Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Thoughts on Disability in a Beach Community…

We take some things for granted, like being able to walk a beach. One of our cottage guests this week has a disability. I began to worry as soon as he lurched across the garden, one hand extended, the other working a cane. I watched with admiration as his spastic legs miraculously propelled his body the last couple feet towards me, and I succumbed to his warm smile. We shook hands and connected. I wanted his visit to Wellfleet to be a memorable one.

The couple traveled with a wheelchair but did not get it out of the car. They had booked in February. There had been no mention of handicap or question of whether or not the cottage had ease of access. In fact, Seagull is not the ideal accommodation for anyone with disability because there are steps up from the parking lot, and the living room boasts a shift in floor level. This feature adds character to the place but also complication. I wondered how our guest would handle the step that divides the room in two. Splendidly, according to Sven. (My husband likes to provide background to the cottage paintings and had given his little tour after I left. The man simply jumped from one level to the other, Sven told me.)

“These people are not different from us,” he said later. “It could happen to you. It could happen to me. It could happen to anyone.”

Yesterday I read a moving post by a writer whose daughter has cerebral palsy. The guest post at Mothering Outside the Lines and the presence of our cottage guests got me to thinking about our own town’s accessibility to those who are handicapped. Of course, there are parking spaces for vehicles with a special plate, but a handicap plate is probably not available to tourists from abroad at short notice. We have an excellent new promenade around the marina, with lots of nice benches offering a water view. There are dune benches above some of the beaches, too – Newcomb, LeCount – but beach access itself demands coordination and surely is off-limits to the physically challenged.

At registration, I usually describe local restaurants as part of my spiel. With the cottage guests I ran through options in my mind first, trying to figure out which of them would work for someone with disability. I advised the couple as best I could and made a mental note to improve my knowledge on this aspect of our town in case future guests present similar needs.

I lobbied for the dune benches, and beach access stairs, when I home-cared my elderly mom, but handicapped access to restaurants is not something I had ever thought about before because we never took her out to eat. It is impossible to put oneself in the shoes of a handicapped person, but some of us are more aware than others, due to experience with family members who require special attention.

In a private moment, Sven asked about the handicap and the guest responded that he was born with a disability. He inherited the condition, and it only gets worse as he grows older. Sven invited him to sit down at our dining room table for a chat. The two men discussed Orwell and revolution, among other things. Our guest is a lawyer, a successful one, in England.

“I respect your courage,” my husband said as the man left.

“You can break barriers, social or otherwise, if you can see the human being and disregard how they look, the class they belong to, or their disability,” Sven told me once I had returned from my errand.

Have any of you experienced disability? Do you ever think about what the world is like for handicapped people? What would make Wellfleet more attractive to visitors with disability?