Column: Trying on a disability

A few hours spent in a wheelchair was eye-opening, arm-challenging experience

When I took on the role of Times editor at the beginning of July, something I inherited — other than an office with bright yellow walls and a desk so massive that (and this is true) it could not be budged an inch by four people in their 20s — was a commitment to participate in the Try on a Disability challenge.

You may have noticed a number of us winding our way awkwardly along Langley sidewalks over the past few weeks. It’s all part of a KPU student project involving the Langley Pos-Abilities Society.

The exercise puts an able-bodied person in a wheelchair for a few hours, so they can get  a small sense of what it is like to navigate Langley’s streets, businesses and public spaces without the benefit of all four limbs.

Like most journalists who pick print over broadcast, I don’t love having a camera pointed at me. But that was part of the deal, as the students’ assignment includes putting together a short film about the experience.

My turn came last Friday morning. A crew of four students arrived and we agreed that after a few turns around the office to see which, if any, corners were toughest to access we would head out.

The Times office is in a newer building — by downtown City standards, at least — and so I assumed getting around would be fairly simple. And it wasn’t bad, for the most part.

Furniture placement proved to be the big stumbling block, when I couldn’t get behind my own desk — nor could it be moved six inches to allow me to do so.

Our wheelchair accessible washroom was another eye opener — again, the placement of furniture inside the room was the issue.

A number of back-and-forths and side-to-sides and ins, outs and arounds took place before I managed to close the door behind me.

None of this is a problem, of course, if nobody in the office uses a wheelchair — until a member of the public needs to use the facilities. A quick rearrangement of the furniture could solve the problem, but when time is of the essence — let’s just say it’s something to think about.

The outdoors offered a whole other set of challenges — ones that would be far less easy to remedy.

Rather than a power scooter or an electric wheelchair, my borrowed rig had the equivalent of what my dad used to refer to in an old vehicle as “Armstrong” steering — in this case, “Armstrong” propulsion as well.

As compact as the City is — and the portion of it my crew and I traversed that morning didn’t amount to much — it was a physically exhausting exercise. And not just because I have the upper body strength of an undernourished kitten.

Ramps and automatic doors, designed to improve accessibility, made some tasks less arduous, but ease of access, it turns out, is a relative term.

Other obstacles were less obvious.

Brick paving stones, while nice to look at, vibrate uncomfortably up backs, arms and shoulders as you roll over them. Most curbs flow perfectly into the street, but one or two — presumably adapted after the fact — were steep enough that I got moving too fast on the way down and burned the tips of my fingers on the rubber-coated hand wheel as I tried to stop.

Even the almost imperceptible slope of the sidewalk toward the street (for drainage purposes, presumably) took me on a sideways journey that only a serious, one-armed effort could correct, even marginally.

To say that I was neither stylish nor graceful in my efforts would be a gross understatement. Of course, the point wasn’t  to ace the exercise the first time out, but to get (and in turn, offer) a small sense of what people who depend on wheelchairs to get around, deal with on a daily basis.