Noting recent social dynamics of wheelchair use in elevators at my workplace. Every encounter I have is fraught with tension because of how other people behave, but here are a few highlights of recent weeks.
If any 1 of these events occurred as simply 1 out of every 100 encounters, say, that would not cause me frustration; however, every day, every elevator ride involves a bizarre asymmetrical negotiation of some sort or another with one or more person after another.
But the good news is that there are times when I am the only person in the elevator so I can be temporarily free for a four floor ride. (I sing a version of a Rihanna song to myself in these moments: “Oh, oh, you make me feel, like I’m the only rider in the world…..”). Freedom is fleeting and must be enjoyed.
Being a Traffic Coordinator to Save People’s Ankles and Calves
It’s difficult to protect able-bodied people while sharing an elevator with them.
Since I’m wearing a mask forever, and I’m basically hip-to-abdomen level with them, firstly it’s often difficult to simply be heard, so as I’m getting onto an elevator I must speak up, summon up my decades of theatre experience, and project like Bernadette Peters in a hurricane, and as kindly as possible, “Would you please let me get in and turn around before you step in?”
I briefly, but as quickly as I can, press my floor button while I’m in the doorway, and then that’s when I must turn around, all the while barking out my traffic coordination requests.
If I get in and others walk in I can no longer turn myself around and must sit like society’s dunce staring into the corner, my feet stands extending outward, and I can’t turn one way or another, or move backward, without hitting someone. If the elevator fills up, I can no longer back up without rolling over people’s feet. And that requires far more verbal negotiation than this situation.
However, if people wait, let me turn around, and come in, we’re all good, so I’m talking the whole time, my arms occupied with my wheels, my face hidden behind a black beak-like K-95 mask that makes me look like some bird in a Bosch painting.
Sometimes…. People do wait. Sometimes.
However, what do you suppose the ratio is of people who say, “Yes,” to my request and actually wait and those who say, “Yes,” to my request and just walk right in anyway?
Multiple times each week people say, “Yes, of course,” in soft, kind, dulcet, nearly lullaby tones….. And then barge right the fuck on in anyway.
Some touch the back of my wheelchair and slip into the elevator while I’m still in the doorway and move out in front of me in the elevator so now there’s no room for me. That’s less frequent but frequent enough. I’m stuck right there in the doorway next to the button, so I must back out and take the next elevator. (And then sometimes these people look hurt and I’m like, “No, no, go on, I’ll take the next one, it’s fine, I’m not giving you a bad Yelp review…...”)
Anything to try to make them feel better.
I have no other choice in these situations but to back out probably about 40% of the time. No other choice to back out...
Unless of course they’ve legalized that great wheelchair sport of days of old similar to roller derby, sort of “roller derby bowling,” in which we can turn our wheelchairs around, hit all the standing people right in their ankles and calves with our foot stands, and watch them all fall down? Is that legal again? Because that was fun back in the wild wheelchair west days of no laws and fewer courtesies, back when we wheelchair users didn’t have to worry about bowling the Enableds down, so if we can do that again, problem solved…..
Oh, hold on. No, no, I just checked. Still illegal to bowl people down with my wheelchair.
So for now I’ll continue to try to speak more loudly each time, make eye contact somehow from the back of my head, maybe I can project a PowerPoint presentation onto the elevator wall: “Please wait to enter the elevator until I turn around.”
Would a disco ball help or hurt?
Asses in face in crowded elevators
Self-explanatory, I believe.
The Gaslighting Court Jester in the Lobby
This guy is an outlier (as well as being an out liar). However, oh my God, do I deal with a lot of people like this. People who, in an effort to “help,” get in the way and stay in the way and never seem to realize that they are creating the problems they’re allegedly “helping” me with and if they would just get the fuck out of the way….
We all lack situational awareness from time to time, but this guy.
This was 8 o’clock in the morning. Two men were in the lobby/elevator bay standing off to the side near a bathroom. Not waiting for elevators.
In my way a bit, the first man moved back out of my way. The second guy…. This guy…..
You know those court jesters or commedia dell’arte characters who extend their arms out fully while bending down and lead the way for you into the medieval faire?
This guy… Stepped IN FRONT OF MY WHEELCHAIR as I was advancing and did that thing to me.
“Oh, sir! This way!” (I’m nonbinary and hate being called “sir,” but let’s just sweep THAT part of this intersectionally complex situation aside.) “Which floor?” he asked.
“I can get it,” I said. “You don’t need to do this.” Besides which: There was only one way at this elevator floor. It was the ground floor and there was only up. “Oh, no problem,” he said, veering right and swooping INTO MY WAY AGAIN and pushing the up button “for” me.
So I veered left toward the elevator since it’s doors opened when he pushed the button, and he twirled around, again in some overly theatrical manner, with his arms swooping open to “show” me the way. He moved AGAIN INTO MY WAY and reached out to hold the door open “for” me. (I do this every day. I would have been in the elevator doors by this point without his “help.”)
“Would you please stop this? This is not necessary. It’s not helpful. And it’s offensive.” I said this as I was trying to get around his fucking feet and most of his body that was blocking part of the doorway while holding the door. (I can catch closing doors with my extended foot rests faster than this asshole can figure out what century he’s in.)
