Monday, March 29, 2010

Spring Has Sprung (Finally)!

According to the calendar, spring has finally sprung. And all that I can say is thank goodness for that! When winter hits many rejoice the return of the white stuff every year but you can count me firmly outside that camp. Sure newly fallen snow looks nice and the blanketing of snow serves as a nice backdrop to the holidays, but from my perspective the cold, snowy winter season can often be the bane of my existence. The reason I give it such a sharp qualification is because when snow and slush and ice are on the ground, more often than not it makes getting around outside and out and about in public a tenuous proposition. Sure that holds true for everyone but I'm referring specifically to getting around in a wheelchair during the winter months. Especially the harsh winters that I've faced in Wisconsin and Minnesota my whole life.

First, the cold and precipitation can take a toll on the mobility equipment I deal with, namely my wheelchair and my van's ramp. Every winter season I can pretty much bank on some combination of getting stuck with my wheelchair wheels spinning, my van's foldout ramp getting stuck together, and/or my side van door getting frozen shut occurring up to a dozen or more times. This winter in particular every single one of those issues hit over the Christmas weekend due to a freezing rainstorm. Having unimpeded side door access to my van is an absolute requirement to be able to get in and out efficiently, so needless to say it becomes a problem when rain gets in the door gaps and freezes them shut. Most of time the motor that makes the side door slide open is strong enough to break up the frozen stuff but every now and again it's frozen so bad that the door doesn't even budge, so I have to try to jerk it open with my hand on the door handle. If the van sits outside in the cold for a lengthy amount of time it makes the door opening and ramp folding equipment run very slow. When it's minus 10 out those extra few seconds feel pretty long. When the snow gets built up on my chair tires it can sometime cause me to fishtail on my way up the ramp, which is always a bit freaky. Usually, my winter technique is to line it up straight and gun it into the van full blast so the speed barely gives my wheels a chance to slip around. When the ramp folds up sometimes the wet stuff slides through the crack half way up the ramp at the folding point and trickles down both bottom sides of the ramp and if it's cold enough it can freeze them together. Underneath the ramp are small carpet pieces that were put there to prevent the ramp from scratching itself, but when they get wet and freeze they stick to each other like Velcro. The worst example of that situation that I've faced was during the winter of my second year of law school. It was hands down the coldest night that I've ever gone out: minus 20 degrees. I left school around 10:30 pm after six straight hours of having my van parked out in the frigid cold to discover that the carpet mats had frozen together, and thus the ramp wouldn't unfold. Thankfully the building's security was still on duty to help me out.

Second, getting around can be a challenge unto itself. My chair can handle powering through quite a bit of snow but it does have its limits when the snow starts piling up too high or is really heavy. The frozen slick stuff isn't too bad, and I actually kind of like it because it's the only circumstances under which I can whip some donuts. Otherwise it's impossible to do in a wheelchair. But the combination of the two is the worst. In other words, snow that gets rained on, or vice versa, that turns into hard bumps and chunks. Trying to traverse those can be really frustrating, and often treacherous or even impossible to roll over. When vehicle snow tire tracks freeze into hardened grooves my chair wheels get caught in them and it's hard to work my way back out. Often times I'm almost forced to travel their same path until I can shake loose. A related thing I need to be mindful of is getting the bottom of my chair caught on raised icy chunks. I have a bolt under my chair that locks into a box on the floor of my van so that my chair is secure when I drive, but it hangs down to within a few inches of the ground so if I don't drive over raised ice/snow chunks straight or if I end up "straddling" them between my wheels then the bolt catches on them and I get stuck in place. Often that results in my wheels spinning in place and I'm a sitting duck.

This past winter was the worst winter of my almost fourteen years of using a wheelchair for all of those scenarios. We got a snowstorm, then freezing rain, then another snowstorm, then minus degree weather off and on again for a few weeks straight. So those hard icy chunks came much earlier than usual and stayed all winter long until the recent spring thaw. Getting around was very frustrating, and to tell the truth I barely went out unless I had to. It made me feel like some sort of shut-in disability cliché but it was better than the alternative. This was the third or fourth year in a row that there was a local story about somebody with paralysis who froze to death because they got stuck, fell out of their chair, and couldn't get they help they needed until it was too late. I will never put myself in that position.

