Two Views of Accessibility

For a long time I thought accessibility just meant ramps, elevators, and my ability to access Point A to Point Z while accomplishing tasks L, M, N, O, P in between. My view of accessibility was determined by the people that I was around - and for awhile that meant people who didn't use wheelchairs. In other words, my definition of accessibility was limited to accessing whatever they could access:

"Hey Sandy, want to come with me to run an errand in Boston?" My R.A. asked me one afternoon, it was early on during my first-year of college. Not really having experienced the bubble outside of campus I agreed to go.
During the trek to the station S was incredibly patient in looking for the curb-cuts, and helped me find the easiest point of access to cross the busy four lane streets of Mass Ave; the whole time I made sure to make mental notes of when and where to cross. Finally, we got to the station. The entrance to the Harvard Sq T-stop sat in the middle of what local students called "the Pit." There were two sets of stairs that led down to the the station where the subways were running - no elevator was in sight.
"Hmm.. okay so let's look for the elevator." S went to go inquire and was directed to a decrepit small dome-like structure. The elevator doors rattled open, I looked in horror at the tiny metal cage that awaited my entrance.
"Is this going to fit the both of us? I guess we'll have to try!" I rolled in first and S nestled in beside me. Once inside we gasped simultaneously, the tiny metal cage also had an enormous urine stench. The box rattled down as we held our breath, the second the doors opened I sped out as we both gulped in the air of fresh popcorn and pretzels - subway station food.
Our next stop was Park Street station: where the red line intersects with the green. "THIS IS THE RED LINE TRAIN GOING TO BRAINTREE..." We heard the conductor announce, the rest of what she said quickly became garbled by the rush of passengers in and out of the subway car. The doors slid open on both sides of the subway car, we exited and began looking for the accessible way out. After wandering about like chickens without heads, we came to realize that the elevator was actually on the center platform - we were on the one farthest to the right.
"Well now we know this for next time - we'll have to wait for the next train to come and then we'll just go through it to get to the center platform." After a few more elevators S and I finally reached street-level, we romped around the city for a bit and returned to campus. On our trip back to campus, the route was much more familiar to us - subway elevators, bridge-plates, curb-cuts, and center-platforms became new vocabulary in my ever expanding college student curriculum.  

That was then. And since the days of my naive freshman year, I've come to memorize which stations are accessible, and the general location of where elevators are in each station. But then I began this blog, became acquainted with wheelchair users, and my world of access in terms of public transportation was thrown for another loop:

"Okay so this elevator can fit two chairs and a walker.." D rattled off. There were five other wheelchairs in our group, and it was my first time out with other chair users - to say I was a bit stunned by the procession would be an understatement.
"So you've memorized how many people fit into each elevator? That's just.. weird and incredible." I told her when we rolled inside.
But as I thought about it during the 10 second ride down, I suppose it made sense. D had gone to a high school that was a boarding school for other disabled students; many of her friends had varying disabilities and it seemed, in an odd way, a social-world somewhat different from the one I knew. It didn't take me long to realize that her scope and understanding of accessibility was far more expansive than mine; it didn't just mean getting from Point A to Point B. D's view of accessibility included other wheelchair users as well, it meant more than just getting there - it required getting there efficiently while together, regardless of whether you were in a manual wheelchair, power chair, standing, using a walker, or had a vision impairment.
"Then we're going to cross over from Downtown Crossing, and that elevator can only fit two wheelchairs.." D sped off and the group of other chairs rolled behind us. When we got to the platform I parked at the one closest to the entrance, but D kept going down the length of the platform - farther away from me. I gunned my wheelchair after her and asked,
"What? What are you doing? Why are you going all the way down here?"
"Because the elevator at Back Bay station is down on this end, so when we get out it's just easier to be on this end of the train."
"..Oh.." I responded. Her knowledge of what accessibility meant on the subway station continued to blow my mind all the way back to our friend's apartment. In my mind I hadn't realized that just because we require things to be accessible doesn't mean we can't also make things efficient. When 'normal' folks use public transportation, they walk up and down entrances or exits without a second thought. There is an ease to which public transportation users are able to navigate the system; with the added layer of accessibility it means we should expect the same user-friendly ease, but as I have learned it requires some  amount of memorization.

The truth is I probably won't ever memorize where to wait on the platform so that I am lined up perfectly with the elevator at the next stop. I definitely won't remember how many wheelchairs and walkers can fit into the Park Street elevator. And I probably won't ever remember about the double elevators that you need to take for the Inbound Red line station from South Station. However I have come to realize that accessibility is about far more than just getting there. When we think about accessibility as a way of life vs accessibility as a way of access, the approaches are completely different. And I'm slowly beginning to realize that one adds far more quality to my day-to-day routines than the other.

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