Putting On ‘Wheelchair Eyes’ For The First Time


Editor’s Note: Thank you to Rebecca Levenberg for sharing from her blog A Thousand Miles. After a traumatic accident, Rebecca is now a transfemoral (above knee) amputee. In this blog she shares about a time when she had to stay off her right leg and was using a wheelchair for mobility.

My friend Anna says she has “Wheelchair Eyes.”  She works with people with mobility issues, so when she walks around the city, she always notices potential barriers for people with disabilities.

My own Wheelchair Eyes are still coming into focus.  I have many friends who use wheelchairs, but when I’m out on two legs–even when one’s a prosthetic–I tend to overlook obstacles.

This summer has brought some new challenges.  

Without a strong “sound side,” my usual life has been curtailed.  I’m not volunteering at the rehab gym, or rock climbing, or even taking walks anymore.  The stress of finding parking spaces and getting into buildings wears me down. If I have to stay off my right leg, it’s easier to just stay home.

But I hear an ad on the radio. Imagine Dragons is coming to the Wells Fargo Center.

A funny thing happens to me.  I dare to IMAGINE. Instead of lamenting a weekend on the couch, I decide to use my Wheelchair Eyes!

I’ve seen people using wheelchairs at concerts, so I know it’s possible. But how exactly does it work??

Thanks to Google, it takes less than 10 seconds to find out.  On the Wells Fargo Center website, I locate a phone number for “accessible seating.”  I call and leave a voice mail message.  An hour later, a woman calls me back.  By 11 a.m., I’ve secured seats in Section 204A, sized to fit a manual wheelchair like mine.

 When (my friend?) Chris finishes work that day, I surprise him with the tickets–he’s a big fan of Imagine Dragons.  In fact he likes them so much, he’s willing to assemble my wheelchair in a torrential rainstorm in the parking lot of the concert!  

We make it inside, soaked but excited. We stop to buy t-shirts. Then we search for the secret elevator to the mezzanine level.

Upstairs, I make a pit-stop at the restroom.  It’s the smallest accessible bathroom I’ve ever seen.  The door barely closes behind my chair, and there’s no room to turn the chair around.  My Wheelchair Eyes are on high alert.

When we reach our section, an attendant helps me roll onto a wheelchair lift.  She closes a cage around me like I’m about to ride a roller-coaster.

Chris jogs up the stairs.  I press the buttons on the control panel, and my platform follows him.

I wheel onto a makeshift balcony, bordered with glass and lined with folding chairs.  At the end of the row is one open space, perfectly sized for my wheelchair.

Turns out, we’ve got the best seats in the house!

The next day, my friend Jen comes into the city for dinner.

I’ve told her that I can’t leave the house, but going to the concert has sharpened my eyesight.  Now I imagine myself rolling around historic Old City in Philadelphia doing the things I used to do, just on wheels instead of feet.  We decide to take the wheelchair out for a spin.

But if the Wells Fargo Center was smooth sailing, the sidewalks of Philly are like guiding a sailboat through a typhoon.

The more I look around, the more I realize that accessible doesn’t mean ideal.

First, the sidewalks slant toward the street.  (This makes walking with a prosthetic leg difficult, but pushing a wheelchair is even harder!)   I try to propel the chair on my own, but the slope veers me dangerously toward cars in the street.  The only way to slow down is to run my hands along the wheels.  After 30 feet of sidewalk, my palms are raw and my arm muscles give out.

Jen takes over, but it’s not easy for her either.  The sidewalks are gutted with ridges.  They’re paved with uneven bricks and cobblestones.  Some intersections don’t even have curb cuts.  And the ones that do are so cracked and torn, it’s impossible to wheel over them.

We run into construction zones and tree roots and pathways too narrow to accommodate even my small wheelchair. We make a bunch of U-turns.

After struggling for 3 blocks, we end up at a restaurant called Pizzicato.  There are so many barriers along Market Street, we can’t get to any other restaurants.

Then we want dessert, of course.  There are a half dozen ice cream places within our one-block radius.  Do we dare?  We’ve got to be able to get to reach one of them, right?

Fueled with pizza, we put our Wheelchair Eyes to the test.

Jen starts pushing again.

By process of elimination (a.k.a. nasty sidewalks and detours), we end up at Capofitto, an Italian gelato place on Chestnut Street.

At the door, a 10-inch step blocks our way.  After the rough ride, it feels like a slap in the face.

“Go in and ask for a flavor list,” I say to Jen.  “Tell them your friend is in a wheelchair and can’t get inside.”

Jen pulls the door open, geared up for a fight. But a minute or two later, she emerges from a different doorway.  With her is the guy from the ice cream counter.  They’re both smiling.

“Here you go,” he says cordially, pushing open the heavy double doors.

Imagine that.  Put on your Wheelchair Eyes for a second.

I steer into an apartment building mailroom.  Jen pushes me up a ramp to a hidden side door.  The ice cream guy unlocks it.

And I roll right into the restaurant.

A rainbow of gelato awaits.

It’s worth the trip!

I’m not telling these stories to emphasize the trouble I’ve faced over the last few weeks.  After all, when my leg heals, I’ll be walking again. Many barriers, for me, will disappear.

But for people who use wheelchairs everyday, they WON’T.

Imagine that.  Put on your Wheelchair Eyes for a second.

Ever wonder what “accessibility” really means?

The more I look around, the more I realize that accessible doesn’t mean ideal.   It doesn’t necessarily make people feel able or comfortable.  It doesn’t ensure that they can take same path as their “non-challenged” friends.  It simply means that — with a little push — a doorway might be wide enough.

Rebecca Levenberg is a teacher, writer, and speaker from Philadelphia. She is also a survivor, learning to live again after a traumatic accident changed her body and her life. She is now a transfemoral (above knee) amputee.