Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Wheels for a Day

When I sprained my right ankle last week while training at the Parkour Visions Gym, I was frustrated and a little embarrassed. I am fairly new to the sport of Parkour and often train with much more experienced "traceurs," most of whom are male. So, as I sat curled on the floor of the gym, clutching my lower leg in pain, trying not to cry, I couldn't see anything positive coming from this situation.

Although my ankle improves every day (unless I get too ambitious and go bar hopping, leading to bar hobbling), I'm not at the point where I can comfortably walk and stand for long periods of time. So, when my family came to visit and wanted to spend a few hours traipsing around the zoo, there was only one way I could join in. We rented a wheelchair from the zoo's guest services and an unexpected social adventure on wheels began.

When I first sat down in the wheelchair, I thought, "This is great! I get to be pushed around all day. People will move out of my way because they feel sorry for me. And my ankle will not suffer from my inability to refuse an opportunity to visit the zoo (which I've now been to five times in the last year; maybe it's time to invest in a membership...)."

First off, getting the hang of steering a wheelchair was tricky. This was partly due to the apparent heavy use and low quality of the rentable wheelchair (I found my self sliding backwards down sloped paths a couple of times), but nevertheless I now appreciate the difficulty of maneuvering through crowds in one of these things.

As we headed toward the giraffes, oryxes, and ostriches, I felt relaxed and cheerful. I was at one of my favorite places (the zoo) with some of my favorite people (family + boyfriend) and, adding icing to the cake, the sun was out in Seattle (if you don't live here, don't even try to understand the monumental nature of the event that is a sunny day in our city)! Naturally, the nice weather meant that EVERYONE was at the zoo.

After leaving the first exhibit and being pushed on toward the hippos, an intense anxiety began to tighten its grip on my wheelchair adventure. I suddenly felt totally out of control. An unseen pair of hands pushed my chair into the crowd and I grew tense every time my suspended feet got too near to someone. My excitement at having never ridden in a wheelchair before quickly turned to dread as I thought about spending the next two or three hours here.

Once I got more accustomed to having minimal control over my physical movement and location, I began noticing the way people were looking, or rather staring, at me. Almost everyone we passed immediately glanced at my legs, as though to attempt to determine why I needed my wheelchair. Some would go out of their way to make eye contact and smile in a sort of, "I'm not judging you," way. One woman, leading her two young kids around, stared and stared at me. Her eyes traveled disbelievingly from face to my legs over and over, like she couldn't connect the image of an otherwise healthy-looking, young woman with the need for a wheelchair. She looked me over so any times that I nearly asked her if she had some sort of problem with me. But I was the one feeling self-conscious and constantly in the way, so I just wheeled myself around in the other direction.

Eventually, I asked my wheelchair assistant (rotating between my relatives and boyfriend) to not push me into any exhibits with large crowds gathered at them. I either got up and walked over or just sat in my wheelchair off to the side, more concerned with being out of the way than seeing the animals.

I don't know if this is a typical experience for people new to wheelchairs. Obviously, I chose to ride around in one and could get up and stretch my legs at any time. I was not fated to live in one for the rest of my life, or even for the rest of the day. But even if it was a totally unique experience, it was an eye-opening one. I think most able-bodied folks take their mobility (and normality) for granted. If you feel like you're in the way, you can move easily and largely without being noticed. If you want to get a little closer to the glass at the orangutan exhibit, you just wriggle your way through the crowd like everyone else. Being able to move freely is a right that everyone should have, but it's also a privilege that I didn't really appreciate until recently.

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