Want to know when the words “wheelchair access” don’t actually guarantee wheelchair access? When you use a powered wheelchair.
In all honesty, I’m not certain someone would choose to use a powered wheelchair over a manual one if they didn’t have to. I’m pretty sure I don’t have to spell this out for you, but powered wheelchairs are significantly heavier, bigger, and bulkier than their manual counterparts, reducing manoeuvrability. They are also far more expensive, and much harder to fix should something go awry.
Additionally it appears to surprise some people that I’m using a powered wheelchair because I need to, and not because I’m too lazy to propel myself, which is an accusation I have faced on multiple occasions. Propelling your own manual wheelchair with the addition of your body weight with muscles smaller than those in your legs is extremely hard work, and I am simply too weak and fatigued to do this, plus the cut and blistered hands and muscle strains don’t appeal to me either. Being pushed around by someone else in a manual wheelchair means that you can’t even go to the toilet without asking someone, and you can’t go out or do anything independently. I decided to sacrifice a little manoeuvrability and money in exchange for my independence, and I do not regret that in the least.
What I dislike about using a powered wheelchair is the way companies are allowed to claim that they have full wheelchair access even if a powered wheelchair can’t be used in their facilities. I cannot count the number of taxi firms that have told me I can’t use their accessible cabs because my wheelchair is too big or cumbersome for their vehicles. On one occasion using the trains, the porter sulked at me because he wasn’t sure whether the ramp they’d provided would take my wheelchair’s size and weight, and he had to fetch another. One of the libraries at university had spaces between the shelves wide enough to take a manual wheelchair, but not a powered one, although fortunately a similar set of books could be found in another, more accessible library. Many accessible toilets and changing rooms are barely large enough to take a manual wheelchair, let alone a powered one. A local shopping centre even decided to replace their broken lift for entering the premises with a thin plywood ramp that doesn’t even look strong enough to take a manual wheelchair, and won’t change this despite me launching a complaint. On one occasion, I was even turned down for a job because their lift wouldn’t accommodate my powered wheelchair, and they weren’t going to adapt to my needs. Whether this is even legal is debatable, but I don’t have the finances to take them to court for discrimination, so they got away with it.
None of this is to say that life in a manual wheelchair is easy; this is far from the truth. Businesses still choose to make themselves inaccessible in general, they face the same problems I do concerning the perception of disability, and sometimes the seats in manual wheelchairs really aren’t comfortable when staying seated for any length of time. It just seems that the world is set up to accommodate some disabilities more than others, which is equally as wrong as any other discrimination against disabilities.