Thursday, November 15, 2007

My homework for an ATACP module

This was an answer to a question for my ATACP training. We were to take a field trip in our community and observe accessibility. Here is my answer:

I decided to observe accessibility on my own field trip between Kansas City and Boulder. I have rheumatoid arthritis and am starting this trip after sort of an upswing from a summer flare, but I’m exhausted from taking care of family obligations.

The hard thing about an invisible disability is trying to distinguish between what I need and what I can get. For instance, I circled the remote parking lot, not wanting to take a disabled spot, despite the fact I have a tag. I don’t usually park in the disabled spots unless I am particularly sore or tired. But I realized I would be in satellite parking, alone, in the cold, possibly at night, while trying to manipulate luggage. The disabled spots were close to the bus stops and security shacks with nice curb breaks for my rolling suitcase. So social factors had a bit to do with it. Still, if I felt the potential to be a sitting duck, I think a person with a wheelchair would be even more vulnerable.

The remote parking lot bus was wheelchair accessible, but it was cramped and crowded and would be hard to negotiate with wheelchair.

I still don’t have my folding scooter and honestly, the remote parking would have been more difficult with a scooter.

Kansas City airport is relatively compact so I didn’t think about the scooter again until we got to the gate. I flew Southwest airlines and looked at the people standing in line and decided to ask for a pre-boarding pass. I had never asked for one before. The people at the counter were great and did not give me a hard time. I didn’t have to justify my blue pre-boarding card at all.

Until it came time to board. The cattle call began. All of the people standing in the A line looked me over as I passed in front of them. Ugh. I wished for the scooter so they would leave me alone. I’ve never felt so much hostility. Yet, as tired and sore as I was, I was so grateful to not have to use my little bit of energy for fighting for a seat.

I really wished for a scooter in Denver. It’s a huge airport. I paid attention to things such as whether or not I could have negotiated the gap on the transit system with a scooter. I don’t think it would have been possible. The transit system wasn’t staffed, so someone in a wheelchair who did get stuck would be in trouble. I saw a sign for “wheelchair passenger transfer” so I assume there was a different system.

I was impressed that the announcement for the trains were spoken as well as displayed on a moving sign system.

The elevators were nice and new and had few riders, unlike the evil balance-threatening crowd on the escalators. I noticed the Braille signage. However, I noticed the map in the terminal that I relied heavily on did not have any alternative format for people with visual impairments.

It was survival of the fittest at the baggage claim. I imagine one could ask for assistance with bags if needed. My shuttle was not accessible at all. Again, there is a number a person could call for an accessible shuttle.

It has been my experience that ADA accessibility is one thing, but so much could be solved with better customer service, better assistance, and universal design. It’s not enough to have “separate” assistance and separate shuttles. What is truly universal is the right to catch a shuttle at the airport without having to go to heroic lengths.

Post script: On the way home from Denver, I once again asked for pre-boarding. It was hard to do. I caught myself getting really flustered as I tried to explain. I was with a man who was blind and also pre-boarding. (He was, according to our presenter at ATACP relaying his experience with airport assistance, a “no see male.” Reminds me of Amtrak, where the “handicap” got on the train. Inclusive language. Learn to love it.)

Anyway, when I got to the plane, the captain asked me to wait while they got the man situated. That was fine, but behind me was boarding group A, anxious to get the coveted bulkhead seats. I needed help lifting my bag and all the help had left, assuming I was with the A group. I even looked around for a flight attendant. I had to ask the man beside me as the crowds pressed in on all sides. If it were easy for me to find a seat and lift my bag above my head, I wouldn’t have needed pre-boarding.

Still, I don’t know what my issue is. I’m upset because people are judging me when I pre-board and then I’m upset because I don’t get help.

The issue is that it’s hard to “come out” so to speak. I think of how much better my T.A. years would have been had I gotten my handicapped permit sooner, parked closer, and gotten accommodations like riding the golf cart to class. I realize how much of my energy went toward the wrong things. And I didn’t feel sick. If I had felt worse, I might have demanded my accommodations.

The neatest thing about the conference was all of the people with disabilities there. I saw more guide dogs and wheelchairs than you could imagine. A person who had blindness gave our presentation on tools for people with blindness and visual impairments, while using a screen reader to give his power point presentation. It was awesome to just be surrounded by so many diverse people. But then again, I saw how people with “real” disabilities compared to mine still struggle with how to accept help.

I was sitting in the hotel lobby with other conference-goers and a woman with a cane and guide dog came through. Her dog balked at the sliding door. It was obvious the woman was trying to find something. So the woman I was sitting with asked her if she needed directions. As they talked, my co-conference goer also took the woman gently by the elbow to guide her away from a column.

The lady jumped back and swung her arm away as if she’d been punched.

I understand that after awhile, you would get tired of people holding on to your arm without asking. But it seemed awfully rude. No one in the lobby knew how to act after that. It was an embarrassed silence. We are all professionals in the field of disabilities and no one knew what to say or do. We all gave verbal directions from our couches and that was it.

You live.
You learn.
You pre-board without stammering and turning red. Hopefully. One day.

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