Helping disabled friend get around an eye-opener

Scott Humphrey is guest columnist.

When my friend invited me to help scout Southern California for a potential move, I only knew a piece of what I was getting myself into. Cruise around L.A. and San Diego, check out neighborhoods and help her schlep suitcases and her electric scooter? No big deal, right?

Well, in addition to savoring the warm winter sun and enjoying the almost universally friendly inhabitants, I got quite an education in accessibility.

And, no, I’m not talking about my access to organic, vegan, gluten-free, non-GMO, wild-caught, free-range fare, which out west is almost always within a block or two.

Disclaimer: I write this as an able-bodied young male who only recently gained a richer and deeper perspective on the daily struggles and triumphs of the millions of Americans living with disabilities.

My friend relies on a scooter to relieve her of the fatigue and pain that comes from walking on a nerve-damaged leg.

In her adolescent years, she was struck with Chronic Regional Pain Syndrome and a form of dystrophy that has robbed her teens and 20s of the kind of health and mobility that I, along with so many others, take for granted.

Prior to these two weeks, I had only spent a few days with her and had patted myself on the back for accompanying her as she scooted around Millennium Park in Chicago.

Naturally, when she invited me to join her and told me she would pick up the tab for the flight and lodging my only question was “When do we leave!?”

Two weeks later, I return to Charleston sunburned, worn out and a whole lot more humble. Because this trip was unlike any other I had ever taken. Previously, it was not unusual for me to walk 12 or 15 miles in a day while exploring cities in South America and Europe.

Let me tell you this: Moving around an urban area is an entirely different can of worms when you are on the lookout for steps, high curbs, missing pieces of pavement and perplexed passers-by. Because even the liberal, progressive Californians looked at my very attractive, 26-year old traveling companion, aboard her scooter, with a stupefied tender-heartedness. I do not blame them.

Yes, we have made great strides in the last 30 years toward a society more inclusive of people with disabilities, but let’s be honest: We have only begun to cut all the physical and mental curbs that still block the disabled from enjoying full, rich lives free of embarrassing and headache-inducing situations.

As one small example from our travels, take our trials and tribulations with lodging. We utilized AirBnb, a website that links available private residences with visitors as a cheaper alternative to hotels, and found an amazing range of views on what it means for a building and pool to be handicap accessible! I heard all of the following:

“Oh, it’s just a step or two to get in the lobby. No biggie.”

“You shouldn’t have any trouble, you can always ask him to just pop you over his shoulder!”

“What’s a couple of flights (of stairs) between friends anyways?”

Um, no.

Accessible does not mean just a couple of stairs, nor is it synonymous with your unit just because you want our $100 for the night. My friend has to swim for physical therapy. Two or three times, had I not been there to literally carry her like a wounded soldier over my shoulder and down a flight of steps, I have no idea what she would have done. And this was an “Accessible Unit with Pool.”

What do these people think “inaccessible” means? You have to pole vault in? And I can’t tell you the number of times she had to struggle to lean somewhere while I lifted her scooter over “just a small step” in order to get in the front door.

Despite these hilarious and frustrating episodes, we found the area on the whole to be welcoming and inviting. Additionally, the vast majority of construction in the last 20 years conforms to ADA standards, so although not as soulful, the architecture of sprawl is often more inclusive and practical.

I wish my friend the best in her transition and thank her for showing me a little exit sign for empathy along life’s freeway.

Scott Humphrey of West Ashley recently completed a master’s degree in Urban Planning at the University of Illinois where he helped organized a campaign to create countywide alternatives to incarceration. He also served two years as an AmeriCorps VISTA in Texas and Vermont and is working on a novel about his time hitchhiking across Canada.