A Fair Shake

Robert Bennett is a social worker and writer who focuses on issues of disability.  His articles, which appear in both local and national publications, have spanned a wide range of topics.  He has spoken to groups of physical therapy students, church members and senior citizens, and has appeared on several radio programs.  In writing about the issues people with disabilities are involved with he feels he has learned a very important lesson,  “It is the act of truly living and believing in yourself that is important, not the manner in which that action is undertaken.”  Contact Mr. Bennett through his website at www.enablingwords.com

Have you ever felt uncomfortable about going somewhere, or unwelcome when you finally arrive?  Many people, both able-bodied and disabled, do.  I have to admit that I too, on occasion, have felt ill at ease.  I get stared at and imagine people asking me why I’m there.  Most people aren’t rude enough to actually voice the question, but they see a guy on wheels and invariably ask if I am travelling alone, as if I were incapable of handling my own needs.  And, they seem surprised when I answer that I usually travel alone, so that I don’t have to rely on a partner or a group’s schedule or itinerary.  When I travel, I almost never see a fellow wheelchair user, and I wonder why that is.  Perhaps my compatriots are tired of the constant stares, the unasked questions, or the insensitivity.

I’ve been a wheelchair user for twenty-plus years; virtually half my lifetime.  In that time I’ve never felt the need or desire to change my lifestyle much from when I was a biped.  I generally go where I want to go when I want to go there.  I love to travel, to explore new places and different lifestyles.  I’ve been to several of the United States and a couple of European countries.  I’ve flown and I’ve sailed.

Recently I contemplated going to New Mexico to attend a writer’s conference.  I was excited both about attending the conference and about visiting a place I had not been to before.  But, try as I might to make adequate and accessible arrangements, I finally found that I had to cancel my plans.  There are several reasons, including expense and time.  But, chief among those reasons was one glaring fact.  I was made to feel unwelcome.  While the hotel I booked had a wheelchair-friendly room available, I could not set up accessible transportation from the airport or excursions to tourist attractions.  And, to make matters worse, the organizers of the conference were either unable or unwilling to provide sufficient assistance for attendees with “alternate” needs.

The Americans with Disabilities Act was enacted to help people with disabilities better integrate into the larger society.  For the most part there have been significant changes that do make daily life easier.  Sometimes, though, you want more than what daily life offers.  Sometimes you just want to get away from the grind.  Unfortunately, though the ADA has been the law of the land for more than a decade, there are those who would still deny its existence or, at the very least, make necessary accommodations both expensive and embarrassingly difficult to obtain.  I was the victim of these extraneous expenses and absurd difficulties.  And, in the end, after a month of vacillating over the benefits and difficulties, my plans ended as an untenable exercise.

So what does this all mean?  Simply put, organizers of tours and conferences need to be more aware of the needs of potential attendees with “alternate” needs.  While it is true that there are some places that a person like myself, a wheelchair user, just can not go, those places are few and far between.  More common is the location or event that simply requires more planning and a desire to accommodate those who might need a bit of extra consideration.