Why You Don’t See More Wheelchair Users in Public

According to the latest US Census data, almost 20 percent of the US population has some sort of disability. About 10 percent have a visible physical disability or some sort of mobility impairment, and well over 3 million Americans use a wheelchair full-time. And don’t forget to take into account everyone who uses a walker, cane, or crutches for assistance in walking. People with disabilities are the largest minority group in the US, meaning there are more of us than blacks, Hispanics, Asians, and people who identify as LGBTQ+. So where is everyone???

Everyone knows that people with mobility impairments need some kind of device to help them get around. That could be a walker, a manual wheelchair, power wheelchair, or electric scooter. Technology has advanced a lot in the world of accessibility, and now there are power chairs that raise us to allow users to reach items on shelves and just have eye-to-eye conversations with people. But if you think about your last outing somewhere with your family and friends, how many wheelchair users did you see? Was it roughly 10 percent of all the people around you? Of course not, and here’s why.

Wheelchair users have ways to get around their homes and equipment to live day-to-day. This includes caregivers to help them eat or change clothes, bathe, get into bed, etc. But not every wheelchair user has an easy way to go out in public. I am very fortunate to own a wheelchair accessible SUV with a deployable ramp. It is my lifeline, my freedom, and I can’t enjoy my preferred active lifestyle without it. But mobility vans are very expensive, and obtaining a grant to help offset the cost can be very challenging. Even if you are lucky enough to own one, parking and getting out of the van can be a real hassle. Accessible van parking spaces are always in limited supply, and often people place obstacles (shopping carts, motorcycles, cars, etc) in the striped areas between spaces that are designed for the deployment of wheelchair ramps and safe egress and entry.

If a wheelchair user doesn’t own a van, his options for transportation can be severely limited, both by his equipment and physical condition as well as logistical limitations. For example, I can’t walk at all because I can’t lift my legs. However, I can stand up and pivot to transfer into a sedan taxi, and my scooter will disassemble to fit into a trunk. But someone who relies full-time on a large and often heavy power wheelchair for mobility can’t just call any taxi; they need an accessible taxi, which sadly are in very short supply in many major cities in the US – the home of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Texas cities are notorious for their lack of accessible taxis. I once waited over an hour outside the Houston airport in searing heat for one to show up, and they were not an option for me at all during a recent trip to Dallas. They are virtually non-existent in small towns, unless an independent contractor is using their own accessible van during limited hours.

The next option is public transportation, which is at best a mixed bag – even for able-bodied Americans. For all practical purposes, the New York subway system is off-limits for wheelchair users. Only a handful of stations have elevators to the platforms, and often those elevators are not working. Many larger cities are doing a good job in providing accessible buses for residents, but some bus stops have no nearby pavement for a wheelchair user to safely roll on to after getting off the bus. Based on their destinations, some wheelchair users can spend hours on a bus or two to travel only a few miles because of the route layout, as well as limits on what buses they can board. Many local tram or rail systems offer no accessible transportation options to help wheelchair users travel beyond the tram/rail stops.

These are just some of the obstacles involved in getting wheelchair users from point A to point B. Upon arriving where we want to go, we still have to deal with the standard accessibility challenges, like flat entries, doorways, accessible bathrooms, etc. Every choice we make is a cost/benefit analysis. We ask ourselves, how much work and cost and trouble is it going to be to get to [destination] versus the enjoyment or benefit we will derive from being there? Sadly, a majority of the time, it’s either too difficult for wheelchair users to simply go somewhere, or just not worth the effort.

We are figuratively invisible because many people and government officials and business owners just never think about us when making important decisions that affect our ability to be part of our communities. But we are also often literally invisible because so many wheelchair users live in places or in circumstances where they can’t be a part of the public space. It’s heartbreaking that I have had more positive experiences with accessible transportation in foreign countries than I have in my own. However, wheelchair users are doomed to remain invisible behind closed doors if we don’t speak up to encourage US cities and towns to promote the expansion of accessible (and affordable) transportation options.

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