Access to the Disabled

Visiting with some friends one evening, we heard insistent honking on the street. Finally going out to check, they discovered that it was friends of theirs trying to get help. They were stuck in their wheel-chair van because the lift mechanism had jammed. If the woman could be lifted out of the back of the van, she, at least, could make it home in her electric wheelchair. So we all went out to the street to help lift.

I had a nodding acquaintance with them both so, after that was accomplished, I introduced the children and we chatted with the woman about their afternoon's shopping, while her husband consulted with our friends about what might unjam the lift. A tool box was brought out. All three children were lifted into the van to explore the big open space in the back and the controls that allowed a person in a wheelchair to drive it. Finally, the job was done. We waved good-bye to the van, and I headed home with my children, while our friends and their child took advantage of the beautiful summer evening to walk the woman home.

It was a simple interaction, with a little excitement, a lot of friendliness, a little work and a happy ending. Nothing remarkable. Yet I went home feeling profoundly thankful for the experience. Never in my entire childhood had I been that close to a person with a physical disability. Never had I seen my parents at ease in such a situation. Never had I had the chance to explore the mechanisms that can do the work of a non-functioning body part. (I have a vivid memory of an older girl that I saw each summer at a big church conference who had a wooden arm with a hook; I was consumed with curiosity about her that was never satisfied.) Not surprising that I grew up to be awkward and constrained in such situations.

But I have high hopes that it can be different for my children. Partly it's just luck that they're thrown in contact with more disabled people. It was just luck that we happened to be visiting those friends that evening. But it isn't just luck that my husband has made the after-school club he leads accessible to the disabled. Now all those children (and their parents) get to figure out how to play with a boy with advanced muscular dystrophy. When they take turns doing electric wheel-chair races, it's an exciting challenge all round--and he gets to be the best. When he sits up high and aims pillow missiles (with the help of an adult) at whoever crosses his path, it's fun for everybody. And we all get to see that a child who is physically limited--and in this case dying--is not just a generalized object of pity. He's very much his own person--to be enjoyed and pissed off at and thought about just like anybody else.

The lessons for me are to set a tone with my children that disabled is just as ordinary and just as interesting as able-bodied,9 and, most important of all, to make contact. Even though our family doesn't happen to rub elbows daily with disabled people, we don't have to be isolated. We can steer a course that puts us in contact. Doing so, we'll get access to that many more of our fellow travelers on earth, we'll shed that much more of our fear of the unknown, and our lives will be that much richer. After all, when the subject is disability, access is what everybody wants--and we're no exception.