Third, parking, in a word, sucks. Winter time is the absolute worst time of the year for trying to find consistent accessible parking that works for my chair and van. Generally speaking, the threat of getting parked in by someone parking illegally, crooked, stupidly, etc. exists for me year round. All it takes is for someone to park within five or six feet from my passenger side door and I can't get in or out of my van. But in the winter time my parking frustrations rise incrementally. The biggest reason is that the snow covers parking spot lines as well as the striped wheelchair access zone next to them, so as a result people park over their spot's lines all the time. As I've mentioned before, I have enough trouble dealing with crooked parkers as it is. The related commonality is that people just park on the striped access zones because they don't see the stripes. Or in many cases they claim not to have seen them at any rate (yeah right). Does common sense dictate that between every two handicapped parking spaces there is a striped no parking zone? Yes it does. But during the winter people tend to be much more willfully ignorant to that notion. So during peak winter holiday shopping days, for example, parking in a van accessible spot always feels like it's a 50/50 proposition that I will find a car illegally parking me in when I go to leave. The "I'll only run in quick" mentality really increases and stretches credulity around the holidays and harsh cold and/or snowy days. But even a five minute wait for the driver to return can really screw up my day. Take a situation where there's extra slop and it takes a much slower more careful trip for me to get back to the van, well I only want to do that once, but if I find that someone's parked me in it can get risky to have to turn around and go back inside to wait.

And usually that's the only solution: to sit and wait. Otherwise few alternatives are timely and immediate enough. Say I find a mall cop and tell them that someone's parked me in illegally. At best all they can really do is ticket the offender and then call it in to get them towed. In that scenario I'm still forced to sit there and wait for the tow truck, which can be up to a half hour to an hour. More often than not by the time the car is actually towed away the offending party has returned to their car, only offering a quick "oh, sorry," if that. So the whole winter accessible parking thing is very frustrating and can often be highly stressful. Especially when I have other places to be and can't afford to wait until a car gets moved.

Another related frustration is how handicapped parking spaces become receptacles for plowed snow piles. Especially when they are adjacent to the curbed island at the end of the parking aisles. See the pic below, taken at a Cub grocery store. There is still enough room to park there in general, sure. But what the untrained eye can't see is that the snow pile covers the striped wheelchair access zone completely. Thus I immediately become unable to use these kinds of spots until after the big thaw in the spring because the piles are sure to keep getting bigger with every plowing.

So the next solution is to park in the spot next to it. But the follow up problem with that is that other cars often overcompensate their parking to avoid the snow piles themselves, and consequently they park over the wheelchair zone on the other side. The result is what you see in the two pics below. And once again the threat to get parked in escalates.

To get the full effect in the picture just above from my perspective you have to picture my van backed in where the white car is with no room for me extend my ramp and get out (again, the ramp is on my passenger side, hence the need to back into that spot) because the red SUV parked too far to the right to avoid the snow pile. I see this exact same situation in almost every parking lot I go to during the winter. It wipes out a ton of parking options for me. In a lot of those situations it's not worth the risk to park and get blocked in subsequently. The pic below is just a decent demonstration of how the snow covers the lines between parking spots. I tend to have expert knowledge about where they are even with the snow cover but most others don't and just guess. Or equally as common: they just don't care.

So with all that being said, I repeat once again: spring has sprung! And you can count me in on being one of the biggest fans of that. In fact, in the strict weather sense these spring months might be my favorite time of the year because the snow and crap that helped make my life an inaccessible hell are melted and gone and that's a huge relief, the temperature is warm enough for short sleeves yet not so warm that I have to rely on air conditioning to stay cool, and most importantly it means that my family's summer lake cabin season is right around the corner. I always look forward to those good times. Hooray for spring!

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

One Man's Annoying/Aggravating/Interesting Access Picture of the Week

This week's pics come courtesy of another blog called BeehiveHairdresser. I've never visited their site before today but I saw a Twitter post linking to the "Wheelchair Ramp of Death" and, of course, got highly intrigued. The pictures show a blacktop ramp that makes a sidewalk accessible from the street. Curiously, the ramp is located about twenty feet from the street corner right in front of an on street parking spot. So the "of death" aspect refers to the fact that the bottom of the ramp leads a wheelchair user out into oncoming traffic. Their post dishes more on the details so I will defer to them at this point. For the record, on it's face their comment about the ramp of death "weeding out the population of persons in wheelchairs who are dimwitted" is offensive to many people in wheelchairs, but I myself took it for the sense of humor in which it was no doubt intended.

