Monday, March 19, 2012

Learning to Appreciate the ADA

This week I learned to appreciate the ADA.

Not, Ada, the small town in Oklahoma and home to East Central University, where I spent several years trying to get a passing grade in English Composition. (Editor’s note: He never did.).

No, when I talk about ADA, I’m talking about the Americans with Disabilities Act. In 1990, the U.S. Congress approved the Americans with Disabilities Act, which ended discrimination for anybody with a disability.

That’s when building codes started requiring businesses  to build handicap stalls in bathrooms and handicap parking spots in the parking lot.

Most of us without disabilities look at all those spots or that giant stall at the end of the restroom and think, what a waste.

I was one of those.

But I was wrong.

Over the last week or so my eyes were opened.

I think I shared with you that about two weeks ago my knee started swelling up to the size of a large, juicy South Florida grapefruit. The swelling eventually spread to both knees, my ankles, my other foot, pretty much my entire lower body was hurting and swollen.

To make matters a little worse, my wife and I are on a health vacation in Key West, Fla. For the past week or so we’ve been living aboard a boat, which means lots of steps up and down and up and down and up and down. For four days I was confined to the small space below deck. I didn’t feel the sunlight for about 72 hours and sunlight is why we came down here. It’s been an experience for sure.

When the swelling first started I was simply walking on crutches to help me get around. But then when I couldn’t walk more than about five feet even with the help of crutches, I borrowed a wheelchair for a couple of days.

Even getting in the wheelchair was a challenge, especially from a boat.

One night I successfully got off the boat and boarded the wheelchair. It was pretty comfortable. But it didn’t take more than about five minutes to begin to appreciate someone who is confined to a wheelchair 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

They are a great tool for getting around when your legs won’t do it for you, but the wheelchair is no replacement for legs. Nothing is.

The first day in the wheelchair, my wife helped me wheel up to the local marina swimming pool, thinking that maybe a little water therapy would do me good.

The pool, as luck would have it, is down some stairs, which, in case you don’t know, is very difficult to traverse in a wheelchair. It’s darn near impossible to take stairs in a safe manner while seated in a wheelchair.

The ADA requires that places like this to have some type of elevator or lift for wheelchair access. This marina built a small lift to get the wheelchair down the eight-foot drop.

It was very fortunate for me. Until I got there.

This particular day, as luck would have it, the wheelchair lift was out of order.

That meant I had to park my wheelchair as close to the stairs as possible, grab the rail and one painful step at a time, make my way down while my wife dragged my wheelchair to the bottom the steps.

On the other end, I got back in the wheelchair. I was fortunate enough to be able to get down the steps somehow. But it makes me wonder about those whose legs don’t work, those who couldn’t even make a painful walk down eight or 10 steps. I felt lucky.

The water therapy was very good. I was able to exercise my legs that had been stationary for three or four days.

After therapy, we wheeled back over to the boat, boarded the boat again and got cleaned up for dinner.

When it came dinner time, we loaded up the chair again and headed back to the marina restaurant.

The restaurant is on the second floor, but a spacious elevator allowed me to make it to the table with little problem. 

My friend who lives in Key West had been out all day fishing and brought back quite a haul. He brought his catch to the restuarant chefs to prepare in a couple of dishes. We had fresh ceviche, fried fish, blackened fish and plenty of vegetables. It was delicious. After some desert of key lime pie — a must if you are ever in Key West — I decided I had enough and started to make the trek back to the boat. Before I left the resturant, I decided it might be a good idea to visit the little boys room there instead of the boat.

I wheeled my way toward the door, then I looked at that big heavy door and wondered, “how does a person in a wheelchair open this thing?”

I finally clumsily backed my way into the facilities and I almost immediately saw a sign that broke my heart.

“This stall out of order,” read the sign on the handicapped stall. I died a little on the inside.
You don’t realize how important those big stalls are until you really need them. They aren’t a nuisance to those who need them. They aren’t a waste to millions of Americans who spend their days in a chair.

I never realized how important those things are. They were made possible by the ADA. It is a pretty big deal to a lot of people.

So, I just want to say I’m sorry for taking advantage of all those very important amenites that many of you need on a regular basis. I was a big ignorant oaf before.

On a brighter note, I’m starting to feel better and getting around on my own, without the help of crutches or that wheel chair.

And I’m even more grateful  for the ability to walk and to live in a place where we try to help those who can’t.

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