Wheelchair access symbol: white line drawing of a figure wheeling himself in a wheelchair on a blue background.

Things People Say and Do

Every so often, I’ll see a post with the title of “Things Not To Say to a Wheelchair User,” or something like that. I’ve even written a post along those lines. You can read it here if you missed it.

I don’t know why, but lately I have been on the receiving end of many comments I am sick and tired of hearing. When I share stories of these interactions with friends, they often express disbelief and wonder that I regularly have these interactions. But, apparently there are people who haven’t read the memo. This list of 5 pet peeves of mine is for all of those who STILL aren’t clear about what to say or do around wheelchair users.

1. NO SPEEDING JOKES!

We get it. Our chairs are cool, and they go fast. You might see us go whizzing by and think you’ll try to make a clever joke about us breaking a speed limit. DON’T make whatever comment you are about to make. Just don’t. It’s not original. It’s not funny. I spent the first 29 years of my life being the slow one. You bet your ass I’m going to speed and go fast now that I have the ability to do so!

2. We’re not going to run you over!

How many times have you walked down a hallway and encountered a wheelchair user approaching you from the opposite direction? Do you just keep walking or do you flatten yourself against the wall in fear the wheelchair user will run you over? When I used to work in an office building, this would happen to me at least once a week. I would be rolling down the hall towards my office, see a person walking towards me and get ready to smile. I stopped counting how many people literally stopped walking and put their back against the wall after it happened for the tenth time. It wasn’t a narrow hallway. At least four people could walk comfortably side by side down this hallway. Yet, strangers would cower in fear whenever I approached. One man even jumped into the stairway to avoid me – while I was still 20 feet away! He stood there until I went by before coming back into the hallway and resuming his walk to the cafeteria.

Here’s the thing – I have control over my chair. When I am going from place to place, I am constantly aware of what is around me and make minor adjustments to my pace and direction accordingly. Just like most people who walk, I am usually able to avoid potential barriers that might be in my intended path. I am not going to run you over unless you come to a sudden and unexpected stop directly in front of me without warning. Or unless you try to make a stupid speeding joke. If you do that, you deserve to have your toes run over. Twice.

3. I don’t care about your relative or friend who also uses a wheelchair, and

4. I don’t dream about a wheelchair that can climb stairs.

Sometimes, people will try to build a connection by telling me right away about someone else they know who also uses a wheelchair. Usually, the conversation goes like this:

Stranger: Hey, nice wheels. My neighbor just got a new chair like that.

Me: Thanks.

Stranger: Her chair can tilt and recline so she can take a nap in it. Does yours do that?

Me: No.

Stranger: Yeah, it’s amazing what wheelchairs can do. Have you seen that YouTube video of the chair with treads climbing stairs? I bet you want one of those!

Me: No, I’m good with mine thanks. (End Scene)

I’m not impressed by the fact that a person knows another wheelchair user. In fact, I’m more surprised when people tell me they don’t know a disabled person. Since approximately 20% of the population lives with a disability, chances are good that everyone knows at least one disabled person. So, telling me you know another wheelchair user as a means to form a connection really doesn’t help me feel more inclined to open up.

As for wheelchairs that can climb stairs – well, if we simply built or modified our environments so people of all abilities could participate in equality, we wouldn’t need to waste money on resources to eliminate barriers. I don’t need a wheelchair that can climb stairs. I just need architects and planners to consider that not everyone has the ability to climb stairs, and then develop inclusive plans and designs. I am more disabled by a society that does not consider and plan for my access needs than I am because I have a wheelchair that doesn’t climb stairs.

5. Just because we’re disabled doesn’t mean we know all the other disabled people!

Let’s go back to the scenario of a stranger telling me they know another wheelchair user. At least 50% of the time, once the stranger tells me they know another wheelchair user they then ask me if I know that person. Here’s the thing – I don’t know every other wheelchair user! Sure, I know LOTS of people. I have a large circle of support and am connected to others in the disability community. But, despite what my friends and coworkers may tell you, I don’t know everyone.

I could easily continue with this list, and maybe some of my readers will share there own experiences in the comments. For now, I’ll close with this advice.

Everyone wants and deserves to be treated with respect. While I do my best to assume good intent in the actions and words of others, the little digs add up over time and become tiresome. Next time you are uncertain of what to say or do, try a simple smile and “hello.” That always seems to work for me.

Out of the Mouths of Babes

Friday night was special. I spent the evening with family celebrating my great niece’s seventh birthday. Seven is a fun age, and her party was packed with things a seven year old girl would enjoy – pizza, new clothes for her doll, and a three layer cake covered with pink frosting and chocolate chips.

One of the reasons I enjoy family events is because of the laughter and love we share whenever we are together. Emily, the birthday girl, and her younger brother Evan who is four years old, kept us smiling all night. But it was an exchange that happened early in the party that continues to play in my head.

I was sitting with my sister Sandy when Evan approached us. Like most children, Evan is intrigued by my wheelchair. When he was younger, he was content to simply ride on my lap. Now he is determined to figure out how the controls regulate the various aspects of my chair, such as speed and seat elevation. Standing next to my chair, he displayed remarkable restraint keeping his hands at his side rather than reaching for my joystick. Suddenly, he turned his quizzical gaze to Sandy and this delightful interchange took place.

Evan: Aunt Sandy, where’s your wheelchair?

Sandy: I don’t have one.

Evan: Why not?

Sandy: Because I don’t need one yet. Maybe someday I’ll have one.

