Of All The Nerve: Wheelchairs, Sciatica, And Equality

I had never thought much about physical disabilities until the autumn of 2012, when an  airplane flight from Hell from Wichita, KS, to Denver – long horror story ... please don't ask! -- squeezed me into a last-row seat of a tiny Embraer jet aircraft for four hours, resulting in a severely compressed sciatic nerve that basically crippled me for several months. At first, the pain was so intense that I thought I would die, then later on, the pain was so intense I was afraid I would not. (My wife and I slept in our first-floor guest suite for some period of time.) Gradually, thanks mainly to the intervention of an excellent chiropractor, I incrementally, over a period of about four months, recovered to the point that, instead of walking half the length of my driveway, I can now walk perhaps 3 miles a day 3 days a week, weather permitting. Were it not for that, I would probably have ended up completely wheelchair bound, essentially a paraplegic. But the most important discovery during this time were the incredible blessings of the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), especially as amended in 2008 by the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act (ADAAA).

Basically, the ADA, especially as amended by the ADAAA, mandates that all public buildings shall incorporate accommodations for people with sight, hearing, and movement disorders, regardless of whether those disorders are temporary (e.g., recovering from a broken leg) or permanent, e.g., doorways wide enough for wheelchairs, wheelchair ramps as an alternative for stairs, availability of wheelchairs, restrooms with grab bars in stalls for people with balance issues, signage in Braille, etc., etc., etc.  Furthermore, as far as I have been able to determine, the ADA / ADAAA does not permit public buildings lacking these accommodations to be “grandfathered” into mere pro forma compliance with ADA / ADAAA. That is to say, public buildings that existed before the ADA / ADAAA were passed must be retrofitted with those accommodations in order for them to comply with ADA / ADAAA standards. There are no exceptions. The goal of ADA / ADAAA is to enable individuals with significant physical deficits in, e.g., movement, sight, and hearing to participate fully in the life of the community. A more noble goal would be difficult to imagine.

Consequently, I am a rather good case in point. I use a cane for walking on uneven surfaces, e.g., the 16th-century cobblestone streets of Amsterdam, and when I embark on a commercial flight, I use a wheelchair, usually pushed by an airport porter, who has been pre-cleared for that job by TSA, to get to my departure gate. I also use a wheelchair and porter at my arrival gate when I return to get to baggage claim and ground transportation.  I could walk to my departure and arrival gates, but, because I walk more slowly now than in the past, I ride in a wheelchair just to save time, and usually remain seated in the wheelchair until my flight begins to board. (One of the silver linings in this particular cloud is that, as a wheelchair passenger, I always qualify for pre-boarding, which saves all manner of hassle in just getting on the plane and finding my seat.) Again, this is all thanks to ADA / ADAAA.

Braille signage

When visiting, e.g., museums at my destination, wheelchairs are always available just inside the entrance. (We visited the Library of Congress and the Museum of American Art last week, and I rode in a wheelchair in both cases. That wheelchair was a godsend.) Again, I do not strictly need the wheelchair. But visiting a museum on foot and without a wheelchair means that, while sauntering around a museum gallery admiring paintings, only half my mind is on the works of art. The other half of my mind is occupied looking for some place to sit, because, while pain is no longer a major issue, the sciatica causes my legs to tire easily, so I am always looking for a place to sit down. This means that, without a wheelchair, only half of me is in the museum admiring the Rembrandts, Monets, Renoirs, Calders, etc., because the other half of me is distracted. Basically, I am the poster child for the very kind of person whose physical challenges ADA / ADAAA was intended to address:  people whose physical disabilities would otherwise not permit them to engage with full intentionality in the life of the community. With ADA / ADAAA, I can.

One interesting by-product of my museum peregrinations in a wheelchair is some insight into the way many people see people with physical disabilities, wheelchairs in particular. I say "the way many people see" advisedly, because, in my experience, many people often do not see people in wheelchairs at all. Please understand: I say this entirely without rancor. In a building where most people are standing, e.g., looking at a painting, people sitting down are simply easy to miss. My theory is that, when standing, many people's line of sight just goes cleanly over the head of the person in the wheelchair. Several times at the Museum of American Art, the Library of Congress, and the National Gallery, I would roll my wheelchair up to a group of people, and they would -- in the most literally physical sense -- overlook me, i.e., look over my head and thereby, altogether unintentionally, exclude me from their visual field. The solution was simple: to get through or around the group, I would simply draw attention to myself by clearing my throat and saying "Please excuse me," and the group would part like the Red Sea in Exodus, usually with murmured apologies and some slight embarrassment for having impeded my progress. The conclusion is not -- repeat not -- that people are barbarians or callous or insensitive or uncaring. They are not. Rather, they all partake of a kind of "height bias" that makes it easy for them to overlook, i.e., over-look, people beneath their visual field. I have often wondered, reflecting on this experience afterwards, if people of shorter-than-average stature, e.g., Peter Dinklage of Tyrion Lannister / Game of Thrones fame, experience the same phenomenon of being over-looked.

Finally, there is a more melancholy insight I have gained as a result of using a wheelchair and a crutch to participate in normal social life: while I am overwhelmingly grateful for the ADA / ADAAA, I am (a) equally grateful that the bill was submitted and passed in 1990, and (b) equally pessimistic that such a law could pass today. In an era when the President of the United States routinely fat-shames people, mocks their physical disabilities, and engages in the legalized abduction of children -- often babes in arms -- from their parents, and then proceeds to simply lose them, I see essentially no prospect that anything like the ADA / ADAAA would stand a chance of passing today. So I am nostalgic for the comparatively innocent days of 1990 when conservatism and compassion were not seen as mutually exclusive, a time when the Republican Party had not adopted the principle of maximizing public misery in the body politic. I am, in a very personal way, a beneficiary of that time, which in retrospect seems such a golden age. ADA / ADAAA grew out of that shared consensus. With ADA / ADAAA, I am only partially crippled by my compressed sciatic nerve.

Unfortunately, our national politics is the real quadriplegic. That is the tragedy.

James R. Cowles

Image credits

Wheelchair … PublicDomainPictures.net … Public domain
Wheelchair ramp … Chongkian … Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International
Knee walker … Martin Criminale … CC BY-SA 2.0
Crutches … US Navy, Chief Mass Communication Specialist Robert J. Fluegel … Public domain
Arm sling … Photographer unknown … Public domain
Braille signage … Glogger … Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 UnportedAD
ADA annual celebration 2012 … Maryland GovPics … CC BY 2.0
Wheelchair athletes … US Department of Defense … Public domain