Editor's Note

The Injustice of Mixed Messages

I hate mixed messages. In addition to their imprecision — the exact opposite of what I'm supposed to be striving for every day at my day job — mixed messages are cowardly.

The mixed message is an attempt to adhere to the letter of the law while trampling on its spirit. The mixed message maintains outward innocence while masking an actual desire that’s more sinister. It’s plausible deniability. A loophole. Wiggle room.

This morning’s mixed message: A video on CNN.com showing a woman in a power chair (not a scooter, as CNN and Headline News both reported) trying to use an escalator, then flipping backward in a frightening tumble. (She reportedly was uninjured.)

Of course, the woman should not have taken what appeared to be a heavy-duty consumer power chair onto the escalator. We know that.

We also supposedly know, according to the Headline News story, that “a working elevator was just 50 feet away.”

And that’s when I started steaming.

Once again: I know she should not have used the escalator.

I also know how easy it is for people who use escalators to say that elevators are nearby.

A few years back, I planned to have dinner with a friend from out of town who uses a wheelchair.

Knowing that what's accessible on paper often isn't accessible in reality, I went to the restaurant in person before making our reservation. I'd been to the restaurant many times before, but not yet with a wheelchair. The restaurant had dining areas on two floors, and I'd always climbed the sweeping, picturesque staircase to get to that second floor. Now I was thinking: Was there an elevator inside the restaurant? Would we have to go into the adjoining mall and use its elevator to get to the restaurant's second floor? And where was the mall's nearest elevator, anyway?

I've been shopping at this mall for many years; I would have told you I know it well. But I didn't know where the elevator was. I walked right past it on my first search. It was tucked into a rather dark corner, well off the traffic pattern that shoppers usually take. I stepped into the empty elevator and turned around — not much space in here, particularly if we shared it with a parent pushing a hugely unmaneuverable baby stroller. And how far away was this elevator, which the security guard assured me was nearby? I’d guess it was about a quarter-mile from the restaurant, unlike the escalator, which was only a few dozen yards from the restaurant’s front door.

As it turns out, we didn’t need the elevator. The restaurant accommodated us on the first floor; when we got there, a chair had already been removed so my friend rolled right up to the table. The food was great, the company was better, and the service was outstanding. Soon, my worries about the elevator had all but evaporated.

Until this morning’s video of the woman in the power chair, tumbling backward off that escalator.

No, she should not have been on the escalator. But if we as a society want people to do the right thing, do the safe thing, then we need to give them a real opportunity to do so. Telling chair users that they need to take the elevator, then hiding the elevator in a faraway corner, then blaming them when they can’t find it and try to adapt to a situation not of their making: That’s a mixed message.

So is our societal claim that we want people with disabilities to be active in their communities, to work, to go to school, to visit friends, to shop and spend their money and generate tax revenue. We say we want that. But how possible do we make it?

If we all had to use elevators, if we all could only cross the street or use a sidewalk via curb cuts, if we could only use taxicabs with ramps, if we all had to park only in spaces with enough room to deploy our vehicle ramps — how often would we venture out? How much more difficult would our lives be? How much less would we impact our communities?

Either we want people with disabilities to have access to their environments, or we don’t. If we really mean it, then things need to change...starting with more elevators, more centrally located, closer to main traffic paths, and that operate more efficiently.

If we neglect to do more than say the words, though, then all we are really giving consumers access to is our mixed message.

This article originally appeared in the September 2012 issue of Mobility Management.

About the Author

Laurie Watanabe is the editor of Mobility Management. She can be reached at lwatanabe@1105media.com.

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