Evan: (looking delighted and excited, and clapping his hands) Then you’ll be twins!

The three of us laughed as Sandy picked up Evan for a hug. The party continued, with pizza, presents and cake. But Evan’s comments stuck with me and caused me to reflect as I boarded the bus to go home.

At four years of age, Evan already knows that a wheelchair is a cool piece of equipment. He does not view me with pity. He does not perceive a wheelchair or a disability as being a Bad Thing, with a capital b and capital t as said by the late, great Stella Young. Of course, he doesn’t understand all the intricacies of life with a disability because he is just four years old. But he understands critical information other nondisabled adults seem slow to grasp, such as:

  1. I am my own person.
  2. My wheelchair is not the worst thing in the world, or a reason to shy away from me.
  3. I do not have a poor quality of life.
  4. I am capable and competent.

Evan is not unique in his abilities. All of my nieces and nephews, and now their children, have been exposed to my wheelchair and my disability their entire lives. They have all developed a level of disability cultural competency through their interactions with me, a disabled family member. This has created a level of comfort with disability at a young age in many of them which their peers may not have developed.

When I am with my young family members, I don’t hear negative comments about disability. I don’t hear pity. I don’t hear insensitve or ableist comments like the ones I hear from strangers on a regular basis, such as:

You manage that thing pretty well!

Slow down – you’ll get a speeding ticket!

You got snow tires for that thing?

You’re so pretty for someone who uses a wheelchair.

Oh, you work?!

And my personal ‘favorite’…

I don’t know how you manage. If I had to use a wheelchair, I’d kill myself.

My young family members who have been exposed to my reality as a disabled woman say different things. They say things like:

That man has a red chair like Aunt Denise’s!

Maybe you could drive us to skating when you get your new van Aunt Denise.

Will you read to me Aunt Denise?

We put the ramp down for you Aunt Denise!

And my personal favorite…

I love you, Aunt Denise.

If my young nieces and nephews can understand disability is not the worst thing, why can’t more adults figure it out?

Strengthening My Advocacy Muscles

I have never considered myself a political activist. Sure, I have advocated for causes I believe in and participated in legislative visits and meetings with my elected officials. But I have not attended rallies or marches. I have never chained myself to an escalator or thrown myself in front of inaccessible buses, like other disabled activists I admire and respect.

However, because of my job and my situation as a Consumer who uses Consumer Directed Personal Assistance to remain independent in the community, I am in a unique position to speak to the importance of adequate wages for home care workers. Last Tuesday, Bryan O’Malley, the Executive Director of the Consumer Directed Personal Assistance Association of New York State, and I spoke about this issue with Liz Benjamin on Capital Tonight, a political news program broadcast statewide in New York on Time Warner Cable. You can watch the interview by clicking on this link.

Then, yesterday I did something I have never done. I gave testimony at the New York State Assembly Hearing on Home Care Workforce in Albany. The hearing, which was held by the Assembly Committees on Health, Labor, Aging and the Task Force on People with Disabilities, brought together people from licensed home care agencies, state and county offices of health and aging, managed long term care plans, fiscal intermediaries, unions, home care workers and Consumers. Over thirty people spoke at the hearing, which went on for more than ten hours.

I was the first Consumer using home care called to speak at yesterday’s hearing (there was a hearing in New York City last week). Some of my friends have asked me  about my remarks, and since they will now be part of the public record, I am happy to share them here. You can find them below.

As I sat and listened to the many speakers yesterday, I noticed some consistency among the comments:

  • Recruiting good home care staff is a challenge around the state, particularly in rural areas where the distance between Consumers may be 15-20 miles.
  • Many elected officials still don’t have a clear understanding of Consumer Directed Personal Assistance, and why it is a vital option for many people who rely on home care.
  • When home care agencies increased wages for home care workers, they were able to recruit and retain staff. But, since most long term care is paid for by Medicaid, without the state increasing funding, agencies and fiscal intermediaries are not able to support higher wages.

What next? I will continue to work with my employer and with other advocates to make sure the Consumer voice is heard. We must ensure that legislators understand when they are talking about this matter, they are talking about real people, with real families and jobs, with real needs. I raise my voice because I know I have peers who may not be in a position to be able to speak out.

For those who are interested in my testimony, here is what I said yesterday at the hearing:

My name is Denise DiNoto, and I live in Waterford. For the past 10 years, I have managed my home care services as a Consumer through the Consumer Directed Personal Assistance program. I am here today because of the difficulties I face ensuring I have adequate staff.

As a Consumer, I get to be the “CEO of me,” in charge of personnel. I recruit, train, supervise and manage the staff I hire to be my Personal Assistants, or PAs. As their employer, I am given the maximum amount of independence, allowing me to live independently. Because I have PAs, I am able to work full time, volunteer for causes I believe in, and serve my community as President of my Rotary Club.

My PAs are dedicated, kind and caring workers. They serve as my arms and legs, helping me with every activity of daily living. From 6 AM every day when the first one enters my house until 9:30 PM when the last one leaves, they provide vital services such as getting me in and out of bed, on and off the toilet, showering, dressing, and grooming. They prepare my food, do my laundry and grocery shopping. They open my medications, clean and change my bi-pap supplies, and help me perform daily range of motion and exercises.

