal Facebook profile remains:
One word: disingenuous. The circumstances of PR stunts like these are controlled — They involve able-bodied politicians rolling around the office and down to the nearest restaurant (in this case, one block away), just long enough for a photo op and an interview with a local reporter for a puff piece. It teaches very little and doesn’t introduce the individuals to any of the challenges that most effect my life and the lives of others who are truly disabled. And, worst of all, it won’t bring about any changes in public policy — This person, who has some degree of power to effect change, is unlikely to make the community any more accessible. But he will pat himself on the back and the nondisabled readers of this article will now believe disabled people are better off. We’re not.
As you can see, I’m not much of a fan of these simulations. They aren’t representative of disabled people’s true reality.
Let’s play this out in a hypothetical scenario.
An able-bodied city official, let’s call him Joe, decides to take on this “challenge.” He wakes up, showers, gets dressed, prepares breakfast and drives to City Hall as normal. Once he’s arrived at work, he’ll take a seat in a wheelchair, roll it around the office, sit at his desk and get to work in a chair that is slightly less comfortable than his adjustable office chair. Later, Joe might make a trip to the bathroom (where he’ll surely stand up to use the urinal as normal).
At lunchtime, he’ll roll to a nearby restaurant with a gaggle of reporters and people cheering on his supposed advocacy. Joe may even encounter some barriers along the way — perhaps a heavy door, a broken sidewalk, a noncompliant curb cut, a steep ramp or a narrow doorway.
After lunch, he will roll back to City Hall, get back to work and, ultimately, conclude his experiment. Standing up from the wheelchair, he may comment on “how strong you have to be” to propel a wheelchair and how he has “a new perspective” on how challenging things are for some disabled people.
That perspective is elementary. Our fictional character Joe hasn’t experienced any of the following during his extremely limited (business hours only) simulation:
- Struggling to get out of bed or requiring assistance to transfer into a wheelchair.
- Bathing while in a seated position and with limited mobility and/or dexterity.
- Riding to work on public transportation that may have limited accessibility.
- Finding access to a metro station, building or workplace denied due to a broken elevator.
- Encountering rain and being unable to hold an umbrella while propelling a wheelchair.
- Attempting to safely use the bathroom and a wheelchair in facilities that are not ADA compliant.
- Waiting hours for a wheelchair accessible taxi, or being told that no such taxi is available at all.
These challenges are of course just the tip of the iceberg, and they say nothing about the economic hardship of disability, which Joe is not forced to contend with:
- Costs associated with making a home accessible.
- The purchase of durable medical equipment, which may include mobility devices, catheter equipment, hospital beds, shower chairs, etc.
- Medical care and prescription medication expenses.
- Financing a truly accessible vehicle, with adaptations that can cost $30,000 or more over the vehicle’s retail price.
- Paying $40 for a cab ride, only because the $10 Uber is not wheelchair accessible.
- Covering the salary of personal care attendants required to perform basic activities of daily living, which may include eating, bathing and toileting.
- The cost of lost time and productivity, such as hours spent waiting for that ADA taxi.
The financial pressure associated with these expenses, which are not due to any fault of the individual, restrict freedom in ways that few can comprehend.
To say that “wheelchair for a day” simulations barely scratch the surface of the difficulties faced by disabled people is the understatement of the century. At the end of the work day, participants like Joe simply stand up and rejoin a privileged world that is so often designed around and only for able-bodied people.
Rather than sitting in a wheelchair for a day, public officials and business owners could make better use of their time by speaking directly and frequently with the disabled people they represent and serve. They must be prepared to learn hard truths about the state of (or lack of) accessibility within their communities and accept the credible testimonies of disabled citizens and customers.
The roots of inaccessibility and disability discrimination run deep and, without continued engagement, the unacceptable status quo will not be overcome.