As our readers know, I’ve been stumping around on crutches for a few weeks now as my foot heals. And yesterday Kish and I had to go visit someone in Riverside Methodist Hospital and realized that crutches just wouldn’t work, so I plopped myself down into a wheelchair for the visit. Both experiences have given me a new perspective.
With crutches, my main concern is stairs, ramps, and floor surfaces. Even a single step, such as from from one room to another, can pose a significant risk. If there’s no handrail, your only choice is to teeter on your crutches and hop up or down on your good foot, hoping you don’t fall in the process. If you’re talking three or four steps, forget it. The chance that you are going to be able to repeatedly balance and land successfully is miniscule — which means you are risking a crash. When I go up and down the stairs at home, I do it on my knees or on my butt, one step at a time. That’s OK for home, but it’s obviously not a very dignified approach when you are in a public place.
Ramps are better, obviously, because no hopping is required. But if the surface is not flat and clear, ramps also pose a risk. I don’t achieve enormous ground clearance when I balance on my good foot and swing my crutches forward, so if there’s any change in the surface it might snag the rubber tip on the end of the crutches and cause the finely calibrated crutching process to come to a screeching halt. That can happen even on a flat surface, if it has carpeting with some kind of raised pattern.
As for the wheelchair, it apparently changes the perspective not only of the seated person but also of everyone else. When I was seated in a wheelchair, I felt reduced and shrunken and somewhat helpless. Curiously, the hallway scenery seems to move by much more swiftly when you are wheelchair-bound, perhaps because you aren’t the person who is in control of speed or direction.
The most fascinating aspect of my brief wheelchair adventure, however, was the reaction of other people. When we went to the hospital Kish initially put me in a wheelchair by the door, then went to park the car. As I waited, several people walked by without so much as a nod in my direction or an acknowledgement of my presence. This is unusual behavior in the friendly Midwest, where it’s rare to not look passersby in the eye. For those people, apparently, I might as well have been a piece of furniture. I wonder if other people in wheelchairs have had similar experiences?
My experience suggests that building designers and architects would be well served by spending a few days on crutches and in a wheelchair, to appreciate the challenges involved and consider first-hand how their designs might affect people using those devices. It has definitely opened my eyes.