A Day in a Wheelchair

By: Patrick Butler

Walking in someone else’s shoes is sometimes easier said than done – especially when that person can’t use their legs. And as a person who has never broken a bone, walked on crutches or worn a brace – I am even cavity-free – it was hard to sympathize with how a disability or an injury could ever affect my mobility.

But on Thursday, after picking up a wheelchair from the Canadian Red Cross, I tried putting myself in the place of someone forced to wheel around in a city as weather-beaten and as flagrantly hilly as St. John’s. Such was my mission – not to point out shoddy infrastructure, but to try and understand, even for a few hours and in a few circumstances, some of the challenges of living with a disability in a place like this.

I would go about my day as normal, but other than driving, wherever I went and no matter what I did, I would have to be in my chair. Despite my new wheels, Thursday was a day like any other. Before lunch, I ran an errand at the Centre scolaire et communautaire des Grands-Vents on Ridge Road, where a combination of wind, rain-drizzle-fog and uphill pavement was my first test at wheelchair competency. An iffy automatic door opener took its time working, but I eventually got inside the building, where I accidentally set off an alarm in a tiny elevator for lack of signage.

Later, I drove to Memorial University and picked up a friend after her accounting class. We’d planned to try out the Rooms Café for lunch. Luckily, a suitable table opened up just before we arrived (about half the restaurant’s tables are high enough for bar stools).

I manoeuvred around other people’s seats and a waitress moved a chair so I could wheel myself in to our table. The tabletop connected with my armrests, which kept me from pulling in close enough, but we managed. After lunch, we went around downtown.

By this point sidewalks were steadily proving themselves some of the trickiest areas for me to wheel my chair, mostly because they were usually graded toward the road. That meant more effort to keep my chair straight, a slower pace and even more reduced mobility. We parked on Harbour Drive just across the road from Eastern Edge Gallery.

When I crossed the street at Clift’s-Baird’s Cove, the sidewalk lip intended for wheelchairs, which doesn’t actually connect with the crosswalk, put me out in traffic. A few hundred feet later, my chair’s footplates crashed into the pavement when I tried wheeling myself over a sidewalk curb without a lip. Lucky for me, I had a friend to help. But had I been alone, or had I truly lacked the ability to use my legs, I would have been stuck.

At Atlantic Place (our point of access to the shops on Water Street because its elevators helped me avoid a steep uphill roll from the harbour front), we headed to the office building’s main exit. When we got to the front doors, there were stairs, but no ramp.

Again, I was stuck. I asked a cashier where the wheelchair exit was located. He didn’t know.

We found it eventually – a side-alley off the food court. The rest of the day continued in much the same way. On Water Street, many of the stores had doorsteps and narrow entranceways – probably as much as the result of space as of accessibility concerns.

Crossing at crosswalks – especially those that run parallel to the harbour front and perpendicular to some pretty steep downhill slopes – was especially treacherous. Arms tired and fed up with the weather, we called it a day. I put the wheelchair in the trunk, stepped into the driver’s seat and left the woes of wheelchair accessibility behind.

I’m lucky. Not everyone can.

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