Summer has started, and my daughter Scarlett’s first week out of Kindergarten is being spent at ballet camp. It’s the same camp we did last year, but the location has changed to a church in the middle of San Francisco. When I first heard that, I was enthusiastic. A church has to be accessible, right? Isn’t that sort of their thing?
Last year, ballet camp was held in the second floor studio of a building that houses what must be one of the Top 10 scariest elevators of all time. First of all, it was almost always dark, because we were the only ones using it, and unless someone upstairs turned the lights on, we were engulfed in blackness when the doors closed.
Other families went bounding up the steep staircase that looked positively mountainous to me. We had to get inside the elevator quickly, because the dented silver door closed so quickly that it brought to mind the snapping crocodile that swallowed Captain Hook’s severed hand in Peter Pan. Scarlett often chose to meet me at the top of the stairs.
Obviously, I’ll take a terrifying elevator over nothing, and in my two years in a wheelchair, I have definitely been faced with the zero option situation. My husband, daughter and I once arrived at a restaurant in the city, only to find a large step up, and no way for me to enter. We had a reservation, and I had written in the notes, as I always do, that we were bringing a wheelchair. The restaurant was apologetic, but they didn’t have a ramp and neither did we. We dined elsewhere.
Scarlett and I like to go for walks in our neighborhood, a hilly and suburbanesque part of the city. Around here, when you reach the end of the block, there is no dropped curb to help you get safely to the other side. That means we go down driveways and often into the street before we are able to get back up to a sidewalk. Scarlett sits in my lap, and I am hyper aware of cars, but I can’t help remembering the walks we took before I was diagnosed with ALS, when I had the strength for stairs, and stepping off of a curb didn’t even register as an issue. How times have changed.
In our neighborhood, there is one particular block, a beautiful tree-lined haven of English Tudor homes, at the end of which is a staircase leading three steps down to street level. When I first saw that, I wasn’t sure what to do. We turned around, but even the driveways had chunky curbs, and the street they led to was a busy one, not a sharing-the-road kind of thoroughfare. I finally figured out a way around by heading up to a different street and using driveways to get across. All this so that I could take my daughter to the nearby playground.
It shouldn’t be like that.
Accessibility means that, in my wheelchair, I should be able to get into and around places just as easily as someone who can walk. Usually, that is the case. But often enough, it is not.
This year, ballet camp is in one room off of the main church. Scarlett and her friend Audrey scamper through the door in purple tutus, ready to throw themselves into a week of The Lion King, the camp’s current theme. Families are invited to a performance at the end of the week.
There is an accessible entrance through the garden, but the garden is locked during the day. The door I need to get through in order to reach my daughter has two stairs in front of it. I guess I’m lucky there are only two. Having gotten used to this sort of thing, my family now travels with a short ramp in the back of our van. The first day of pick-up, we put the ramp down and I shot up and into the room, where I was able to watch some of what the class had learned that day.
Scarlett pointed her toes and rocked an imaginary Simba in her arms. I watched the muscles in her legs as she dipped and swayed. Stairs are nothing to her. She leaps off curbs with nonchalance. Still, she understands my plight. “They aren’t thinking of people in wheelchairs!” she often exclaims in frustration. No, they aren’t, I agree. And the truth is, I didn’t used to either.
But now, I want to be able to go where my daughter goes, and I don’t think that’s too much to ask. If there is a way, I will find it. But wouldn’t it be easier, and safer, if that way was paved for me? At least on the five block walk to the playground.