Thursday, October 18, 2012


Paper towels. I have been keenly aware of paper towels in the past week and I suspect I may be very much alone in this observation.  Have you ever noticed that the paper towel dispenser in any public restroom is rarely near the sink? I never did. Well, occasionally I get annoyed when one must go from empty dispenser to empty dispenser then finally resort to pants or toilet paper. Imagine how difficult it must be for someone, say in a wheelchair, to go from the sink to the other side of the room (with wet hands) to snag a paper towel after washing hands?

I have been on crutches for the past week and can look forward to several months in this situation as I have a destroyed Achilles tendon and cannot put any weight on my right leg. As I waited for my surgery date, I decided not to miss out on long-awaited theatre tickets and a visit to my beloved US Open tennis tournament in New York City. Using a rented transport chair (similar to a wheelchair but I cannot push the wheels myself), my intrepid husband managed to get me into the theatre, into the stadium, into taxis, restaurants, elevators and up and down ramps. This wheeled solution saved our sanity as my crutch speed has only improved from snail’s pace to tortoise with a week of practice behind me.

The one place my driver cannot take me is the ladies’ room. I’m sure we all appreciate the importance of having handicapped accessibility for the necessary room. There is even a government law for the Americans with Disabilities Act detailing very specific requirements for the width of doors, height of sinks, toilets and handrails, and yes, even paper towel dispensers. The one thing that is not prescribed is the actual distance of the towels from the sink. As a crutch user, I have the strong feeling that most of these guidelines were designed for wheelchair users.

I first noticed this paper towel frustration in the doctor’s office, only moments into my crutch career, when I navigated the hallway, doorway and finally restroom. The dimensions of the space appeared to be totally ADA compliant. However, after using the sink, I turned to find the paper towels at the opposite end of the room, near the door. This is about 8 feet away from me. Wet hands are not the best way to hobble on crutches. This scene repeated in the hospital, the stadium and even a restaurant.
Of course, the paper towels led me to consider other obstacles and believe me, there are so many that we don’t even notice as we ambulate on two good legs.

How about sidewalks, roadways and parking lots? Their uneven surfaces and general need for repair or replacement poses a special challenge to wheelchair navigators or those on crutches. A bump in the cement higher than an inch or two requires a complete stop, arduous lift and shove, then more effort to regain momentum. That’s using the chair. On “sticks” as we say, the main goal is to concentrate on the ground ahead while calculating the uneven terrain and adjusting accordingly. Of course all of this is not impossible, but it poses challenges that I had never considered before. An overturned wheelchair or splayed body with crutches thrown wide is a scenario I would dearly love to avoid at all costs. People walking around you cannot see the chair or crutches so it is up to you to be noticed and avoid collisions. I’m thinking of getting one of those airhorns that fans use at football games. So, we proceed with caution and care.

Stairs – no matter how long, wide or what surface they are made of, are a particularly tricky challenge. There is a video on YouTube showing proper technique for using crutches. The presenter goes into excruciating detail about placement of armpit cushions and how to get into and out of a chair. She does not mention the complete feeling of vertigo and loss of control when you stand at the top of a staircase. The only advice she offers is to “take your time” and perhaps use a spotter the first time. Well thank you Mrs. Obvious. If the stairs number more than three, I use the age-old keister method. It is inelegant but gets the job done with no nausea and fear of falling. When I do navigate a few stairs, I go in slow-motion and consider the varying heights, carpet or smooth surface, wind speed and other distractions. Arduous, yes, but so far so good.

I will admit that this is not the first time I have been on crutches. In 6th grade I broke my ankle trying to teach my brother how to skateboard. Too bad I didn’t know how to do it myself. I recall going to the middle school dance on crutches and trying to do the Hustle, but the most vivid memory is the stairwell at the public library. Since I couldn’t do much while in the cast, I read a lot of books. My mother would take me to the library once each week and we would emerge with the maximum number of books allowed. There were no rules for ADA compliance back then, so no elevator to get me to the stacks. It was an all-day event but we managed for a few weeks that summer and I’m sure my mother is grateful this was my only broken bone.

Aside from the humorous mental images of me hobbling around on these things, I have also noticed the use of the words “handicapped” and “disabled” as completely interchangeable and that is not true. The definitions are quite different but negative connotations make the term disabled preferable to handicapped for those dealing with such things every day. I don’t know why being disabled (a state in which one is not able to do something) is seen as better than being handicapped (a disadvantage that makes success more difficult). Difficult is not impossible. This is proven as we see the inability to walk made possible by any number of wheeled contraptions or the humble crutches. I feel fortunate to face my situation in a temporary way. While I thought I had respected those in wheelchairs, on crutches and depending on others to ambulate, I truly did not appreciate their constant challenges until I rolled a mile in their tracks.


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