Recruiting and retaining staff has become increasingly difficult since I started using Consumer Directed Personal Assistance ten years ago. One of the key reasons for this is the low wage I am able to offer my staff. Some of my PAs have been employed with me for ten years, and have only seen one raise during that time. That is not because they do not deserve a raise. It is because the Medicaid reimbursement to my Fiscal Intermediary has not permitted a raise. Consumer Directed Personal Assistance is a Medicaid funded program, so if the funding to Fiscal Intermediaries, the agencies we must use to help us pay our employees, is not adequate, the wage we pay our Personal Assistants is not going to be attractive.

The job of a Personal Assistant is deeply intimate, and is not for everyone. I have been forced to retain workers who showed up consistently, but were not quality workers, simply because having someone was better than not having anyone. This action brought about disastrous results last year when one of my former PAs dropped me during a transfer because she did not listen to me or follow my instructions. I fractured my femur, which required a lengthy surgery, and then spent a total of 4 weeks in the hospital and rehabilitation. I have been continuously recruiting staff since returning home last February.

At any time, I usually employ 14 PAs to cover the 70 hours of care I am authorized to receive each week. Of these, 6 are my primary workers, with the rest being back up or “emergency” staff. In just the past year, I have had 6 PAs leave my employment, and have been continually recruiting new staff since February 2016. When I asked my former PAs why they left, the number one reason was that they were not earning enough money.

Without my staff, I would not be able to live in my house. I would not be able to work. I would not be active in my community. I would not survive.

I respect the work performed by my staff, and home care workers across our state. I would like New York State to respect that work, by allowing Consumers like me to pay an adequate wage. Then, we can more effectively recruit and retain quality staff, keeping us in our communities and homes where we belong.

Going Up

Last week, my wheelchair died. I had just transferred from my chair into bed on Tuesday night, and decided to start moving it out of the way while waiting for my Personal Assistant (PA) to put the transfer board down. Only, when I pushed the joystick nothing happened.

I’m not a stranger to this. Sometimes, I don’t wait long enough for the drive motors to engage before trying to drive. I’m impatient. I like to go when I want to go. But, I know there is a start up sequence that has to run and if you try to operate the chair before it is ready, it won’t go. You’ll push on the joystick and nothing will happen.

So, last Tuesday night I did what I always do. I counted to five and tried again. Still nothing. I turned the chair off, then turned it back on and waited for another five seconds.

Zero movement.

My chair has a powered seat, so I tried those controls next. The seat base elevates and moves forward and backward, giving me more clear floor space in front of my chair during transfers. My seat elevator also makes it possible for me to reach higher objects, rise to a standing height during speaking engagements, and helps me get my own drink off the bar when I am out with friends instead of relying on others.

Last Tuesday when I tested the seat controls, it moved forward and backwards but did not change height. This was a problem because it was elevated. I elevate it most of the time I transfer out of my chair because, well, gravity still works. It’s easier to go from higher to lower than to transfer uphill.

The final piece of the puzzle came to light when I looked at the screen on my joystick. Highlighted in yellow was the message “drive fault.” This told me it was probably either the joystick, the controller (the computer brain of the chair) or the drive motor. None of them were good possibilities, but without a diagnostic tool I couldn’t do anything further. I had my PA disengage the drive motors, push my good chair out of my bedroom and get my old clunker chair out of my office.

Thank goodness I listened to Bob, my wheelchair repair guru, when he told me to put new batteries in my old clunker. Sure the old clunker isn’t comfortable to sit in for long periods of time, and I wasn’t sure how I would manage in it with formerly fractured femur, but at least the chair was made to my measurements. Five years ago, this was my daily chair. Even if it had outlived it’s daily use, it would be better than a loaner which didn’t fit me.

I used my clunker last Wednesday while Bob ran diagnostics on my chair. Of course, when my PA brought the chair to the shop, it worked perfectly. Try as he might, Bob couldn’t get the chair to fail. From how I described the error code, Bob was fairly certain it was the seat elevator, not the joystick, motors or controller. He played with some loose wires, adjusted the seat elevator actuator (a known problem on prior repairs to my chair) and arranged for delivery of my chair back to me later that day.

Fast forward to this morning, a week later. I drove my chair under the bathroom sink after breakfast, ready to brush my teeth. I activated the seat controls and moved my joystick to elevate my chair. All normal activities, except the chair didn’t move. Ugh.

Opponents of funding for complex medical technology always say adaptations like seat elevators are luxury items and not really necessary for people like me. Luxury? Well, here is a list of things I have not been able to independently perform in the 90 minutes since noticing my broken seat elevator:

  • I have not been able to brush my teeth. The bathroom and kitchen sinks are too high for me to access without my seat elevator. I could grab a cup to use as a spit cup but…
  • I can’t reach the cups in the cabinets because I can’t elevate my wheelchair. No access to cups means nothing to use to help me brush my teeth or take a drink.
  • I can’t wash my face  – another task requiring the ability to reach the sink.
  • I can’t get my sweater off the hook behind my bedroom door. I’ve tried using my reacher. It doesn’t give me enough height.

I’ve already called Bob. He’s going to look at my chair as soon as my PA gets it to him. Thank goodness for Bob. Every wheelchair user needs a Bob, and those of us who have a Bob know how fortunate we are.

 

30 Days of Thanks Day 21 – Guest Post by John McCosh

I met my guest blogger, John McCosh, and his wife Kristen at the Ms. Wheelchair American pageant almost ten years ago. Kristen was representing Massachusetts in the pageant and John was one of the amazing “Mr. Wheelchairs” as I called them that year. Our friendship developed over the next year during Kristen’s reign as the national titleholder. These days social media helps keep us connected. I am grateful John accepted my invitation to share a post for this year’s 30 Days of Thanks. After you read today’s post, you can follow John on Twitter: @johnmccosh.

