Today, I decided to take a break from the manual labour I’ve been doing, while trying to rebuild my office. I had a plan for the day: I was going to grab my wheelchair, take the bus down to the strip mall that has the dollar store, value village, and Michael’s that I’ve been wanting to browse for some time. With the chair, I would be able to actually take my time and look around the stores. Get to know what is really available, without the distraction of my spine starting to seize up and burn.
It was a beautiful sunny day, perfect for travelling around the city. Being in the chair let me explore areas that I can’t see in a car. I found out that there is a great path down by the river underneath Carp Bridge. I was able to do some poke-hunting, and explore the park with the lakes down on Terry Fox. It was perfect.
I was heading back to the bus that would take me back to my own neighbourhood. I was hoping to relax a little under the stars in the park, before finally heading back home. Kanata Centrum is a big strip mall with several different sections, all connected by sidewalks. It’s also where I had to go to get to my bus. I was making my way along the sidewalks coming up to a road crossing. At the end of the sidewalk however, instead of the dip that serves as a ramp, it ended in a straight curb.
I couldn’t get down.
Still, I thought, perhaps I could take the little red brick path around the garden set up by the restaurant I was in front of. Perhaps there would be a ramp I could use to descend on the other side. As I was making my way across, I had to duck beneath branches of the various bushes. I was pushing a branch out of my face, which is why I didn’t notice that the path had narrowed a bit further.
I didn’t notice, but my motorized wheelchair sure did. The wheels on my left side fell off the curb, tilting the whole chair precariously over.
At this time, I feel the need to mention that the chair by itself weighs something like 250 lbs. While In the chair, I am strapped in with a seatbelt around my hips. The chair rocked back and forth a few times and in that span of milliseconds I thought: “this is how I die – my neck broken by falling off a sidewalk, crushed by a motorized chair.”
I managed to unbuckle myself and jump out, extremely lucky that I am actually able to stand and walk if needed. If not, I don’t know what would have happened. My chair was stuck, The top legs still up on the curb, the bottom only had ne wheel on the street, the other suspended. The wrong move would cause it to crash sideways with little hope of being able to lift it back up on my own. Moreover, I was dangerously close to a car, which would be damaged if the chair moved forward or tipped over.
I headed over to the back door of the restaurant, intending to bang on It in the hopes of getting help. My heart was still racing, from how close I had been to severe injury. Before I even got to the door, some of the servers came outside to toss out the trash. I flagged them down and showed them the situation I was dealing with.
The car was moved and I was able to get the chair down.
My cart however had broken. I did what I could to put it back together, The velcro straps which had been helping hold it together had been torn by the force created when the chair tipped. We’re talking inch wide strip of velcro literally torn in half. Not pulled apart, the straps were torn.
In most situations falling off a sidewalk is no big deal, but when you are strapped in something that weighs more than you do, it’s a different situation. At that angle, even if I was luck and I didn’t break my neck, I could almost guarantee that I would break something: an arm, collarbone, shoulder, rib.
Moreover, because of the trajectory, the chair would have landed on top of me. It is highly unlikely that I would have escaped the situation without some severe injuries.
The sidewalks in that mall are well built and maintained. Every, single, other, sidewalk or path had the requisite ramp, except for this one. The walk directly across the street had a ramp.
It is likely that the lack of said ramp was an oversight, but it wasn’t the first one I had encountered even just on this trip. The fact is that accessibility measures are often overlooked. They are not a priority. The sidewalk had to not only be created but maintained. The grassy areas all around it are heavily landscaped. There were plenty of opportunities for people to notice the lack of a ramp. And yet, nothing was done about it. The oversight wasn’t corrected. It wasn’t important enough to worry about. It wasn’t important enough to do something about it.
In order to find a ramp, I would have had to turned around and go back something like 100 yards to get to the ramp, and then travel on the street to get back. Since it was evening, travelling on the street was a big risk as well, especially in a strip mall parking lot, where people frequently don’t pay a lot of attention to small vehicles.
Because of the lack of height, wheelchairs are really easy to miss by drivers. Since that road was narrow, there wasn’t a lot of room for cars to have been able to pass me.
It’s such a small thing: a curb versus a ramp. So small, and yet the consequences of there not being one, for me, were almost death.
This is how subtle ableism can be in our society. Such a little thing, but the potential for damage – the barriers and danger it causes are no small thing.
I will calling both the City of Ottawa and any localized offices related to Kanata to report this matter. If you see sidewalks that don’t have ramps or where the ramps are damaged or have still too high a ledge, call your city, call the ministry of transportation, and call your property managers to get it fixed.