Almost three years ago, after a series of misadventures and mishaps, I ended up in a wheelchair.
It started when I stepped on a pebble and broke my ankle. The first surgery didn't go well and I broke the same leg again. A series of operations only made the situation worse, and I will never walk normally again.
Just as I was coming to grips with this I tripped and broke my other leg. I expect to be out of the wheelchair by January.
I am more fortunate than most as this will not be a permanent feature of my life. But it has been an adventure. It more closely resembles the old Chinese curse: "May you live in interesting times." Harry Potter has a cloak that renders him invisible. I roll around in the Chair of Invisibility.
Ontario has rules that govern accessibility for the disabled. We have dedicated parking spots, large stalls in public restrooms, sidewalk ramps and automatic doors. Lots of our buses can accommodate wheelchairs, and we have special transit services in many cities. Life is good, so being in a wheelchair should be no problem. Right?
The number of able-bodied people who park in those dedicated spots is legion. Worse still are the people who roost in them while they wait for someone to come out of a store. My best evil glare has no impact. It's disheartening, as I have spent months perfecting it.
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I won't even get into the logistics of wheelchairs and buses and the nightmare of waiting for special services. Taking a taxi (if you can afford it) is just as bad. Although it's illegal, many taxi drivers will not pick you up if you're in a wheelchair. And taxis aren't an option for powered chairs because they don't fold up to go into the trunk.
If you do manage to be out and about, bathroom breaks are hideous. It's no wonder many disabled people don't get out much. If I manoeuvre myself into an accessible restroom, chances are good the door swings the wrong way. If it opens into the stall I can't close it because there isn't enough room for me, the chair and the door.
If I do get the door closed it will probably be the messiest stall. And forget personal hygiene - the number of sinks, soap dispensers and paper-towel holders that I can reach can generally be counted on the thumb of Captain Hook's missing hand.
Many times all the other stalls will be empty and I'll have to line up for the only one I can even hope to use. Then I get the evil glare from the able-bodied person who has been hogging the wheelchair-accessible stall. They seem to feel guilty and blame me for their guilt. Go figure.
Push-button automatic doors are my favourite obstacle. "Hunt the button" is an engrossing game, and I find them in the strangest places. Walls are good hiding places, usually ones that are so far away that the door begins to close before I can roll through. The plinths that house them can be quite decorative, something to admire while I reach for a button that is well above head level.
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Getting served in a store or restaurant is another interesting challenge. Many service desks seem to be built only to serve giraffes. In my wheelchair I have to circle the desk and generally end up poking someone in the leg to get their attention. I usually can't reach the debit machine either, and often end up asking the clerk to punch in my "secret" PIN. It makes them uncomfortable, but there isn't another option.
There is no escaping the fact that people are acutely uncomfortable when faced with illness, injury or incapacity. They can't help it. To alleviate the discomfort they look away and are then rendered more uncomfortable because they know this isn't an appropriate action either.
I was in a fast-food restaurant with my teenage daughter a while ago and we went to order together. The youngster at the cash register asked my daughter what I wanted, and I spoke up on my own behalf. I paid and she handed the change to my daughter, despite my outstretched hand with wallet at the ready.
It had been a long and frustrating day and, to my shame, I took it out on the cashier. "Hello, I'm down here, and I am not broken or stupid. I'm the one with the money!" She was aghast that her behaviour had been noted, and that I had objected to it.
I call people out on their boorish behaviour when confronted by my wheelchair. I have deliberately rolled into people who try to push me out of the way, and I speak up when treated like the chair instead of the person in it.
But I must also say that throughout this ordeal I have met with enormous amounts of kindness and assistance. Given the smallest chance, the overwhelming majority of people are kind, friendly and helpful. It speaks well for the human race and I truly appreciate it.
I am lucky. Once I am out of this chair I will again be a visible person. But in the interim, stay out of my parking spot and look around when you hear my voice - I'm down here, about waist level.
Jennifer Wilding lives in Toronto.
Illustration by Larry Humber.