The Perfect Wheelchair Trap

From our stateroom balcony, I watched the trail of crushed water our cruise ship left behind in a white boil. I was transported by the visual of the mesmerizing evidence of man made energy posted against nature’s historic depths trailed out atop an empty water horizon.

I thought about the liquefaction, the reinvention, the breaking, and the making of the earth; about Vesuvius and the changes the volcano would wreak; about Pompeii and Herculaneum. I thought about dusty Rome thanking the skies for rain.

Crossing the wine dark sea of the Mediterranean, I thought about how my home city, Boston, was more of a European city than I had, until recently, realized.

But I mostly thrummed with the emotion of having fallen into the perfect wheelchair trap.

My wife Kristen and I had spent the day in Marseille. The access coordinator on our cruise ship had said it couldn’t be done–there was no way for a wheelchair to get around, but, as we often do, we went anyway and made it happen.

We were dropped off by the shuttle bus at the mouth of the Old Port. The last bus back was leaving at 2:15 and all aboard the ship was 3:30. We walked down to the historic port and could see Notre-Dame de la Garde crowning the high elevation border of the city. We knew we wanted to make it there.

I wrestled up some old high school French lessons and found a hop on, hop off bus tour. We bought tickets and toured the city, passing the rock in the harbor that was the inspiration for the Count of Monte Cristo. We made it to Notre-Dame. I pushed and pulled the wheelchair along a rocky slope beside a long set of inaccessible stairs as we made our way to the foot of the church and looked out over the sweeping expanse of France’s second largest city and its largest Mediterranean port.

We were having a great day.

On schedule, we finished the tour and did some shopping back at the Old Port and made our way through the ancient part of the city. What we didn’t realize was that the Old Town made a steady climb, over a hundred feet above the sea.

I knew we were on track to get to our bus in plenty of time, but when we rounded the last corner, by the Eglise Saint-Laurent church we realized there was no way down. The ancient stone wall was a modern wheelchair barrier. There were long, winding sets of steps but no ramp or elevator.

But we still had time. We crossed the footbridge to the Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilisations, traveling right over our bus stop.

We had no idea the trap had been sprung. The French spoke enough English to understand we wanted to come in, but not enough to tell us you can’t exit to the street in a wheelchair.

Time was draining from the clock as we made our way through the building and the grounds. It was twenty minutes later when we realized we had to turn back!

We passed over the bridge again, back to the Eglise Sait-Laurent side—the side with out bus parked below. We considered backtracking through Old Town, but that was going to take too long. We zoomed down the road parallel with the bus route.

Kristen’s wheelchair was at full speed, me jogging beside. A quarter mile down the road we reached an elevator next to a huge set of stairs leading down to the lower elevation. It was broken.

A mild panic set in. We set off again, away from the bus, but parallel to the road to which we needed to descend. We checked a church for an access route as well as a set of stores, all the while making progress in the wrong direction, away from the bus. We finally made it to a thoroughfare, but there was still no path down in sight. We were stuck in a high place.

We were now more than a kilometer away from the bus. Even if we made it to the road we’d have to backtrack a considerable distance, and who knows what other barriers there might be.

We flagged down a woman who had just parked. We asked about transportation options, and she said it was difficult to get a taxi here, but she called anyway, our interpreter. The taxi said they were too far away but called another service.

We were forty-five minutes from all aboard. Our passports were on the ship along with most of our money and credit cards as we’d heard to be on the lookout for pickpockets and didn’t want to chance carrying them. Also, our two traveling companions were on-board with no cell service activated here. Our next stop was Barcelona, and I had no idea how we’d catch the ship if we missed it.

I spotted a taxi, my wife ducked out of site so the wheelchair wouldn’t scare him off. He stopped, and he spoke very little English but I was pretty sure he knew our ship. We broke the wheelchair down, taking out batteries, and collapsing the new wheelchair for the first time. We put it in the trunk and drove off.

We made the port, drove past the guards, and were virtually alone on the pier beside the ship with less that thirty minutes to spare.

On our balcony of the Norwegian Epic, I caught a reflection of my wife brushing out her long, blonde hair. We were on our way to dinner, and I knew I’d be thanking her for the adventure over dinner as we told our friends what had happened. And later, when we would walk the deck of that modern ship in an ancient world I’d think how much fun our life has been. I knew we’d talk about the trap we’d escaped and how thankful we both were to be on course together.

But for now I watched her traverse the low ramp out onto the deck, and I poured dark wine into crystal and proposed a toast to the sea.

A man in a baseball hat sits next to a blond woman wearing a black hat. They are in front of a fountain in Rome.
John and Kristen on their recent European vacation.

30 Days of Thanks Day 20 – My Personal Assistants

I regularly thank the Personal Assistants (PAs) I employ both in person and publicly. Without their efforts and dedication, I would not be able to live independently in the community. They are vital to my ability to function as the professional woman I try to be.

This year has been a rocky year for me when it comes to my PA team. I have faced employee theft, injuries, and illness in my staff. As all managers know, you are only as good as your team and it has been difficult for me to retain a quality team in 2016.

