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Walking a Mile in Her Walker

“You can’t understand someone until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes.” — American saying, author unknown

Part of aging is the physical breakdown of our bodies. I have tried to slow down the inevitable by working with a physical therapist weekly to strengthen my aching back and core (such as it is). Ironically, it was doing a new exercise (likely incorrectly) that left me with strained groin muscles and damage to the joint between my left and right pelvic bones that caused tremendous pain when I tried to initiate walking. After a visit to the pain doctor, an x-ray, and MRI, my doctor recommended lots of rest, pain management (translation, lots of pills), and using a walker. Finding a walker to borrow was easy. Most of my friends have one, as many people in my age group have had knee and/or hip replacements, broken bones from falls, or just need one to navigate the world.

In Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch tells Scout, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.” The walker was a real eye-opener. I was shocked to discover how hard it was to navigate my condo, let alone the outside world.

My condo itself is structurally fine. An elevator building. One floor living. Doors wide enough to accommodate a walker or wheelchair. A shower with a grab bar. So why couldn’t I get around easily? We had arranged our furniture based on aesthetics alone, not worrying if visitors, several of whom use wheelchairs, walkers, or canes, had enough space to move from one part of our home to another.

Once we moved things to clear paths wide enough to maneuver, I made another shocking discovery. Our living room is basically open concept, but I realized I could only sit in one spot on the sofa. I couldn’t navigate the coffee table. Filled with shame about how insensitive our furniture arrangement was to our aging friends with physical disabilities, we started to rethink how we could make our home truly accessible.

My first venture outside with the walker was going with my husband to the Civic Center to get a handicapped placard for the car. Armed with my doctor’s form, we found the handicapped entrance, a ramp leading into the basement. It is an old building, and all other entrances involved many stairs. Once in, I caught my walker on a series of mats placed down to absorb the snow/rain. When we used mats like these at the handicap-accessible preschool I directed, we used duct tape to hold them in place and replaced then when they started to curl. Not so at the Civic Center, where they were a huge trip hazard.

When I explained what we needed to the man stationed down a long hallway at the information desk, he pointed to the staircase to the second floor and informed us we needed to go to the City Clerk or City Collector. I guess he didn’t look up at me to see the walker. Luckily, we were near the one small elevator in the building. The City Clerk sent us across the hall to the City Collector. There was a line of people waiting, but no one offered to let me go ahead of them or even to sit on a chair. When I finally reached the head of the line, the Collector told me, “We don’t do that here,” and gave me some extension numbers for other departments I could call from the house phone down the hall. Of course, no one answered. Luckily for me, the woman at the closest desk, whose job was to issue building permits, redirected me to the City Clerk and advised me to make him read my paperwork and ask for a placard, not a sticker. Finally, we were on our way.

We thought we could go into Walgreens on our way home for one item, but the handicapped spots were already taken so I waited in the car. Just another time I was left out. At a different Walgreens the next day, we snagged a handicapped space for our COVID boosters. When we finally emerged, here’s what we found:

Yes, someone had parked in the zone next to handicapped spots that supposedly affords someone who is disabled enough room to enter their car. Luckily, I was not alone and my husband could back the car out so I could get in.

I have also discovered that many “accessible” buildings do not have automatic door openers, or if they do, it’s only on the outer door. A trip to the audiologist’s office on the first floor of a newish building is a perfect example. Getting into the office was doable as the outer door had a button for handicapped access and the inner office door pushed inward. Exiting was another matter. I could not pull the office door inward and was lucky a man in the waiting room saw my plight and helped me.

I have a friend who uses a wheel chair and has described the many times an Uber driver saw her chair and just kept going. When she came to our old house, she had to come through the backyard alley and have people assist her up several stairs to enter the house. I had a small, first-floor powder room, which must have been challenging for her and others to use. I also had a few steps to go from the front hall to the rest of the first floor. Of course, all of the bedrooms and bathrooms were up a full flight of stairs. One of the reasons we moved was contemplating a future in which aging made it harder to manage all of those stairs. I don’t know how I would have handled this injury if we hadn’t moved, and I am racked with guilt over not seeing how hard it was for people with physical disabilities to navigate that house.

As I wrap this up with my hands cramping from arthritis, I needs to share a final thought. No matter how empathic you think you are to others who are aging and/or have disabilities, it takes actually putting yourself in the same position as someone who has a handicapping condition to understand fully how challenging life can be. For those of us lucky enough to be temporarily restricted or not suffering from a permanent disability, incidents like mine are a preview of coming attractions.

“I do not ask the wounded person how he feels, I myself become the wounded person.”

― Walt Whitman


by Laurie Levy
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