Check out the Wheelchair Ramp of Death here.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

St. Patrick's Day Pics

Happy St. Patrick's Day to all of my fellow Irish peeps! In honor of our annual day of celebration I thought that I would post a few interesting St. Paddy's related access pics. I was downtown Minneapolis yesterday for some disability law appeal work training and I discovered a new Irish pub located across the street from parking lot that I used. Originally, I just snapped a pic of the building to send to my dad because being proud of his Irish roots he always gets fired up for St. Patrick's Day, and we've always talked about hitting up a Minneapolis/St. Paul Irish pub sometime. Then I noticed some porta potties outside on the pub's courtyard which made me smirk because extra toilet access is always a good idea for Irish pubs on St. Paddy's Day. But then I also noticed a separate, bigger porta potty on the other side which usually indicates that it's an accessible one. So I went to get a closer look and sure enough it was a wheelchair accessible porta john. I've seen them before and was always cynical about whether someone in a wheelchair would actually be able to use one. So being curious I peeked inside and it seemed like there would be plenty of room to both use the toilet and even turn your chair around to lock the door. If I had to go at the time I might have been tempted to give it a true test ride. But I just settled for a few up close and personal pics instead.

The more interesting experiment though would be to go down there tonight and see how many able-bodied folks used the accessible porta john instead of the other ones. From what I understand that was the subject of an episode of “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”

Again, Happy St. Patrick's Day friends. Have fun, be safe.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

A Classic Call Out

Being a driver with a disability who requires wheelchair accessible parking I can't tell you how many times that I've seen others parking illegally in handicapped spots and really wanted to give them an earful. I'm talking specifically about people parking in accessible spots without the proper identification, people without disabilities wrongfully using a rear view mirror disability parking placard (either via a friend or relative or obtained through other illicit means), etc. But despite the numerous opportunities in the past, it seems like I've rarely said anything to those people when it's come down to it for a handful of reasons.

Namely, that I more than many others realize that there are plenty of hidden disabilities out there, and the last thing I'd ever want to do is ream somebody out only to discover that they have a fake leg or something. That situation actually happened to a family friend once. He saw a guy parking his Harley motorcycle in a handicapped spot and called him out about how illegal and selfish he was being only to have the biker pull up his pant leg and reveal his titanium prosthetic leg. Thus he was fully justified in parking where he was and our friend was left doing all that he could to dislodge his foot from his mouth. Had I opened my mouth as much as I've been inclined to over the last thirteen plus years I've been driving from my wheelchair it would only have been a matter of when, not if, I would have experienced a similar, potentially mortifying situation myself.

One of the other primary reasons is that, unfortunately, I feel like more often than not I would probably just be wasting my breath. Because as much as I've always liked to think that calling someone out or even shaming them in public a little bit will make them open their eyes and change their behavior and quit wrongfully using handicapped parking it seems like that is hardly ever the case. I've seen it too many times where people just pretend to ignore you and/or walk past real ignorantly like they don't care. Or they claim to have some right to park there even though it's really only justifiable to themselves, and thus they don't believe that they're in the wrong no mater what you say to them. For example, they're using it because they drive their disabled grandma to medical appointments, but if grandma is not in the car then they shouldn't still be parking in accessible spaces. In fact, in most jurisdictions it's illegal and you should get a ticket for it. And worse of all is how ultimately many of these people start to feel entitled to use the accessible parking. So instead of using their parking placard, however obtained, only when they can't find other close parking spots (even though that's wrong too) they just seek out the closest accessible spaces immediately and without recourse. I always love it when some of those folks try to talk shop with me, as if we're on the same level of need, about how bad the handicapped parking situation is in a given location. Yeah, I'm really sorry that you had to drop Aunt Gertie off at the front door and walk an extra 20 feet after you parked in a regular spot instead of getting an accessible spot. On numerous occasions when I was in college I had able bodied students and staff cutting me off to park in accessible campus parking spots we were in the same "competition" for. They knew I was in a wheelchair, we both knew that that they had nowhere near the absolute need to park there that I did, but they hardly deferred to me nonetheless because they had built up this feeling that they were equally entitled to them. I probably missed a few dozen classes in total as a direct result because I had no other parking options.

But with all that being said, it really tickled my fancy to come across a handicapped parking related article not long ago that included the classic, classic call out note pasted in quotes below that someone with a disability, or someone looking out on behalf of people with disabilities, left on the windshield of someone who was parking in an accessible spot illegally. Given the opportunity, this is definitely how I would prefer to bring an accessible parking violation to somebody's attention. Check it out:

"This is not a ticket, but if it were within my power, you would receive two. Because of your Bull Headed, inconsiderate, feeble attempt at parking, you have taken enough room for a 20 mule team, 2 elephants, 1 goat and a safari of pygmies from the African interior. The reason for giving you this is so that in the future you may think of someone else, other than yourself. Besides, I don't like domineering, egotistical or simple-minded drivers, and you probably fit into one of these categories.

"I sign off wishing you an early transmission failure (on the expressway at about 4:30 p.m.). Also, may the Fleas of a thousand camels infest your armpits. With my compliments."

The other side was signed "Shame on you. Where is your Handicap Plaque."

