The disabled out there

Posted by Allen Rucker in Life After Paralysis on January 09, 2017 # Health

I’ve been in a wheelchair for over one score, to use Abe Lincoln’s counting system, and I am forever baffled by the fact that I rarely see anyone else in a chair out in public. Estimates vary, but most statistics fall in the range of somewhere between two and three million people in the US who use a wheelchair or scooter to get around in life. Maybe they all live on farms in Wisconsin, because, with rare exception – I saw a wheeler at CVS the other day and almost hugged him -- they aren’t tooling around in public spaces in the greater Los Angeles area.

When I first became paralyzed and ventured out to the mall for my maiden voyage, I was prepared to high-five all the chair users I bumped into outside the Banana Republic and trade tips on how to pimp out a Quickie. I was a bit shocked to find that there was no other chair in the whole place. Not one.

It took a while but I finally located many of my brothers and sisters of the chair. Unfortunately, this is not a cheery story to share with family and friends over hot chocolate around an open fire. The Los Angeles Times just reported on a comprehensive survey of the homeless population in Los Angeles County, second only to New York City as the “Homeless Capital of America.” The LAT headline: homelessness is big, 43,000 big, about the size of Pocatello, Idaho. When it comes to homeless people with disabilities, the percentage is stark. In terms of physical disabilities, 17% of the population at large, one out of six, or about 7500, are categorized as such. One in six – this sounds right in line with the most oft-quoted national statistic on all US citizens with disabilities.

That is, until you realize that the number doesn’t include by far the biggest population of homeless here – the mentally ill! They make up a whopping 30%, or about one out of three. Add those two figures together and almost half of people walking around the streets of LA are physically or mentally disabled.

Take the current number of homeless nationally – in 2015, almost 600,000 – and that means there are probably some 300,000 desperate souls out there with some kind of disability. That doesn’t count the 19 million people with disabilities who live below the poverty line.

The funny thing is, even to those of us who are disabled, the disabled homeless are pretty much invisible. We walk or roll right by them, looking the other direction. In the same way that non-disabled people avoid many of us, thinking that we might be contagious or a little dicey in the head, we feel the same about these Dickensian characters using one arm to push their wheelchair and the other to nudge their heavy grocery cart down the street. I see them out of the corner of my eye when I go out for a stroll and I have never stopped to ask one of them how they ended up with a disability. A big chunk of them are vets, I bet, though the number of homeless vets has dropped significantly through the efforts of dozens of organizations tasked with helping them. In fact, homeless vets are about the only homeless story you hear about on the six o’clock news. That, and the increasing number of homeless students, including college students.

I’m sure there are both government agencies and non-profit groups specifically targeting the homeless with disabilities. Kids in this predicament probably get help at school. But the effort is certainly not the well-publicized assault on the problem like the homeless veteran movement. This issue is probably as important to the well-being of the whole disability community as any other quality-of-life matter, but that community is fractured and atomized, so not much gets done. We simply see it as a job for someone else.

I know very little about homelessness other than what I read in the newspaper, but I find it sobering to think, especially at this time of year, how awful it must be to be disabled in any way and try to survive on the streets of LA, and probably your town, too. It puts my own petty concerns -- getting my brakes fixed or maneuvering a bumpy sidewalk or finding my way into a crowded restaurant -- in perspective. As my mother used to proclaim like a Biblical prophet every time one of her kids was refused a new toy…

“I pitied the man who had no shoes until I met the man who had no feet…”

Or no home.

© 2016 Allen Rucker

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The Best Seat in the House:
How I Woke Up One Tuesday and Was Paralyzed for Life