DISABILITY: GOING THE DISTANCE (Part I)

 (Originally featured in Arizona City Independent Edition, July 6, 2005)

For decades I’ve fought the battle of the electric shopping cart. The first problem I had to overcome was my own attitude toward my developing disability from lupus and complications. For over 30 years, I’ve had intermittent mobility problems, but I can usually maintain a steady gait for short distances with the aid of a crutch (Canadian cane) on my left side. On the other hand, walking any significant distance is so exhausting that I can barely do anything productive for a day or two after that.

By the mid-1980s, I realized it was becoming harder for me to shop in a large store without using an electric cart. It wasn’t easy to face this reality, especially since I’d been taught from childhood to ignore my long-developing disability, usually to my detriment. But I finally had to accept that I’m not as strong as I wish, and I need help to do many things in life--if I can, or should, do them at all!

Unfortunately, once I was comfortable enough with my own limitations to tell others about my needs, I found myself in the midst of the real battle!

Some stores do provide plenty of electric carts for their disabled customers, and they try to keep them in tiptop shape, but those stores are in the minority. The sad fact is, the busier the store, the less likely they are to have a sufficient number of working carts, especially at peak shopping hours. And the more successful stores seem less likely to maintain their vehicles on a regular basis.

Of course, electric carts in the busier stores are well-used, and no one can foretell how many carts will be needed at any given time. Though the Americans with Disabilities Act requires public facilities to provide architectural access for wheelchairs and electric carts, they aren’t required to provide those carts themselves. That’s the letter of the law.

But the spirit of the law calls for a better attitude from store employees toward disabled patrons than what I’ve often experienced. The real problem is not so much that there aren’t enough working carts to meet demand, especially at certain times, but the fact that managers and employees don’t seem willing to address the problem.

I’ve explained the situation to several people at the biggest store in town and at their corporate headquarters, but the response is little more than a symbolic “pat on the head.” Meanwhile, more carts seem to be breaking down, so fewer of them are available, even after the “snow birds” fly off to their summer homes in the north. Worse, the attitude of many employees toward disabled customers who need carts seems cooler than ever.

In the interest of good corporate relations, I’d like to pass along some suggestions that might help the situation. Perhaps others will join me in trying to get store managers and employees to consider the needs of their disabled patrons, who, like every other customer, come there to spend money.

I’ll share those ideas in the second part of this article. Meanwhile, I want to pass along a little story to demonstrate the depth of the problem we disabled people are facing--not the lack of carts, but the attitude of many people regarding our disabilities. This anecdote has been repeated often in motivational speeches and sermons over the years:

Somewhere in the South Pacific there was a hospital ward full of men who’d been damaged in the war (the Big One, WWII, according to reports). Everyone in the ward had problems walking for reasons that doctors couldn’t explain. “Shell shocked,” they called it at the time; the condition is now known as Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome. One day a huge snake slithered into the ward, and when someone screamed and pointed to it, all those disabled men made a beeline for the exit--on foot!

The moral, according to all the motivational speakers and preachers, is that we don’t know what we can do until we try. They fail to consider the possible damage to both body and mind that could result from the effort of performing an act we’re not fully equipped to do.

Certainly, people have been known to summon up the courage and will to accomplish great things, but they’ve also been known to do great harm to themselves by doing some of those remarkable things. For someone with a disability, whether doctors can understand or measure the condition or not, that effort might be doubly dangerous.

This is especially true when you consider that the power to perform unusually brave acts comes from a sudden burst of adrenaline, which speeds up the heart rate, raises the blood pressure, and intensifies other bodily functions. Though handy in unusual circumstances, this “fight or flight” mechanism puts extra stress on a number of organs, especially the heart.

For someone whose body is already weakened by illness or injury, experiencing this type of stress can be a dangerous practice. That’s why it’s not always safe for people with certain types of disability to do too much. It is also why doctors now tell patients to listen to their bodies, which is something only disabled persons can do for themselves.

That’s why I have a different moral to offer to that “inspirational” story: Just because a disabled person can do something once, or for a short period of time, doesn’t mean they can do it on a sustained basis. Neither does it mean they should be doing it.

I’ll keep that principle in mind in my next article, when I discuss some of the things that need to be done to solve the electric-cart problem at large stores.

 


Debbie Jordan