Animated GIF. William Shatner as Captain Kirk screaming CANE in place of KHAN.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Taking City Council on a Field Trip

Is there a precedent for providing members of the local City Council with wheelchairs, walkers, and canes and taking them on a jaunt around the city with the intent of demonstrating how great a need there is to improve accessibility of roads, sidewalks, and places of business? If not, I intend to do it myself.

I cannot begin to describe how frustrating it is to get stuck with my walker every few yards because of a pothole or crack in the sidewalk (or worse, close to flipping over), and I’ve found myself contemplating a few times recently how someone using a wheelchair would be able to leave their house at all in the winter. Just a few days ago I had to walk in the street to avoid a long stretch of sidewalk that hadn’t been shoveled and had melted and frozen over again because the City of Pittsburgh does not enforce laws requiring sidewalks to be cleared. I wound up slipping on a patch of ice while trying to maneuver onto the road and rolling my foot badly enough that I bruised a bone in the heel of my foot; three days later and I’m finally out of bed but still very tender.

We as a society are not very good at putting ourselves in the places of others. We’re so addicted to the idea of always being ecstatically happy that the mere possibility of a negative thought sends us into a blind panic. Everyone has seen the Lego Movie, right? We are all Princess Unikitty.

When wealthy people can’t empathize with people living in dire poverty? They’re being Unikitties. They are subconsciously afraid of having Not Happy thoughts so they blindly throw some money at the problem and then cling to their riches for protection. Same goes for white heterosexual male politicians avoiding thinking about the increasing rates of pregnancy among poor black teenaged lesbians and the societal pressures that are creating this problem. And I feel that in many, many ways people avoid considering what it must be like to be disabled because to them having a disability must be Not Happy. So they drive the thought away, failing to empathize and instead throwing out some pity so they can go back into their happy little Cloud Cuckoo Land.

While I’ve never actually watched any of them (nor do I own a television to begin with), I guess that’s why shows like “Secret Millionaire” are so proliferate. We get to vicariously find out what it’s like to stop being Unikitties without risking any sort of pain ourselves. There is a lot I can say about this as a Buddhist but that’s another discussion for another venue. My point here is that often the best and perhaps only way to create change is to force people to face what it is that they don’t want to look at.

With that in mind, I want to find a way to get members of the Pittsburgh City Council to take a trip around parts of the city with me. I’ve already talked to my friend Holly (who is a professional photographer with a disability – her work can found here and here) about a photography project I want to post on here in which we document all of the failings of the City to maintain its supposedly accessible areas, but seeing pictures isn’t enough to change how people think. If it were we wouldn’t have genocides, war, starvation… OK, maybe I’m going a little bit overboard here, but I think I make my point. To get people to see things you have to provide them with a kinesthetic experience. Hence my experimental outing.

The hardest part of this is logistics. Getting a dozen or so basic walkers and non-motorized wheelchairs is the easiest part, I’m thinking, since I’m sure any number of service agencies would be willing to loan out one for this experiment. The “fun” part will be convincing members of the City Council – hell, maybe even Mayor Peduto himself! – to participate, and hopefully getting local media outlets to cover the results.

I’m also concerned about the fact that I am only covering motor disabilities. I am sure that people who have visual impairments also have a lot of trouble with the snow/sidewalk conditions that exist at the moment, but I don’t know anyone with a visual impairment who could tell me what I should add in as a component. All I know is that I would be doing a great disservice to the blind community by just throwing blindfolds on people.  Should this rather insane idea of mine ever come to fruition, I will be sure to contact the local vision centers and get their input.

So yes, that’s what’s simmering on my mind right now. Overall this will have to wait until spring to focus specifically on the state of sidewalk maintenance and building accessibility; lack of enforcement of snow removal is a concern, but I’d rather treat it as a separate issue so as to not lose any fine points.

If anyone knows of any similar projects or would be interested in helping out, please leave me a comment or contact me at

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