I employ fourteen women as PAs, with six of them filling the majority of my weekly home care shifts and the rest serving as per diem or back up staff. Yesterday I described Consumer Directed Personal Assistance and my role as employer in my self-directed home care program. Rather than a nursing agency scheduling and sending staff to my house, I am responsible for recruiting, training, scheduling and managing my staff. While this does offer more freedom and control, it also comes with great responsibility.

Please don’t misunderstand me – the women I employ are wonderful. They are kind, considerate, compassionate and respectful. Most of the fourteen women on my payroll have been working for me for more than three years. I am grateful to have them and recognize how limited my life would be without their service.

However, gaps in staff make it difficult to function. If my staff are unavailable and I cannot find a fill-in, I am not able to honor commitments to work, volunteer groups, or friends. I miss appointments or meetings if my PA calls out when she is supposed to drive me somewhere. When I can’t find paid staff to assist me, I must ask friends and family to help fulfill my basic needs, and unless you have had to call someone to help you pee or poop, you may not be able to understand how I truly detest having to make that call. Friends and family are kind and helpful, and do not make me feel guilty about having to call. I do that just fine on my own. That’s my issue, not theirs. Fodder for another post.

I have hired, and fired, more PAs since February than I have in the prior two years. I require more assistance now than before my femur fracture, and my established staff did not have the availability to take on my new shifts. I have used multiple online sources to advertise my employment opportunity, and have had good response. But a good response does not always yield good candidates. Since February, I have screened 48 applicants, conducted 23 phone interviews, and 8 in-person interviews. I have hired 4 people, and fired 3.

I am still looking for a PA to work some weekday and weekend shifts, if anyone knows someone looking for part time work in the Albany, NY area! Although the job does require some physical labor (the ideal candidate will be able to lift 50 pounds and will be comfortable standing, bending, squatting and reaching), it is a casual work environment and my staff routinely get to be taste testers for new cookie recipes!

All kidding aside, the job of a PA is very demanding and can be challenging. I am human, and sometimes I have a bad day or a broken leg, and I just don’t want to have to deal with people because I am in pain and frustrated – even though I need a person to be in my space so I can go to the bathroom, get undressed and go to bed. My PAs are also human, and sometimes they have bad days, or sick children, or hospitalized parents, or dying pets. When these things happen (and they have all happened this year), it can be difficult for both me and my PAs to tolerate each other.

But my PAs keep coming to work. They are pleasant and upbeat, even when I complain non-stop about pain. They help me with my physical therapy and stretching, even when I swear and grimace every time my knee moves from extension to flexion. They find creative ways to style my hair to help hide the shorter patch which is still growing back after the nurses cut it out when they removed the central line from my neck. They learn new ways of performing tasks as my body changes and I lose muscle strength and range of motion. They adjust to new routines as I settle into my new home. They are patient when I am delayed returning home because the bus was late to pick me up.

The women I hire are my arms and legs. They make it possible for me to remain active and engaged with my friends, family and colleagues. Without Michelle, Sally B, Stephanie C, Caroline, Ronda, Amie, Tina, Therese, Stephanie M, Sally W, Lisa, Sarah, Esther, and Margaret I would not be able to live an empowered life. I am grateful for all the tasks they perform day in and day out, with diligence and dignity.

Driving Me Crazy

A few months ago, I shared a post about how excited I was to be driving again after my femur fracture. Several of you responded with excitement and cheered me on in my continued rehabilitation. Then, a couple of weeks ago I casually mentioned how I was not independently driving. This caused several readers to reach out to me with questions about my driving. I have been meaning to write about this but other things interfered. The time seems right now, so let me take some time to explain what is up with driving.

For the past fourteen years, I have driven modified minivans. These vans have ramps on the side, which allow me to wheel my chair directly inside the middle section of the van, behind the driver and front passenger seats. I do not drive from my wheelchair. Instead, I lock my chair in place behind the driver’s seat. My van has a transfer seat base under the driver’s seat which allows the seat to rotate and move forward and back. For fourteen years, I have transferred in and out of my driver’s seat to drive. The only photo I have which somewhat shows this process is this picture snapped by my best friend at the start of a 2012 road trip.

A woman wearing a white shirt sits inside a gray minivan. The passenger side door of the van is open, and the woman is seated on a driver's seat transfer base, which is rotated facing the open door. She is looking out the door as she slides from her wheelchair into the driver's seat.
Half on the driver’s seat, half on the chair – almost ready to hit the road in my van Clyde! Yes, he has a name.

I do not drive from my wheelchair. I do not drive with hand controls. That’s right. I use my feet to operate the gas and brake, and use both hands to operate the steering wheel. If I drive from the driver’s seat, I do not require any further modifications to drive. Most people are surprised to learn this tidbit, and it plays a role in this story.

Things changed when I fractured my femur. As I shared on my blog, transferring in and out of my driver’s seat was difficult, and took time and rehabilitation. I was thrilled when I was able to get in my van and drive – and I still can do that. What I can’t do independently is transfer OUT of my driver’s seat back into my wheelchair.

Right now, I can get in my van and drive myself to my destination. I just can’t be certain I’ll be able to get out when I get there. What’s more, the effort and energy required for me to complete these transfers is frankly, not worth it. I have limited energy, and when I have to transfer repeatedly, I don’t have energy to do the other things I need and want to do in my day. The time has come for me to admit it is time to drive from my wheelchair.

