All About Multiple Sclerosis

More MS news articles for October 2002

Accessibility is a State of Mind

Linda McGowan's recent travels brought her to Russia and China, countries not known for exceptional wheelchair accessibility. That didn't seem to matter.

Winter 2002
Linda McGowan
Shared Voices

Can an individual create accessibility? I believe that in many situations, you can. It requires that you be flexible, innovative, smile, have faith in your fellow man and in yourself, feel the fear and after some careful consideration, go for it anyway. I recently took a trip of a lifetime, traveling with my manual wheelchair. I sailed out of Vancouver on the Norwegian Wind, traveling to the Aleutian Islands off Alaska, Japan, Korea, and Russia, as well as to China. Vladavostok in Russia is a modern eastern Siberian city. It certainly lacked accessibility as we know it in Vancouver. The only way to get to the city from the dock without a vehicle was through a dark tunnel with no sidewalk, as well as no lights. Facing the traffic dressed in white, I and a companion braved the one kilometer long tunnel, and eventually emerged thankfully into the sunshine at the other end, in one piece.

A large park in the city housed a World War II submarine, a museum, and quiet places to reflect. It was surrounded by steep pathways, fashioned around multiple stairs. While I was viewing it from the outskirts, a local woman pointed out a means of entry with "no daucou", no stairs. A safer return route to the ship meant navigating down three flights of steep, rough, rocky stairs. As I contemplated them, two young Russian men came to my rescue. En route we encountered a 3x4 foot hole in the middle of the stairs, which we crossed with me suspended between the outstretched arms of my porters. Failure to keep a firm grasp on the chair would have meant writing this from a bottomless pit under Russian soil.

I knew that China would also be challenging, remembering my experiences on my last trip there in 1989. My goal this time was to climb the Great Wall in my chair. The 18 uneven, large stairs at the entrance and -space ifthe steep walkway (probably a 1:3 grade) were not going to stop me. With assistance from other visitors to the wall, I mounted the stairs in my chair, and with intermittent assistance, climbed the wall. The grade was quite terrifying. As I waited at the peak for a friend, I barely breathed and certainly did not move. Any movement of the chair would mean a rapid end to my life as there was no way of slowing down or stopping movement if it began. A very elderly Chinese lady was excited to see someone in a chair on their precious wall. She clapped, kissed me and cheered to show her appreciation.

The use of washrooms in China, Korea, more remote parts of Japan and Russia taxed my ability to be innovative. The majority of washrooms in China present a hole in the ground, not unmanageable if one wears elastic waist pants, can squiggle towards the front of the chair, pull your pants down and piddle over the edge. In China, many of these holes are on raised platforms. For some reason which I canít explain, the menís washrooms were more manageable. The doorways to the cubicles in many cases were wide enough to admit a wheelchair. Pride ceases to be part of my repertoire in these situations, and with someone watching at the door, I used the menís washrooms more often than the womenís.

In hotel rooms, the entrance doorway to the bathroom was often too narrow to admit my wheelchair. How to tackle this? To deal with it, I wheeled to the doorway, transferred onto a chair or small table, had someone pull the chair or table adjacent to the toilet, transferred onto the toilet, and did this in reverse to exit. Needless to say, my fluid intake was as minimal as I could make it.

The main street in Beijing has eight lanes of traffic with crosswalks, but pedestrians do not have the right-of-way. Cars travel 60-80 km/hr. In order to cross the street, I positioned myself between people and bicycles trying to move as quickly as they did, across the traffic. The difficulty for North Americans is that we are more cautious and less daring, making our moves slower and more hesitant.

I parted with a travel companion in Xiían, flying to Beijing where I planned to catch a flight directly to Vancouver. Unfortunately the plane left Xiían late so I issed the plane to Vancouver. The Air China staff presented me with their best "not our fault, you pay" attitude. I decided to spend the night in the airport. My Canadian flag pin brought another Air China staff member announcing "our fault, we pay". I proceeded to get into a car with two airline staff whose English was as fluent as my Chinese. We drove for 50 minutes in the dark through tunnels to the center of Beijing where a hotel room awaited me. It crossed my mind that these two gentlemen could pull out machetes, end my life and no one would be any the wiser.

However, I arrived in one piece to find a hotel with two stairs at the door, two more into the lobby, and five to get to the elevator. I had planned to be at work the morning after arriving in Vancouver, and had arranged for a friend to pick me up at the airport, a home support worker to arrive at 6:30 am, and had HandiDART booked to take me to work. A call to Canada was required. I had given my Chinese money to my friend and was carrying only enough to pay airport departure tax. China is a cash society, so none of Visa, travelersí cheques, or Canadian money was acceptable. Fortunately, a businessman in the lobby offered the use of his cell phone so that I could make my call to Vancouver. I hoped my son would follow through on the cancellation of all of my prearrangments.

The hotel bathroom door did not admit my chair and I needed assistance getting in and out of bed. The single bed was 12 inches from the wall on one side and touching the wall on the other. The hotel sent a woman from housekeeping to assist. Once again her English was as fluent as my Chinese and sign language is not a component of this culture. However, we did manage to get me into the washroom, and into bed. In the morning, a different person presented herself to assist. I think she had never seen a wheelchair before, and my inability to communicate in Chinese unnerved her. She called the front desk, and got some assistance from the manager, who could communicate to some degree in English. He stood on the other side of the wall and translated. Between the three of us, I managed to get dressed and packed ready for my return to the Beijing airport. The hotel staff concern was genuine. They wished me to eat breakfast and lunch before heading to the airport. My concern was to reach the Air Canada counter in plenty of time.

After some convincing, they agreed that if I ate breakfast, they would order my taxi earlier.

When the plane landed in Vancouver, as always I was thankful to be a Canadian living on the west coast. It is not necessary to take this kind of trip to add interest to oneís life. Going out and about in Vancouver, to Granville Island, to Lonsdale Quay, downtown, or out on Skytrain offers similar, equally challenging circumstances. On occasion, I work with people with disabilities who wish to travel. The first thing I say to them is if you wish it to be like home, stay home, because it is not going to be. Also, if you keep your eye on your goal, you will not see the obstacles even though sometimes they seem insurmountable. However, flexibility and the ability to be innovative reward one with experiences that are irreplaceable.