One night I was riding with a friend downtown to a new club. The old club location had closed and I was telling him how much I was going to miss it. Once you navigated past the completely inaccessible front door, which I could do with the help of a cane and the strong arm of my date, that location was a dream of accessibility. All the floors were hard, with not a carpet to be seen! There were no stairs, only ramps. The ENTIRE bathroom was wide, not just the handicap stall. Even the mirrors were low enough so that you could actually check your makeup. It was a place I could dance, REALLY dance!
I had never heard of the new club we were going to, but it's the new location my monthly dance night peeps had selected, and I wanted to go to support the troops. Upon arrival, we managed a parking space right out front of the club -- often a good omen. My friend got out of the car to scope out the landscape, meaning finding out where (and if) the handicap accessibility would begin. The "afterthought" construction of the door we were guided to made me laugh. Imagine if you will, that just off the sidewalk there is a 2-inch high micro curb below a foot of actual ramp that's only about a foot and a half wide. At the top of this "ramp" there was another 2 inch micro curb, and then a decorative wood pillar in the middle of the door. So if one could somehow navigate the micro curbs to get to the "accessible entrance", one can't be more than 20 inches wide to pass through the door. Again, I was fortunate to have my cane and the two strong arms, but my heart began to sink.
When I entered I was greeted at the door by the host, who is a friend of mine. I slowly, and with all the politeness I have, navigated through the crowd to see that all the tables are the 4-foot high kind, complete with 3-foot high chairs. So my friend helped me up into the chair, and we parked my wheels underneath the table.
Now, I want to say that for the rest of the evening I had a good time. I talked with friends, enjoyed a REAL Long Island iced tea, and thought that the decor and atmosphere were lovely. But the general experience of marginal access was typical of the events I'm invited to. As I explained to my friend on the ride home, it's not that I think the organizers are being intentionally non inclusive. It’s just they suffer from the same problem that most of our society does, in which accessibility is an afterthought.
I wrestle sometimes with how much I should say. I don't mean to be a bad sport. And as any gimp will tell you, we are so very often accused of wanting special treatment. It irks me, though, that simply wanting, no, needing a place to be accessible is considered “special treatment.” And we fear that if we make a big deal out of it, maybe we won't be asked to other events. I currently still have the ability to be adaptive, yet I know that won't always be the case.
When I'm out for a night on the town, I really would like to leave my advocate hat at home. It so often clashes with my outfit. So I've been looking for a middle ground, maybe try writing some sort of letter to the organizers after the fact, to be used for the future. Yet I'm still not sure how to begin.
Atlanta is filled with wonderful old historic buildings and businesses. It's one of the things I love about the city. As much as I hate the dreaded lifts, to preserve the buildings integrity, I know that sometimes you have to get in the lift! I've lived in the city all of my life, and am blessed with many friends who never think twice about making sure that wherever we go, I can go too. But when I am going to a new event by myself, there have been many times when as soon as I get there, I turn around and go home. Sometimes it’s because I can't get into the building at all. Sometimes it’s just a day when my courage fails me, and I don't have it in me to be attracting unwanted attention, pity, or bubbling over with outrage over the lack of accessible design. My friend was surprised that that happens so often, and I said, "It's because we don't talk about it." I didn't add, "and I'm afraid folks won't want me around if I complain." It happens. Even when I’m just inquiring about accessibility prior to going to an event/class, and I’m NEVER contacted back. (Panic over not wishing to bring up the issue can do that.)
So how do you say to the organizers of such wonderful events, "I would love to go! But I know that location or that activity won’t be accessible to me." Maybe I'm wrong, but it goes against my southern girl politeness to say "If I go, will the group make sure that I will not be left behind, or put off in a corner?" Because sometimes in these old buildings, a wheelchairs lucky to get through the door at all, and getting all the way into the actual space isn't an option.
Am I being a princess? Am I being a baby? Am I being a burden?
See, I don't want to be any of those things. I don't want anyone to be responsible for the emotional turmoil that being a "border gimp" brings me in those kind of social situations. For that matter, most gimps don't want to be put in that position at all. I'm not looking for pity, I'm just unsure on how to proceed. And by that I mean, how to proceed in a way that is comfortable for ME, and not necessarily what another person thinks I might should do. Not all of us are comfortable ALL THE TIME to speak up or out in EVERY situation. It shouldn't make us cowards if we'd like to NOT jump up on a soap box every time one appears. So I'm working on it. And I share these words with you, in the hopes that it will spark not a debate, but LISTENING. This is how I feel: even when I shouldn't, or "that wasn't what was meant" or I wish I'd stayed at home,
I'm not going to stay at home, that's just not me. I just have to think it through