I have started out 2002 looking at life from a new perspective. My height has been reduced in half and the world around me seems much taller. For a while, I will be living out of a wheelchair.
I had a paraglider accident and messed up my leg. I know "messed up" is not a great word and leaves a lot to the imagination, but to be honest, the doctors and I are not exactly sure what is wrong, just that there is nerve, bone and ligament damage and that it will heal in time.
Living out of a wheelchair is not the greatest of joys but I am grateful that I have one at all. There are many people in the world with far worse disabilities who don't have the paved infrastructure, or even a wheelchair. There are also people who have to spend their whole life on wheels.
My new wheels have taught me a great deal. When I was young, my grandfather would often say, "You don't know how someone feels until you have walked in their shoes." In other words, unless you have similar experiences to that person you can't understand their feelings.
As I go shopping or commute to work, I am half the height that I normally am and twice as wide. I am slower and can't go up stairs or carry things. Normally, as I take trains or walk the road, I can look over most people's heads, but now my field of vision is crowded with a sea of bottoms. I have also been surprised at how many people are totally ignorant of wheelchair users.
Of course there are the very inconsiderate people who are selfish and misuse the parking spots for the disabled, and the people who park bicycles so that they block sidewalk and doorways. But these people are the exception. Most people are kind and considerate, just oblivious to disabled people around them. Unless they have been in a wheelchair or know of someone who has, it is hard to appreciate.
Even many businesses and companies that proudly display wheelchair-accessible signs are really just barrier-free facades. I visited one such department store. The aisles were blocked with boxes and some of the barrier-free slopes were too steep to climb. I found a "wheelchair" washroom but it was too cramped to negotiate my wheelchair. Finally, I gave up.
Another store that I visited had wheelchairs to lend, but there was no air in the tires and no pump to fill them. I have discovered that the cleanest stores will wipe the seats of the wheelchairs, but the metal circles that are used to propel the chairs are almost never clean. My hands were covered in slime from a dirty wheelchair.
Some of the most considerate people I met were young people. High school and university students and young families top my list.
Like most of you, I would never use a disabled person's parking space unless I was disabled. Nor would I intentionally do anything unkind. I don't think that I am a thoughtless person. But sometimes I just don't think. Having been in a wheelchair has really helped me think about others in wheelchairs. I would not wish an accident or pain on anyone, but I would suggest that everyone spend at least a day in someone else's wheels. It would help us gain a barrier-free heart and improve so-called "barrier-free" facilities.