Now isn't THAT something? Fantastic. Love it. Nothing like calling someone out in general, but also in a way that makes them go, "Camel fleas, what?" But the real kicker in all of this is that it was actually the offending party that submitted this note to the paper. His reply follows:

"I do have a handicap parking permit, but was not aware that I was in a handicap spot. I should have been more careful. Nonetheless, the repugnant nature of the "violation" was quite disturbing. It seems to me that a "friendly reminder" would be more effective."

So there's a few things to chew on here. First, this notion that he or she has a handicapped parking permit but was somehow unaware that they were parked in an accessible spot. Say what? Anybody that has a disability placard or license plate and thus uses accessible parking knows exactly where the accessible parking spots are and when they are parking in them. To claim differently in this case is laughable. The second thing is how they put the word violation in quotation marks (i.e. "violation") as if because of this "I really do have a handicap parking permit but didn't have it with me" thing it somehow made their violation not a real violation at all. Parking in an accessible spot without the proper identifying plate or placard is illegal, period. Third, I love how all that combined with the word repugnant and the "friendly reminder" comment offers the strong implication that the primary motivation for this person to get all of the above published was for them to try and make a claim that they were some sort of victim due to the harshness of the note left on their windshield. This person parked illegally, got busted, and now they're the one with the beef because the person who called them out wasn't polite enough in how they went about it? Give me a break.

Regardless, this guy's call out note has inspired me to possibly start leaving a few interestingly phrased notes on accessible parking violator's cars myself. If they leave even a fraction of the impact that this note left then maybe I will ultimately become responsible for making some very necessary, positive behavioral changes in regards to accessible parking abuse after all. I will be leaving the camel fleas and armpit infestations commentary aside, however.

Monday, March 8, 2010

An Accessible Culinary Breakthrough

A handful of weekends ago I was at a good friend's house for the birthday party of one of his sons. Tacos were on the menu which had me a little bit nervous. I love tacos but they can be a bit of a challenge to eat when you don't have the full use of your fingers. Ergo, there can often be a lot of mess involved while attempting to eat them. Hard shell tacos are much easier for me to handle because I can hold them from both the sides and the bottom, and they stay pretty rigid as I munch away. Soft shell tacos are much trickier at times though because I always seem to wage a two-pronged battle between keeping them wrapped and picking them up without the stuff inside spilling out of the ends. Usually that means making a number of attempts at the proper grip with both hands and maintaining a delicate balance while I bring them up to my mouth.

But even when I'm on my game with either kind of taco there are usually some pretty good chances that some stuff will spill out while I'm eating. Sure that happens to everyone when they eat tacos but the difference is that people with full use of their fingers can readjust their grip on the fly and avoid most spills and drops. They can also hold the taco with one hand while they cup their other hand under their mouth to catch whatever falls. I usually have to use both hands to hold the taco so whatever doesn't make it to my mouth just falls. That also becomes an issue when I sit at tables that are too low to fit my knees under so I can't get close enough to lean forward and eat over my plate. I can't tell you how many times I've left Chipotle after devouring a few deliciously scrumptious tacos with enough barbacoa meat, shredded cheese, and lettuce in my crotch and on the floor to practically have enough left over for another taco.

So all of that was in play at my friend's house with the added quasi-stress that a taco eating mishap could possibly make a mess on someone else's floor and the ensuing embarrassment of doing so in front of a big group of people. But lo and behold, just as I was about to sneak up on some grub myself, I looked out at the dining room table where his three year old son was sitting and noticed that something was attached to the end of his soft shell taco. I asked my friend what it was and he told me that it was a Pampered Chef chip clip. Clipping the chip clip on the end of the taco prevented anything from falling out of one end while he ate from the other (pic below). Pretty fantastic idea. Highly ideal to prevent small children from making a big mess when they eat soft shell tacos, etc. and a pretty great accommodation for an adult quadriplegic like me who has limited use of my hands and fingers.

That also speaks well to the premise that coming up with workable accommodations for people with disabilities, whatever they may be, can often times be very easy and inexpensive. When I was a disability management consultant for a very large Minneapolis based corporation that was a major point of emphasis of the employee disability accommodations "toolkit" that I helped create. About a quarter of all workplace accommodations cost nothing, and two thirds cost less than $500. Sometimes all it takes is some quick adaptive creativity like in this case.

My friend had oodles of similar chip clips so he gave one to me. It might sound funny to some, but the epiphany of this "taco clip" has changed my life in a small, albeit sizeable way. Any accommodation that makes doing previously challenging tasks that much easier is a positive thing in my world. At the very least, this means that soft shell "crotch tacos" should be a thing of the past.