Detours and dead ends: rolling through life can have its frustrations

Posted by Michael Collins in Life After Paralysis on October 01, 2018 # Mobility

Wheelchairs are an amazing convenience, allowing many of us to travel freely throughout society and enjoy its many benefits despite different types of paralysis or disability. Unfortunately, they can also get in the way, and are prone to be blocked by what appear to be fairly minor obstacles.

An incident at my former bank's branch office was just one of the many times that this cumbersome, but lifesaving, piece of equipment that I roll around in has combined with my paralysis to keep me from participating in some of the same activities as my family and friends. It was not just one item that caused the frustration that day: doors too heavy for me to open; the door handle not accessible to my clenched fist; no other customers or passersby available to help with the door and the kiosk to check in was higher than I could reach. Everybody was apologetic, but that didn't make it easier for me to bank independently.

That was not a new experience, as such incidents began soon after my spinal cord injury 30 years ago. It was that time before the Americans with Disabilities Act and some other important disability rights laws were passed. Dead ends and roadblocks to my progress seemed to be everywhere.

I soon learned that no landlords were willing to allow me to pay for removal of a bathtub in order to install a roll-in shower, even in buildings that were still under construction. Finding a hotel with a roll-in shower in an accessible room took hours, and several long distance calls. It was surprising how many restaurants, especially the good ones, lacked an accessible entrance so that I could enter and eat. However, when necessary to use the back door and a path through the kitchen to enter a restaurant, it is amazing how easy it is to find out what the cook feels the best meal to order might be.

Sporting events, theaters and churches had limited spaces to park a wheelchair, so I usually ended up seated in the 'nosebleed' section so that I could barely read the numbers on team jerseys. Being seated in the back would have been preferable at times, especially when parked in the front row at concerts where I was blasted by oversize speakers. It is amazing to find yourself alone in the middle of the crowd but that is what happens when there are no designated spaces for wheelchairs in the rows of pews and the only wheelchair seating is partially blocking the center aisle or parked in front of the entire congregation at church.

In order to be a good citizen, I once reported for jury duty. I was selected to be on a jury, but before the actual trial began the plaintiff asked that I be excused because I looked out of place since I was forced to park in front of the jury box where the other 11 jurors were seated; that was okay with me since the restrooms at the courthouse were not accessible either.

Surprisingly, all of these obstacles that attempted to block my path of travel have had an unintended positive impact on how I have lived during my three decades using a wheelchair. How can any of that be positive? I was forced to learn the law, and even took training from the Department of Justice so that I could train other people about how it needed to be implemented. I have also met many wonderful strangers who have been willing to assist me by reaching items on supermarket shelves that were beyond my capability.

I am now an expert at finding my way through back hallways and basement walkways to reach my destination in large buildings. Finding a working elevator large enough to accommodate my wheelchair is a challenge, and I have become good at figuring out where they are located. In that process I have taken many freight elevators and others that were not intended for public use, such as in the halls of Congress and even on a White House tour.

More work needs to be done; that is why I continue to support the organizations and individuals who fight for our rights in Washington, DC and wherever such laws are made, or threatened. The obstacles they have removed have allowed me to roll this far, and I am ready for even more adventures ahead.

© 2018 Michael Collins

The National Paralysis Resource Center website is supported by the Administration for Community Living (ACL), U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) as part of a financial assistance award totaling $8,700,000 with 100 percent funding by ACL/HHS. The contents are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official views of, nor an endorsement, by ACL/HHS, or the U.S. Government.