Driving from my wheelchair may sound easy, but it is not just as simple as removing the driver’s seat. Everything changes if I try to drive from my wheelchair. In order to safely drive from my wheelchair I require a complex high-tech driving system. I have not had a new driving evaluation completed yet, but you can see a photo of a “complex high-tech driving system” which I will probably require by visiting this website or searching other sites. The last time I had a driving evaluation completed, the instructor told me I could drive from the driver’s seat without any modifications, or else drive from my wheelchair with “every bell and whistle, high-tech, electronic system known to man.”

Knowing I needed to make a change, understanding that I would not be able to put the system I will need in my current 2003 vehicle, I began the process for getting a new van. For those who are unfamiliar with the steps involved in buying an accessible vehicle in New York (my state), let me fill you in.

  1. Modified vehicles are expensive. The government requires most disabled people to live in poverty, with very little resources and savings, in order to maintain the services they require to meet their daily needs (see prior posts here and here for more information). This is why so many disabled people turn to crowd-funding and other fundraisers when they need to buy new vehicles. Rather than do that right now, I am using my state vocational rehabilitation program (ACCESS-VR) to assist me with the purchase of a new van.
  2. The ACCESS-VR process is a LONG process. I was approved for services in August (yeah!) but have yet to receive any services. On September 20, I received a letter telling me I was approved for a high-tech driving evaluation. I am drafting this post on October 5 and today I just received a phone call about scheduling my evaluation because….
  3. ACCESS-VR is a state agency. Any work the state pays for can only be completed by approved vendors. The state has one vendor – ONE VENDOR – in all of New York that is approved to conduct a high-tech driving evaluation. That vendor is in Rochester – 232 miles away from where I live on the eastern side of the state. I’ve spoken to Brian, the man who conducts these evaluations. He seems like a very nice man. During our conversation he told me he has been traveling almost non-stop. I believe it, because I know I am not the only disabled person in the state of New York who is itching to have her independence back. However, even though Brian is a nice guy, he is still 232 miles away. But….
  4. Brian is going to come to me for my driving evaluation! This is important, because since my femur fracture I can only go to the bathroom using the commode in my house. Well, I can go to the bathroom at my sister’s house because she purchased the same commode for me to use when I visit. Other than at my house and my sister’s house, I don’t use the toilet. This makes travel almost impossible. It makes a 232 mile trek across the state a logistical nightmare. If Brian didn’t come to me, I would have to wait even longer for a driving evaluation.

After this process, I can finally move to the process of actually purchasing the vehicle and equipment. That process deserves its own post, as this one is already over 1,000 words. I haven’t even begun to think about learning to drive with this new equipment, and having to practice for my road test with hand controls. I last took a road test in 1992 when I was 18 years old. I was driving my very first car, Grandpa A – a maroon Chrysler LeBaron with a bench seat in front. The man sent to accompany me on my road test was over six feet tall and had to sit sideways on the front seat because I had it to pull it forward to reach the pedals.

So, that’s the story with driving. If I am lucky, (read – if paperwork gets moved quickly and the process is not slowed down along the way, and I don’t have to wait months for driving instruction, and Scorpio goes in retrograde or something) I will be driving a new van by July of next year. In the meantime, I am rediscovering the joys of the local paratransit system and trying to practice patience. And drinking lots of wine.

Sitting Will Kill You

A couple of weeks ago on a Friday morning, while scrolling through Facebook, a colorful image of empty chairs popped up in my feed along with the headline, “The Futility of the Workout-Sit Cycle.” I hesitated, then fell victim to the click bait and opened the link. Here’s a brief excerpt from the conversation in my head:

Why are you reading this? It’s just going to make you angry. I bet you the author concludes sitting will kill you. What are those of us who can’t help but sit supposed to do? Am I the only one who reads this and thinks ‘I’m screwed?!’ 

It’s the same conversation I have with myself whenever I read an article about some new study related to physical activity and health. Some group, in this case it’s the American Heart Association, issues a report such as this one with the catchy title of “Sedentary Behavior and Cardiovascular Morbidity and Mortality.” Then someone writes a summary, which appears in a magazine like the article I saw in The Atlantic. I read the article to see if there is any mention, just one tiny mention, of disability. Usually, there is not.

After reading the article in The Atlantic, I shared it on the Disability Visibility Project (DVP) Facebook page (full disclosure – I am a co-moderator of the page). Founded by the amazing Alice Wong, the DVP is an online community dedicated to recording, amplifying and sharing disability stories and culture. The DVP Facebook page is public, and the articles often lead to some interesting discussions about disability culture and identity, ableism, and media representation of disability. When I shared the article, I wrote:

Once again, a major medical organization tells us that sitting can kill you. As someone who has no option to stand, I always wonder if activity and exercise performed while sitting is even considered by these researchers. What are those of us who aren’t able to stand supposed to think when we see these articles? Yes, I know a sedentary life is not healthy. If that is the message, why not just say that and be inclusive of those of us unable to stand?

As the day progressed, and the comments continued, I realized I was not the only one to have these questions. Knowing I might write about this article, I asked if I could share comments. Some of the thoughts and comments are included here. While I have edited them down for brevity, I have kept the original language each person used.

Sparrow: “That’s an excellent point and one I confess I hadn’t considered. No one is researching active sitters and that’s a huge omission….Thank you for helping me re-think the whole “sitting is bad for you” assumption. I’m going to be more careful with my language around that now. I write ad copy part-time and had to write about a standing desk last week and would have written differently if I’d read your comments first.”

