Breaking Ground 109 Arts - Honest Directions for Wheelchair Users

Essay by Stacy J. Estep

First of all, you should know that the shortest distance between two points is rarely a straight line. Here’s the truth: for you, going out of the way will often be the only way.

Be prepared to discover that the sidewalk you’re on has collapsed into a pothole. You can’t step over or around it, so you’ll have to go back the way you came until you find a ramp that’s not blocked by a scooter that someone couldn’t bother to park properly. Cross the street there, go past where you were trying to go, cross back to the side of the street where you started, and continue.

Your arms may be strong, but sometimes they’re no match for the gravity that wants to roll you backwards. To reach a destination that’s just one block west but up a steep hill, your only safe option is to stay on the more gradual slopes by going two blocks north, then one block west, and two blocks south.

Maybe you’ll decide to take a bus. That’s fine, but don’t bother considering where you want to sit. There’s only one spot designated for you, and if it happens to be occupied by another wheelchair already, you’ll have to wait for the next bus, anyway.

Let’s talk about subways. When you get off the train, you might find that you can’t get out of the station because the elevator on your platform is broken. Here’s your workaround: wait for another train to arrive, and when its doors open, quickly dash into and across the car before they close again. When you come out onto the opposite platform, use the elevator on that side. Hopefully that one’s working, and you’ll be able to get aboveground and actually leave the station.

Never, ever run late. All of this takes extra time, so plan ahead for that.

In an office building, if you think you’ll need to use the restroom at some point, don’t wait until your bladder is full, because you might have to wait for the elevator. There’s probably only one accessible stall on your floor, and it’s probably occupied by someone who could have used any of the other stalls, which are all empty.

Any time you take a tour, assume at some point you’ll get separated from the group and miss part of the presentation when the guide leads everyone else up a flight of stairs and you have to go search for an elevator. Be aware that you’ll still have to pay full price, though.

In case of fire, sit at the top of the stairwell and wait for some burly strangers to find you and carry you to safety.

When strolling back from lunch with your co-workers, prepare to cut your conversation short. They’ll be turning right to use the nearest door, which is across the grass and up a flight of stairs. You’ll need to turn left and follow the sidewalk to the ground-level door at the far end of the building.

Even when the most direct way is accessible, it’s not necessarily the fastest. If it’s a route with a lot of pedestrians, be aware that some of them will stop you to ask if you need help, and even when you tell them that you don’t, they might not believe you, and you’ll have to say it again (but super nicely, so they won’t cuss you out for refusing their kindness), and after this happens half a dozen times, it’s really just quicker and less draining to go the longer, less trafficked way where fewer people will notice you.

If someone ever asks you how far away something is, tell them you’re not sure, but that it’s probably closer for them than for you.

Stacy J. Estep lives and writes in East Tennessee, where she has been known to spend a hot summer day doing the Cades Cove Loop in her manual wheelchair.