Recently the Chamber was asked by the Canadian Paraplegic Association (Nova Scotia) if one of our staff members would participate in their CHAIR-Leaders “Enabling Accessibility” event – wherein a group of community leaders agree to spend the day in a wheelchair to help raise funds and awareness. Never one to turn down an opportunity to try something new, I jumped at the chance to volunteer.
My day started with a walk up the stairs to my office – which is on the second floor, with no elevator available. Thankfully, the chair provided to me for the day was waiting for me upstairs so there was no need to try out our stair lift hidden in the back stairwell. Once I got to my desk, I moved my office chair out of the way, took a deep breath, and made the commitment to sink into the wheelchair, where I would stay for the rest of the day.
As it turned out, the wheelchair was a bit higher than I keep my desk chair, and so my knees hit the (unused) pull-out drawer under my desk. I’d been wanting to get rid of that for a while so I enlisted the office handyman to get that out of my way (not being able to do it myself from the chair).
Challenge number one was carpet – the section by my desk had recently been replaced, and while cushy carpet is great for high-heeled shoes, it’s not so great for pushing a wheelchair across! I also realized that the little rise where my wing of the office joins with the main building, well, isn’t so little! It took extra effort to push myself over what doesn’t even register to someone walking back and forth in the office every day.
Next up was getting into the kitchen to put my lunch in the fridge. I discovered that the filing cabinet we have next to the entryway into the kitchen makes for an opening BARELY big enough for a wheelchair – I had to be very careful not to whack my knuckles against the wall. Then I had to manoeuvre myself back and forth to get the bottom-drawer freezer of our staff fridge pulled out to insert my frozen dinner.
The place where I felt like I stood out the least during the day was at our morning staff meeting, since everyone else was also seated around the boardroom table, at my level, and there’s lots of space in our boardroom to place a wheelchair between the regular chairs.
Lunchtime presented more challenges: repeating the fridge feat in reverse; using the microwave on a counter without space to tuck the chair under; and reaching things in the cupboards! Glasses and plates are in upper cupboards in our kitchen, so I had to ask for assistance from my coworkers when preparing my lunch. There’s not a lot of room to manoeuvre in the kitchen between the tables and chairs so I had to ask to be given the seat with the most room, and to have people pass me things from across the room, like a spoon to eat my dessert, rather than popping up to get it myself. (Pre-planning these sorts of things, I discovered, is essential.).
Perhaps the least wheelchair-accessible location in our office is the ladies’ washroom. A friendly coworker was happy to hold the door open for me, but once inside, there are only two stalls, neither of which is wheelchair-sized, and so here, I admit, I had to cheat. And I must admit, never have I been so happy to be able to stand and stretch my legs!
While this was a very short experience and confined just to the interior of my office building, it was still a very eye-opening experience and certainly made me more cognizant of the challenges faced by wheelchair users.