The Rapidian

Advancing mobility one walk at a time

Preparations for the disART Festival in April 2015 have been underway for several months. disART will showcase performances and visual art exhibits by artists who are in some way physically or mentally impaired.

An Accessibility Walk organized in late September by Chris Smit, Director of the disART Festival, is just one of the preparations for the upcoming disART Festival being held in Grand Rapids during April of 2015. The majority of any city’s population is the mobile, non-impaired individuals to whom the obstacles faced by the disabled are invisible and non-essential. Mobility issues are a key component to living independently as a disabled person. It is imperative that the organizers are able to alert local, national and international attendees and participants as to the conditions they will face while enjoying the festival throughout the downtown area next spring. Gaining support of disability culture professionals and the city itself prior to the disART Festival will help to inform the rest of you to better interact with a vital yet little recognized community. 

When is the last time you had someone else do a walk through downtown for you? You know, so that you would notice if you might trip or fall down a step or get your shoe caught under a raised light pole if you walked a particular route. Never, you say? Hmmm. 

When is the last time you had a few people check retail businesses downtown to see if the doorways were wide enough for you to walk through or if the bathrooms were set up so you could use them properly? When is the last time you couldn’t fit into a bathroom stall? Really? Never?

When is the last time you needed someone to move furniture and garbage cans out of your way on a public sidewalk so you could pass by? None of these things have ever happened to you? 

I suppose you’ve never fallen out of a chair in the middle of the street or sidewalk and had to have a friend or strangers pick you up and put you back? No? That’s amazing.

Welcome to my life and the lives of hundreds of other wheelchair bound individuals or blind that live in this city. Mobility issues are a 24/7 constant in our lives. Can I get my chair into that store or restaurant or library? Okay, I’m in here, can I get through all the doors that I need to access? Is there an elevator? How will I know where the bathrooms are located and are they wheelchair accessible? 

On the sidewalks downtown I see hundreds of people walking with their eyes looking straight ahead. I always wonder if they’re gauging how far they still have to walk or if they’re working out their latest stresses or thinking about what’s for dinner. Then the traffic light changes and my eyes scan the pavement and curb cut and the non-level ground I’m about to cross. I can see the divots in the sidewalk. Coming toward me and along side of me are legs of anonymous people. Looming closer and in front of me are inanimate garbage cans and benches. I don’t get to look up until I come to another stop. My brain is concentrating on not hitting that uneven brick paver or maneuvering around an obstacle. Thinking about anything else falls far down my list of thoughts even though I’m probably eager to wrap them around finding time to visit that new coffee shop or the next writing project.

Not many of you are as wide as a wheelchair, which makes you able to get through a crowded sidewalk without thinking about possible obstacles either in front of you or underneath you. You never concern yourself with how many steps are on a building or wonder if you can fit into a bathroom stall. You may be aware of these basics of mobility that we in wheelchairs face but it’s not the same as living with them constantly. 

Do not accept the previous commentary as an indictment of yourselves, nor is it a nod to any kind of superiority or privilege on the part of disabled individuals. Our realities are different. If you ever have the opportunity to hang out with someone who lives in a wheelchair or someone who is blind or deaf, or someone who deals with a psychological or developmental disability, you will be amazed at what you had never realized. The simple truth is that those of us who live with a permanent disability need accommodations that the rest of you don’t need. Thus, there is a tendency for the public at large to not notice the barriers we face daily.

You’ve never heard of Disability Culture? Be ready to change your perceptions. We don’t all sit in facilities waiting for visitors. Many of us are producing creative work, pursuing careers the same as you or rolling around neighborhood and downtown streets on four wheels. The disART Festival making an appearance next year is no small deal. You will see dancers and performers arriving from Europe and the UK to participate as well as local visual artists and performers all of whom live with a physical or mental impairment of some kind.

From now until spring, expect to see our team alerting Grand Rapids residents that changes in perception may be needed to enjoy the art and artists that will unexpectedly and delightedly blow your mind. 

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