Adding Insult to Injury

Handicapped-Access Doesn't Always Mean What It Says

A few weeks ago I had a midday meal in a local Italian restaurant. By the end of the meal, I had to excuse myself to go to the restroom, and asked the server where I might find one. She pointed up a flight of stairs to the main dining room.

As I sighed and headed toward the stairs, she noticed my crutches and added that, in fact, the restaurant also had a restroom for "handicapped people" next to the bar on the ground floor. Happy for the chance not to have to climb to the second floor, I pulled on that door. It was stuck. After another employee wrestled with it for a moment, I was safely inside.

I had stepped into a very tiny and dimly-lit room. As I crutched in sideways, I realized that I had stumbled upon a room which was no more than a supply closet with a toilet. In fact, not only were the facilities for the "handicapped people" dirty and without a sink, there was absolutely no way that a wheelchair could have fit inside.

After this experience, I began to pay even closer attention to the ways in which nominal accessibility does not always translate into real equal opportunity. Forced to use crutches this summer after surgery on an old ankle injury, I have been trying to avoid stairs and other similar challenges as much as possible.

In the weeks that I have been on crutches so far, I have been very stubborn about wanting to keep up with the activities of my active friends. However, just when I think that I am impressing myself with new stamina and dexterity, I come across an enormous flight of stairs in front of me, and no where to go but up. Or down.


Certainly, stairs for me are more a mental barrier than anything else--my original injury occurred when I feel down a flight just before I left for my first year at Harvard. Crutches may slow down the climbing, but they do not make it impossible. Still, my quest for short cuts, elevators and ramps has shown me that some businesses have added so-called accessible elements to their floor plans but have failed to consider what a wheelchair-bound patron actually needs to have full and comfortable access to an evening at a restaurant or a trip to the movies.

In order to get to the second floor of the local movie theater where the four screens of "Pocahontas" were located, I headed for the elevator by the concession stand rather than tackling an escalator in a crowd. As I got closer to the elevator, I noticed that it was blocked off by movie theater red rope. Since my friends had already gone upstairs on the escalator, I pressed on to the elevator--by getting on my hands and knees to go under the rope.

This crawling position has been a frequent one this summer. One evening, a friend and I set out for the park. Certainly, I thought, a park would offer no hurdles, necessarily being on the ground floor and having no obstacles but the grass and a bench. However, when we arrived I noticed that it was also roped off--this time by thick wire at about mid-thigh. While I remember being lifted over this boundary as a small child, as I got older, I had not even noticed hopping over it on the way into the park. Now, in another moment of grumbling, I got down to slither underneath.

I do not think, of course, there is a conspiracy on the part of business owners or park comissioners to fail to cater to all users equally. Indeed, it is clear that more and more attractions have been making the effort to set aside a more convenient restroom or install a ramp, showing that increasing thought (or zoning pressure!) has occurred regarding accessibility.

However, good intentions are not always enough. While I have been lucky this summer to have been home where I could collapse into a car if the walk was too long, and where I did not have the pressure of having to get to school each morning, I keep remembering how this time is different from my original injury, when I was just arriving at Harvard.

Ispent nearly all of my first semester as a first-year crutching around campus. I definitely benefited in many ways from the renovations which the college has undergone with such attention to disability. I was by far the most frequent rider on the Greenough elevator, as well as the one at the side entrance of the Union. I came to love the Science Center for the lobby door that would open at the press of a button, and the elevator down to the mailboxes.

I quickly learned, though, that not all buildings on campus have these amenities. One of the orientation week tests was on the second floor of Harvard Hall, and I got to impress my new classmates with my ability at stair climbing--on my bottom.

However, in my early determination never to climb another set of stairs again, I discovered that accessibility at Harvard is not a matter to laugh about. Many of the "handicapped accessible" buildings required so much effort to find the accessible elements that the privilege was not always worth the time.

That semester, I had an 8 a.m. Justice section in Sever Hall. The path to avoiding all stairs consisted of taking the ramp off Sever Quad down to the basement, pressing buttons to open three heavy doors, and riding the elevator to the top. However, most early mornings, this basement door was locked.

In fact, it was during a lock-out before my third Justice section during which I realized that my stair-phobia had to end immediately. I looked around the empty Sever Quad, and began to crutch up the six main stairs. Mental power and coordination failing about halfway through, I fell forward on my face.