I knew what happened before I hit the ground. I knew what it was and I knew it was bad.
I was in the final stages of recovery from bilateral Achilles tendon surgeries. My left ankle was strong enough to bear full weight but I was wearing an orthopedic boot on my right ankle. I was outside with one of the dogs on my crutches in the yard. I moved forward, caught my foot and fell. As I stumbled and came down hard on my right foot, I felt a pop and sharp pain in my right heel. Before I hit the ground I knew what was wrong. I knew I pulled my Achilles tendon free of the surgical anchors that held it to my heel.
A trip to the emergency room confirmed our fears. The doctor couldn’t tell from an x-ray if the tendon was ruptured or simply no longer attached to my heal. Either way it meant another surgery and back to square one in regards to recovery. But life goes on. With the help of my family we are staying the course.
So that’s how I ended up in a wheelchair hurtling down the access ramp at the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Rasmuson Library at a speed only slightly slower than the speed at which the school’s supercomputer could calculate the force of my potential impact on the two unlucky students in front of me. The young man and young woman managed to step out of the way and I slowed down by grasping the wheels and sacrificing a few layers of palm skin.
“Are you all right?” the young man asked.
“I’m fine,” I answered wondering if a pee spot was going to show. “I’m really sorry. I’m kind of new at this.”
“Well, people walk up this ramp,” the young woman said indignantly. “Maybe you shouldn’t use it until you are better in your wheelchair.”
I blinked at her. It was the only response I could think of. The young man was blinking at her. At that point I realized they were just friends or maybe siblings. “Good thinking,” the young man said. “He should probably take the stairs so we can walk up the wheelchair access ramp.” Obviously they were not in a relationship . . . or not in one anymore.
The two walked toward the library and I pondered the well-intentioned idiot trap that I got caught in. It was perfectly safe for people who knew what they were doing. Apparently I didn’t. Going up the ramp was equally perilous for me the first time. It was a simple physics miscalculation. I was heading up the ramp thinking “I’ve got this. Nothing to it”. Suddenly Isaac Newton’s ghost pointed at me and said “Ha!” I was sitting over an axle attached to two giant wheels. On flat ground that means nothing. Going up an incline, even one as gradual as an access ramp moves my weight back. Pushing on the wheels to move forward invokes Newton’s whole “every action causes and equal and opposite reaction” thing, pushing my weight even further back. The result is the front wheels of my chair left the ground. When I was 12 years old we called it “popping a wheelie”. At fifty years old I call it teetering on the brink of abject humiliation and a fractured skull. Lesson learned. Leaving the library involved a whole new physics lesson. Stupid physics.
My experiences in my wheelchair have been eye opening. I am not a disabled person, so I won’t speak for them. I will tell you however, that the world is a little different from this angle. I am not especially tall when I am standing. I am about average. I am not used to people looking down at me. Until I experienced it, I never realized the effect over time. I am pretty self confident, but after a few days it occured to me that being looked down at really bothered me. My professors each handled it differently. One sat down in a chair and looked me in the eyes. Another just stood over me but looked at me, not the wheelchair, and engaged me personally. Those were both very comfortable for me. A third professor thought he was doing the right thing when he got down on both knees to talk to me. I was instantly uncomfortable. Maybe I was being too sensitive, or just overthinking, but I felt the act was a little condescending. I am certain that his only intention was to make me more comfortable, but it didn’t.
This experience is providing me with a list of things that I will or won’t do as an able-bodied person once I am on my feet. These are things that I never thought much about before, but I think about now. First, I will not use the handicapped-marked bathroom stall in public restrooms when others are available. I am a big guy, and I like my room when I am “doing my business.” The stalls aren’t like parking spots. They aren’t reserved specifically for disabled use. They placard simply shows that it is accessible. That placard doesn’t mean that it provides extra leg room for Curt. I have waited in my chair a couple times so far for people who could otherwise fit in a smaller stall. That used to be me. It won’t be me anymore.
I will eagerly offer help to anybody that needs it. In the past if I saw somebody struggling with a disability I hesitated to offer help. I was always scared of insulting the person involved or afraid what I saw as struggling was simply the way they did things. I have previously indicated that I frequently overthink things. I won’t anymore. If somebody looks like they need help, then I will offer it. I will offer help because I have learned that making eye contact and smiling while offering help lowers the risk of insult to practically nil. I have learned that from the numerous people who have helped me on campus.
Other than the young lady that I almost ran down in front of the library, I have met only smiles and assistance. I give her a pass. I bet she is very nice and helpful when she isn’t fearing for her life. A few people stand out in my memory. One young man got off an elevator and took the stairs so I could get on. It was a little thing, but I thought it was pretty nice. Just this morning I was wheeling over to the Wood Center for breakfast. The building is undergoing a renovation. The work on the back entrance is finished but the bottom of the ramp leading up to the doors has a 20 foot stretch that is not paved. It is filled with loose asphalt and gravel. I was about halfway through when I got stuck. I couldn’t move. I heard a vehicle stop behind me. A voice said, “I got you, buddy.” A man pushed me through the gravel to the asphalt. I thanked him. “No problem, man. Have a good day.” I turned and saw a man in work clothes getting back into his maintenance truck. He didn’t have to stop, but he did. I wish I asked his name.
I got Bob’s name. I was leaving the Wood Center and dealing with the gravel. I was going down hill so I got through. At the end, a lady asked me if I had any trouble. I told her about getting stuck and the man who helped me. We were talking as two men came walking up to us. One was Bob. He is listed in the directory as a member of the university’s facilities office. He looked at me and at the gravel. A notebook came out. A phone came out. He asked about the trouble I had getting into the building. He reached down and grabbed a handfull of gravel. “This isn’t going to work,” he said. He asked for my name and number and told me he would fix it and get back to me. Ninety minutes later he called and said that the material would be removed and the ramp made completely accessible. He said it was left unpaved because of a future grounds construction project, but they would fix it now. I know it was kind of his job to fix this, but I was still impressed with his zeal and effort.
I want to make something clear. I have kept this light-hearted but I am not making fun of people with disabilities. I am making fun of me. I am not disabled, I will just need the use of a wheelchair for a few weeks . . . or months. I won’t pretend to understand what the disabled go through and feel personally as they navigate a world designed for the abled and modified for the disabled. However, I do understand how tricky it is to navigate a wheelchair up and down a ramp. Every day that I spend moving about in my chair I understand a little more what it is like to physically try to move around and interact. I know this: there are no wimps in wheelchairs. You have to be tough, smart and have a sense of humor to interact in an able-bodied world.
Thanks for reading. I’ll be back soon on This Side of the Diaper.