I was fortunate to have lived the first part of my life as a normal, able-bodied person. It was in Corpus Christi, Texas, that I was injured in a terrible explosion. People around the United States saw the aftermath of the explosion in the national news coverage that followed for days. Having barely survived the explosion, I was about to start a different chapter in my life.
October is Disability Awareness Month
I really didn’t know anything about people with disabilities until spending almost a year in the hospital and being completely paralyzed from the chest down, and confined to a wheelchair for life.
When you’re able-bodied, it’s easy to overlook the differently abled. If you think disability is uncommon, think again. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 1 billion people – 15% of the global population – have some form of disability.
In the United States, the US Census Bureau reported in 2010 that 56.7 million people (19%) suffered from a disability, with over 50% of those being reported as “severe.” The afflicted included all age ranges: children, adolescents, adults and seniors.
I have a physical disability, and they break physical disabilities into three major categories: traumatic brain injuries, spinal cord injuries and congenital injuries (which include all birth defects). There are thousands of types of disabilities, which include mental and physical disabilities like limb loss, complete and partial paralysis, intellectual disability, age-related loss of motor control, blindness, and chronic pain to name a few. Other examples of physical disabilities include impairments which limit other facets of daily living, such as respiratory disorders and epilepsy.
Two-thirds of cases of disability in low to middle income countries around the world are the result of non-communicable diseases, a category that includes stroke, heart disease, mental illness, emphysema and cancer. An even higher percentage of the cause of disabilities worldwide is infectious diseases such as whopping cough, pneumonia, AIDS, meningitis, measles and so many more.
Understanding the size of the population with disabilities is one thing. Another important aspect of this issue is how socioeconomic status both influences, and is influenced by income and other living conditions. The fact is that disabilities are worsened by poverty, in America and other countries. Having a disability is a leading cause of falling into poverty, due to lack of opportunities, inability to perform work, and failing support systems. Add the high cost of medical treatment, including devices like wheelchairs and prosthetics, and it becomes clear that the disabled face huge burdens. The disabled in poor or developing countries are at an even greater disadvantage.
The United Nations recently published a report detailing the lack of knowledge even among health professionals for treating and interacting with disabled persons. According to the UN study, this problem will continue to worsen unless governments decide to take action on improving quality of care for people with disabilities.
Accessibility Must Be More Inclusive
Disabilities today are made worse by so many variables like architectural barriers. I spoke with a woman whose husband was responsible for getting hotels to install grab bars in the 1970s. Back then, most hotels only reserved these hotel rooms to people who were confined to wheelchairs.
When I was injured in the early 1980s, handicapped parking was already available at most hotels and shopping areas. When Senator Bob Dole and President George H. W. Bush passed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) into law the summer of 1990, the goal was to make a law that was inclusive for all people with disabilities.
As a person completely paralyzed from the chest down, I use those grab bars to transfer to the toilet or shower. I can’t use my legs at all, nor do I have any core balance. One problem I’ve faced in the last few years is that hotel owners have increased the height of grab bars, making it more difficult for people with disabilities similar to mine. For someone in a wheelchair, higher grab bars can make an injury more likely, through slip and fall or shoulder/upper body stress. They also increased the height of beds, creating another obstacle for someone like me.
Why did they change this? It’s pretty clear that they see relatively few disabled travelers like myself. But with our aging population, they are seeing many more senior citizens, and they made the adjustment for elderly customers who still have use of their legs. Those changes happen only when enough people appeal to the Justice Department and the ADA Laws Division, which is an extension of the Civil Rights Act.
I understand and support the need to accommodate all people who require accessible facilities, but not at the expense of those of us in wheelchairs. I keep active and am still pretty strong, much more capable of lifting and pulling than other paraplegics or quadriplegics out there. But I find the new grab bar heights to be extremely challenging anyway, and others in the same position are actually losing access with these new changes. For someone lacking the use of their legs and no core balance, it’s a new obstacle to have to manage.
I believe that in order to preserve the spirit of the ADA without excluding anyone, the best solution would be to have two sets of grab bars in the bath and toilet. One for people who need help to get up in the standing position, and a lower bar for those who have no use of their legs, requiring help to transfer on and off the toilet or shower. It would also be necessary to lower beds so people like myself can get in.
I am lucky that my motivational coaching and safety speaking career allows me to travel often, staying in hotels across the country and visiting corporate offices and plants. That has prepared me to know what to ask for in terms of accommodations, and make informed decisions. Other paralyzed people may not be as familiar with these changes until it’s too late. Because it is Disability Awareness month, I think it’s important that all Americans consider accessibility as a right that is just as important as free speech. Let’s make sure that we can give citizens equal access and the respect they deserve.
No matter who you are – young or old, able-bodied or living with a disability – I’d like to remind you to eat right, exercise often, get enough sleep and get your vaccinations to live as healthy as possible. Even through all the challenges I have faced, these are the things that have empowered me to live my life as normal as possible.