Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Cities Are Not User-Friendly for the Homeless, Especially Those in Wheelchairs

Words and Images by Al Griffin

I found George moving back and forth on a sidewalk in downtown Springfield, Missouri, working the joystick of his electric chair, but not able to go anywhere. The sidewalks in many U. S. cities do not provide easy access for mobility devices in use. Sure there are curb cuts and ramps at the intersections; there are sidewalks made wide and flat for those dependent on wheels to walk. But disrepair, crowds, delivery trucks, and construction barricades block the mechanical aids completely and often. Where we step off the curb and walk around the crane lifting materials to the workmen on the roof, the wheel chair does an about face and rolls back up the street to the intersection where the ramp allows it to cross the street. The wheel chair must cover a lot more distance than we do when we skirt the edge of a temporary blockage.

George, driving the chair containing a bag with all his worldly possessions on the back, wearing soiled and worn clothing, unshaven and unkempt and unable to walk, seemed stymied. I spoke and shook hands, and he seemed happy enough to stop toiling with transportation issues and just sitting for a moment. 

When I asked George if he was living on the streets, he said “no” and jerked a thumb over his shoulder, saying, “I live up that way in a high-rise.” It seemed like a well-worn reply, perhaps an attempt to dull the pain or offer humor or just deflect others’ attempts to help or hinder.

George’s morning seemed confusing and troubling on many levels, but his dependence on a mechanical device clearly weighed heavily on him that morning. I wished him well and told him to be careful on the streets, and he thanked me sincerely as he motored off the way he had come--so far back to the ramp he needed. His orange flag flying behind his chair, his orange ball cap pulled down tightly on his head, George motored off up the street as I watched his reflection disappear in a broken storefront window.