Luticha: “I have spoken to researchers about this. and basically it boils down to disabled bodies behaving differently than nondisabled bodies. So while they know that disabled folks have higher rates of obesity and heart issues the issues don’t stem from disability per se but lack of access to recreational sports or accessible gyms. And for those completely immobilized there isn’t much outside of controlling diet.”

Linda: “I dislocate things when I exercise (or even move sometimes), any part of my body… Even walking more than a few feet makes me dizzy and fall. The only way I can lose weight is to starve myself – even back when I could and did exercise for hours each week, it was like this. I ended up with anorexia, twice. Not planning on risking that again. Anything other than life saving surgery is way too risky, so lapband surgery etc is also out. I move my muscles when I can to keep the blood flowing and the nerves fresh, but other than that, what’s a girl with rotten metabolism in the best of circumstances to do? I like that this research is done, but I hate reading it…”

Shayna: “It’s not written well to consider people who use wheelchairs or have disabilities/illnesses/injuries that mean being upright for long, or at all, is not an option. But this part of the article talks about raising your metabolism to 1.5 times being completely still (which they describe as sitting or reclining). And that would mean that seated activity would count. So that’s good, would be nice if they had considered this and stated it explicitly though.”

Heather: “Good points shared and yeah, I usually read this kind of stuff with a grain of salt and long stop taking blanket advice like drinking 8, 8 oz glasses of water a day..way too much for this body, bladder response is like hell naw.”

I decided to search the original report from the American Heart Association and read it instead of just reading the summary article. Sure enough, on the second page there it was:

Therefore, we restrict this advisory to adults without ambulatory limitations.

Again the voice inside my head speaks up: Right – because who cares about the health of adults with ambulatory limitations? ‘They’re disabled and their health must be poor anyway, so why should we focus precious research dollars on them? It’s not like they worry about their health anyway, because they have such poor quality of life.’ That’s what you’re really thinking, right?

The report defines sedentary and gives examples of sedentary behaviors. Basically, anyone who does not get moderate-to-vigorous physical activity (MVPA) is sedentary. What is MVPA? According to the article (and the Sedentary Behavior Research Network), “MVPA is defined as activities that expend at least 3.0 metabolic equivalents.” In case you didn’t know (because I had to look it up too), one metabolic equivalent is the energy expended while a body is sitting at rest.

I may be sitting all day, but I am NOT sedentary! I can get an increase in heart rate simply by trying to reach for my phone when my Personal Assistant (PA) has moved it without thinking. I can break a sweat trying to transfer in and out of the driver’s seat in my van. When I go for walks around the neighborhood, my muscles are actively engaged trying to maintain an upright posture in my wheelchair as it rolls over uneven surfaces. Even sitting and reading can get my blood pumping – especially when I read articles which equate sitting with sedentary! But I was talking about the article…

The focus of the article was to explore the research to identify potential public health messages or guidelines to reduce sedentary behaviors. After describing the clear need for more research (do articles ever NOT say there is a need for more research?!), the authors conclude with this simple advisory, “Sit less, move more.”

Sure. I’ll get right on that. As soon as I figure out how to move more once I’m no longer sitting – given that sitting is my only means of mobility and I cannot independently move if I am not in a seated position.

Yes, I understand that what they really mean is “move more,” be more active, don’t sit and stare at the computer screen for hours on end without moving. Well, if that is what they really meant – why couldn’t they just say that? Why do the recommendations always involve an activity I (and millions like me) cannot do?

In 2015, the United States Surgeon General issued Step It Up! The Surgeon General’s Call to Action to Promote Walking and Walkable CommunitiesThe report aims to, “get Americans walking and wheelchair rolling for the physical activity needed to help prevent and reduce their risk of chronic diseases and premature death.” To help involve people of all abilities, the National Center on Health, Physical Activity and Disability (NCHPAD) launched the “How I Walk” campaign. The campaign is described on the NCHPAD website as a “movement to rebrand the word walking by challenging individual and societal perspectives.” In doing so, the campaign aims to focus on inclusive physical activity for everyone, recognizing that each individual has their own means of “walking” or moving.

A girl in a gray t-shirt, with a long, brown ponytail in a wheelchair walking through an accessible park on a beautiful, cloudless, sunny day. The text on top of the image reads: “Systems designed to meet the needs of people with disability will meet the needs of everyone”.

As someone who “walks” differently from most people, I appreciate this effort. Of course I realize the majority of people “walk” on two feet. I even use the term “taking a walk” to describe what I do when I head out to explore the trails and paths around my town. That doesn’t mean I don’t want people to consider how I “walk” when they are planning their public health interventions. When public health professionals consider all adults, and design systems and interventions which meet the needs of people with disabilities, they will meet the needs of EVERYONE. An inclusive public health infrastructure will benefit everyone, including disabled adults who are three times more likely to develop a chronic disease than nondisabled adults.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I think I’ll go for a walk. I am now living near the Champlain Canal Trail and I feel like exploring before I die from sitting too long.

Why I Have Not Written About Japan

On July 26, a day when I should have been celebrating the anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, I was attempting to process the news of an unimaginable hate crime. Instead of gathering with my disabled peers in joy, I was sobbing as I imagined what the victims had experienced during and after the massacre in Sagamihara, Japan.

You haven’t heard about the massacre? I would bet you aren’t the only one.

Around 2:20 AM, a former employee of a residential facility for the disabled in Sagamihara committed the largest mass killing in Japan since World War II. He broke into the building, tied up the staff members, and stabbed the disabled residents, killing 19 and injuring 26. The victims ranged in age from 18 to 70, both male and female. Most were stabbed in the neck. throat, and chest as they slept in their beds.

