Opinion

Standing on the shoulders of giants

By Susan Kovalik, Did You Know?

Standing on the shoulders of giants is something we do each day as we enjoy those things that make our lives easier and we can’t remember a time when it was different.

I just returned home from California where I had complete knee replacement.

The “procedure” was 51 minutes long. I checked out two days later and flew home the next. Now that in itself is a miracle from my perspective, but this article is not primarily about knees — it is about accessibility.

During the six months prior to this event, I had reached the point that a grimace was a permanent look on my face. My right knee was past the point of being uncomfortable; it was continuously painful. When shopping, I found myself looking for a parking space close to my intended destination. I began to avoid the larger stores and was grateful for those stores with carts.

I began looking for ways to go up and down a curb without going up and down a curb. In October, I moved to a condominium with four standard-sized stairs, 7 1/2 inches high. I had them replaced, increasing the number to six, all 4 1/2 inches high; you can go up and down a 4 1/2-inch stair without hesitation, even when your knees are hurting. I wonder about the occupants of the new steep two-story houses and about the life span of knees that will do those stairs.

It was all becoming too difficult to get around and so a month ago, I went to the Department of Motor Vehicles and received, with a doctor’s request, a part-time parking tag so I could park in the disabled spaces. It was with my tag in hand that I was reminded of the giants of the past.

In the early 1970s, my husband and I with our three small children lived in a subdivision in California, and one of our neighbors was a woman who had had polio and was confined to a wheelchair. Routinely, I would bring her to my house to keep me company while I was doing my chores and waiting for my three small children to return from school.

When I brought her to visit, the effort needed to come and go up and down the stairs at both of our houses. At least once a month, we would venture out shopping or to a movie or an event at school; each time I would have to call ahead to find out how many stairs were involved, the width of the bathroom stalls, if there was a place to park a wheelchair within the venue, and what kind of doors were there. Parking was whatever was available while curbs were just another challenge.

It was during this time that people in wheelchairs were asking for accessibility in all aspects of the public domain, including riding public transit.

My neighbor became a key spokesperson for this movement. I took her to meetings and heard stories about the difficulties in getting around — of which I now had firsthand experience.

At a statewide meeting, she was challenged by the man who would be in charge of this initiative if it were to pass. His contention was that the majority of “disabled people” did not want nor need these accommodations.

On this one particular day, there was heated discussion between them in the general session, then a serious talk in the lobby that continued through dinner. By the end of the three days, her stories (and those of others) had been heard, and the movement began that would eventually became law. I moved from the neighborhood a few years later, but by then the state official and my neighbor had married! Life has a way of surprising us.

I have had the privilege of traveling throughout the world and have observed that in most countries, being in a wheelchair or having difficulty walking sets you apart from everyday activities. Narrow doorways, brick paved streets, small elevators and even smaller stores in some cities and towns all limit your choices with life in so many ways.

So, today I celebrate my courageous friend whose commitment and inspiration has made my life easier. Once my new knee is functioning at full capacity, I will go and have the other done. In the meantime I will use the accommodations in public spaces that others have fought so hard making sure all citizens can participate in their communities barrier-free.

Think about it.

Susan J. Kovalik is an educator, international consultant and author in Federal Way. She is founder of The Center for Effective Learning in Federal Way who can be reached at skovalik@kovalik.com.

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