My name is Brian and I had an accident in 2014 that changed my life. I became disabled because of the accident and this comes with its challenges. People with disabilities face different challenges in terms of accessibility. For those of us with wheelchairs, access to buildings and homes with ramps is a big big issue. Find out more below. If you haven’t read the beginning part of my story you can find it here.
If you have been following this series then you probably know that after creating spinal injury awareness, my second most favourite thing to write about is women. I have such love for them and I can’t even lie. In my last instalment, I wrote in-depth about the one that locked me down. The one I like making happy. I have a feeling she might not find any happiness in the way I start this one. Anyways, let’s live dangerously right!!
Many years ago when I could still move my toes and wipe my own bottom, I liked a girl. Though she lived on the other side of our village, the distance was no big issue. I had immense confidence in the affection we had for each other. We were young and we were foolish, I guess that’s what made it all the more exciting. Since I didn’t have a phone then, we would employ smoke signals to arrange our trysts. In this case, “smoke signal” refers to communication by word of mouth; no one really talks to each other anymore.
Her home was around 1.5 kilometres from our home but like a determined cheetah preying on an antelope I would run so fast; strategically taking shortcuts through maize plantations where I’d sometimes find my peers having dates of their own. Once I got to her place she’d silently leave through the back door, hastily bless me with a sloppy kiss then run back before her mother would notice she was out messing with a boy. I’d make the trip back easily without even breaking a sweat.
I was thinking about that story as the nice strangers were lifting me over some stairs in town while on my wheelchair. They were two tiny stairs that would have been nothing to my older self but to new me, they were Mt. Everest.
Accessibility wasn’t something I thought about before my accident. I knew I could push or jump my way to whatever place I wanted. These days I have to make prior enquiries about the accessibility of the places I am going to. Sometimes I get lucky and the surface is smooth and without stairs. Other days I have to be carried literally from the car. I try to avoid going to such places because I feel uncomfortable being carried around like a bag of potatoes. The problem is, most of my surroundings don’t accommodate people like me. So I remain outside.
It is impossible to talk about accessibility without mentioning inclusion. Society has to see us first; they have to notice us for them to go the extra mile of adjusting their environments to suit our needs. These adjustments, though seemingly small to the naked eye, are life-transforming for people like me. If I visit you and find a small ramp by your door solely meant to make life easier for me, my heart will swell with gratitude because I will know that you see me and you notice the importance of me feeling included. Feeling included is valuable, it gives a sense of belonging and we no longer feel so different after all.
A ramp isn’t just slanted cement, it is a statement of equality, that all people are given a fair chance at business, employment, leisure and most importantly…To participate in life. Take this for example; a building has five floors. A supermarket on the first floor, a bank on the second, a restaurant on the third, a barbershop on the fourth and a club on the fifth. Let’s say this building doesn’t have a lift, just stairs and more stairs. A disabled person would be reduced to an audience, watching life pass you by; that’s what most of us go through.
I am what we call a C5 complete injury quadriplegic. This means that I have no movement or sensation in my lower limbs and limited movement in my upper limbs. In my case, the movement doesn’t go beyond my wrist. Thus, I have no movement nor sensation in my fingers. This means I have no power to grip anything with my hands.
Spinal injury survivors with severities such as mine cannot use the normal wheelchairs because we can’t push ourselves in them. Instead, we need motorized wheelchairs to properly move around independently.
Before I was all these things, I didn’t see life as I see it now. I wasn’t a very empathetic person to people living with disabilities. Maybe it is because no one told me about their struggles. Maybe it was because I never understood what it was like to be under the scorching sun for hours because no restaurant in town has assistive devices for such people. I was mostly ignorant about the plight of disability; productive men and women wasting away in their beds at home because society never included them.
My first wheelchair was green and black in colour. It was big and heavy; undesirable qualities while choosing a wheelchair. This was all we could afford after the bank accounts were drained by the hospital bills. It was a manual chair, one that I couldn’t move independently in because my hands weren’t even strong enough for me to feed myself. I never had the right chair but my fortune changed when my friends and family pulled their resources and got me a powered wheelchair. The day I got it was the beginning of the rest of my life.
Accessibility goes beyond just ramps and levelled surfaces. It is a disabled person’s freedom to live a life with no hindrances. That means getting a wheelchair that suits them and living in a society that tries to understand. A society that makes its infrastructure accessible to disabled people so that we are included and not excluded.