I waited for the “mainstream media” to cover the story. After all, hate crimes and terrorist acts have been receiving a great deal of attention. Nice, Brussels, Orlando, Paris, Munich – I’m guessing you recognize recent stories related to these places.

Instead, I read stories like this Japan Times article which described the crime as a “mercy killing.” According to the article, the killer believed he was providing mercy to the victims’ caregivers because “it would be better if the disabled disappeared.”

There was no mass outcry of horror and disbelief. There were no large expressions of sympathy and solidarity.

Then, slowly the messages began to come from the worldwide disability community as they wrote social media updates, blog posts and essays. Reading them, I was grateful for these brave writers who took the time to capture the loss, rage, sadness and fear so many of us felt. I was able to share their work when I lacked the energy and stamina to compose my own response to this terrible act.

I tried to write. I attempted to find words to express my emotional response. If ever there was a time when I needed to add my voice to help draw attention to an event, this was it. But whenever I tried, I got stuck in the same mental prison.

Those nameless victims? They were me. If I had been a resident in that facility, I would have been one of those who went to sleep one night in July only to have my throat slashed while trapped in my bed, unable to escape injury or death.

The victims’ only crime – my only crime? Being born disabled. Less than. A burden. Incompetent.

Murders of disabled people are incorrectly called “mercy killings” by media outlets because of the ableist belief that disabled lives are so invaluable or unbearable that our murders are acts of mercy. Don’t believe me? Remember Tania Clarence – the mother who killed her three disabled children and was only charged with manslaughter? I wrote about the case in this post. How about the mother who received a charge of involuntary manslaughter for VOLUNTARILY poisoning her disabled daughter and killing her? If the victims of these crimes had not been disabled, would the charges have been more severe?

Writing about the massacre has also been difficult because my own personal care situation has been strained for the past month. Last summer – almost exactly a year ago – I wrote about how life is different when personal needs are met. Just this past month, I have had two Personal Assistants (PAs) out of work for hospitalizations; one out due to a broken foot; one out due to complications with her pregnancy; and one out due to a family emergency. These are legitimate reasons to be absent from work. But my need to use the toilet, get dressed, eat, get in and out of bed, work, live – insert action of your choice here – does not stop just because I do not have my regular staff available to work for me. Yes, I have other staff but they are not always available to work at a moment’s notice. If it were not for the support and assistance from family and friends, I would have no choice but to rely on institutional care like my disabled peers in Japan.

Facing a crisis in personal care, knowing that I would be institutionalized without the generosity and kindness of a support network I have carefully cultivated, and reading about the murder of innocent disabled people in a setting where they should have been safe – well, writing has not been a priority in my life. It is a shame, because I need the therapeutic outlet of writing even more when I am stressed and emotional.

I really need to write. I am a writer – and writers need to write.

So, I set a goal to post something – anything – about Japan this weekend. I am not certain this post captures everything I want to say about it, but at this point it is the best I can do. To the friends and family who have reached out to me since the tragedy in late July, I appreciate your kind words. Thank you for sharing stories and for helping to call attention to this tragedy. We owe it to the victims to continue to fight against the stigma and negative attitudes towards the disability community. We must ensure all life is valued, so nobody has to fear that society views their life as a burden or expendable.

Because that disabled person trapped in an institutional bed? That person is not just me. It’s you.

I Want To, But…

I want to write about so many recent events and their impact on my life, like the brutal murder of 19 disabled people in Japan and Jerika Bolen’s desire to end her life, but I don’t have the energy to write anything which can compare to what others have already shared.

I want to celebrate my most recent rehabilitation victory (I transferred out of my driver’s seat into my wheelchair ALL BY MYSELF for the first time since January’s femur fracture this past week – three times!), but I am too busy trying to find Personal Assistant (PA) staff to help me get out of bed in the morning to be excited over this accomplishment.

I want to attend meetings, events and parties, but I do not have PAs available or healthy enough to work the hours I require so I can be an active member of my community this week.

I want to make plans to have fun this weekend, but I will be working on Saturday and Sunday to make up for the work time I have missed this week due to lack of PA staff.

I want to watch some of the Democratic National Convention tonight, but I will have to shower instead because I don’t yet know who is helping me get out of bed tomorrow and if they will have time to help me shower in the morning.

I want to be a more productive employee and deliver the quality my employer has come to expect from me, but meeting my basic needs is requiring time and energy which is normally devoted to work.

I want to travel, but I am forced to put those plans on hold because the only bathroom I can use is in my house.

I want, I want, I want.

But, what do I really need?

I need to remember there are people who are willing to help at a moment’s notice, and who come when called so I can get out of bed (thanks Stacey!).

I need to be grateful for my accessible vehicle, when so many are unable to access their community due to lack of transportation.

I need to share the great pieces written by disabled authors and advocates I respect, so others can learn how ableism threatens disabled people and understand the violence disabled people everywhere face.

I need to thank my employers – current and previous – for recognizing my unique needs and granting me the reasonable accommodations which make it possible for me to remain employed full time for twenty years, unlike 80% of disabled people of working age in the United States.

I need to find patience while telling myself this too shall pass, and do my best not to stress over things beyond my control.

And I need to congratulate myself for completing a goal, and posting a new post in the 38 minutes of free time I had alone today.

Not only that, but now I know who is helping me get out of bed tomorrow. Although I’m still going to shower tonight in case something happens…