Now I’m in the elevator, I turned around, pressed my floor, and I’m facing him. He’s still standing in the door, blocking it from closing with his body. He’s also standing over me, looking down, “What?” he asked, with a completely false air of innocence and a note of saving face, “This?” he asked, waving his hand around at my wheelchair.
“You think it’s because of this?” he said, and now I knew I was in trouble. I’d triggered a bit of self-awareness in him and a need in him to defend himself not only to me but to his workmate who was out in the lobby watching all of this. He looked over at him, then back at me, and said, “No, I’m not doing this just because of….” uncomfortable silence as toddler tries to make up lie… “This?” Again, he vaguely waves at my wheelchair. “Oh, no, I treat everybody this way!”
Now, trust me. This was complete bullshit. No, he does not. But I have to let him defend himself.
And he went on a bit, defending himself, bullshitting himself—certainly not me—and STILL STANDING IN THE ELEVATOR DOOR SO THAT THEY WOULD NOT CLOSE.
I finally said, in extreme exasperation, “Would you please let me go!?!”
And he stopped talking.
He looked down at his own feet, bridging the air gap between building and elevator, looked to the side to see the two doors, blocked by his presence, and his workmate further over across the lobby, and he suddenly gained a flash of situational awareness.
He stepped back, saying nothing else. The doors closed.
And he finally made me feel….
“Like I’m the only rider in the world! Like I’m the only one this elevator will ever love! Like I’m the only one it’s thinking of!”
Celebrate the small victories.
The Man Who Can’t Imagine I Was Born This Way
I get on. Coworker I don't know gets on. He asks: "Skiiing accident?"
After a moment I said: "No."
Silence from floor 4 to Ground.
Technical Note On The Above Anecdote and Headline
I considered simply saying what I do say to more friendlier co-workers who ask about my recent transition/return to using a wheelchair. I’ll put it into a quote text so you can experience how long and boring it is to say:
“I was born with a congenital anomaly involving my skeleton. In childhood I used leg braces at times, was hospitalized for long periods of times, and had my body reshaped. Now that I am older that same congenital anomaly is impacting me so I am using a wheelchair whenever possible and a cane the rest of the time.”
Me, over and over and fucking over again interminably
That’s about the shortest version I can muster to get people to accept and move on.
Saying nothing continues to promote the idea that we don’t belong here. Yet explaining continues to promote the idea that I owe everyone an explanation.
Rant paragraph (a bit steamy, anyway): My frustration in the elevator scene directly above is that I shouldn’t have to explain that there are people with disabilities on the fucking Earth to every single person. I have been part of a disability rights movement and disability activism since 1973. I was born to a Disabled American Veteran (my mother) and met many activists as a child decades upon decades ago. Personally, I worked on what became the American Disabilities Act in 1990 for 17 years prior to its passage. So there’s a long history hidden in my mind as I listen to, in 2023, this man’s default assumption being that I’m as fucking ability privileged and class privileged as he is and that surely I’ll be “back to normal soon, right? Am I right? Heh-heh-heh? Back up on the slopes of privilege soon? Heh, heh?”
Silence sometimes is golden.
When I was born, mothers of people like me were regularly and by default encouraged to give us up to the state, send us to institutions, and save everyone the trouble of having to deal with us. Literally doctors would say to a woman: “Think about the other siblings….” We/I also had no legal right to an education until 1975 (sparked by the PARC v. Pennsylvania case which began in 1969 and made its way to the Supreme Court in 1971). (I did get into elementary school, and I did get into regular education; however, this was not something that just happened. Parents had to fight for this, as mine did. If I’m well enough to write more diaries I may extrapolate on that later.)
Digging further back: We simply weren’t supposed to be here because… Eugenics. (More of that long, hidden history that boiled in my head that fed the gap and the silence between me and Ski Man.)
A New Hope
My friend and co-worker, upon hearing this story above, said, “Well, maybe he won’t make remarks like that any more.”
Yes, indeed, that was my intent.
Wheelchair Use a Privilege
I live on a second floor and will never be able to afford a more accessible (or even another) apartment, so I use a cane. I have at times this year had to crawl up and down the stairs because my pelvis and shoulders move out of place throughout the day and so my mobility is not consistent. Being able to use a wheelchair in my workspace is a privilege in itself. It shouldn’t be but that hidden history allows me to remember that it is.
A Brief Note On Heavy Fire Doors and “Accessibility”
Still, I have to strain and sometimes re-sprain my mid back muscles in order to open the workplace bathroom doors, heavily weighted as it is a fire door. While the sign next to the door reads that it’s Accessible (yay!) and even has a nifty wheelchair picture on it (super-dooper yay!), that sign merely refers to the fact that inside that door….if you can get through that door….there is an accessible stall waiting for you!
And if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere!
Part of this is due to what we lost in the fight for the American Disabilities Act, and what the building, architectural, and real estate industries, among other corporation, won over us. (That’s another hidden part of our history long forgotten… If it was ever known. Again, if I’m well enough to write more, I’ll dig into that someday.)
I wrote this piece to share a little bit of the daily dynamics we must negotiate daily in order to protect the health, well-being, and safety of People Without Disabilities. You're welcome.
(Please be receptive to each other and aware of your own ability biases and interactivity biases in the comments. Remember we are here.)
UPDATE: Please check out the video Tara the Antisocial Social Worker shared deep down in the thread. Talking Wheelchair Blues. Beautiful stuff. Thank you, Tara.