I'll Be Over Here, Next to the Potted Plant

Say that you’re
  • At a small family gathering and across the room sits a member of your family with whom you haven't had a good chinwag in a while. What do you do?
  • At a party where you don't know anyone and don't feel like spending any more time standing by yourself with a glass of wine and looking fascinated by what your invisible friend is saying. What do you do? (note: running screaming for the door is not an option)
  • At a large and informal get-together in a restaurant. The tables are arranged in a U and you’re seated at one of the "arms." After the meal is finished, the other guests start to chair hop, moving around to chat with other guests. What do you do?

Now imagine that you use a wheelchair and can't easily move around. Either because that means you're hugely in the way or there are people or furniture in your way.

Some time ago, I was at a posh event, out among the English for the first time in a very long time and I learned a number of things. I learned that I need to get out more or I'll forget how to talk to strangers in a non-work setting. I learned that when I go into observation mode, I don't say much - I'm too busy mentally recording everything that happens. Not coincidentally, I also learned a number of things about using a wheelchair in a social environment. And then I started thinking about other social occasions, experiences that I’ve always just shrugged off and all of a sudden, there they were. Obstacles everywhere I looked (which is usually why I prefer to remain oblivious).

For people with disabilities, barriers to socializing with others aren't limited to the attitudes of the able-bodied that prevent them from going over and talking to you, just in case you might accidentally drool (or worse) on them. They’re there, for sure, but that's not where I'm going today. Today is about the physical barriers to socializing.

When you travel seated, you are at a distinct disadvantage in a cocktail party environment. You're supposed to wander around, mingling and meeting others, right? Except when you try to do that in a wheelchair, it very quickly becomes apparent that you're much better off sitting over by the side, out-of-the-way. It means people don't trip over you or accidentally walk into your feet. Also, as fun as it is to be eye-to-crotch with potential conversation partners - and perhaps surprisingly, it's not as much fun as you might imagine - sitting down when everyone else is standing up means it's impossible to start a conversation. Parties get loud, either because of the music or the talking or both.

The times you do run into someone and both of you do that awkward initial smalltalk, there's also the problem of your neck. Unless you're at a convention for little people, everyone will be taller than you are (see: crotch level). Looking up for hours will mean spending the next several days with a sore neck and that's only if your disability doesn't impact your neck. If you have a condition that does affect the mobility of your neck - for argument's sake, let's pick RA - you can't look up. Because it hurts or maybe your neck doesn't move that way or maybe you're not supposed to hyper extend your neck.

Some people know about good manners when talking to someone who uses a wheelchair. They understand that is not a good idea to make the seated person crane back their head to look up. Instead, they grab a chair or squat next to the wheelchair so they’re at eye level (but never that hands-on-knees bent-over thing used when talking to children. Because it usually comes with the attitude of talking to a child and I'm at child-height, but not 4 years old ). You have no idea what kind of relief it is when you meet someone who gets it. In addition to keeping socializing from being a literal pain in the neck, it means you get to have a conversation without having to yell up to the mountain peak that is the other person's head. 

And that's where the design aspect enters the picture because most cocktail parties do not have chairs scattered about. Which, come to think of it, might actually be a nice thing to do, because even the ambulatory sometimes have trouble standing for a long time. Whether it's back problems, hip issues, wearing heels or not being able to squat due to wearing a tight short dress, the ability to sit can be a highly welcome one.

While I am talking about design, let's move on to the restaurant scenario. Last week, I was at one such establishment celebrating a friend's engagement. There was no room to mingle if you weren't ambulatory and as in the party situation, my wheelchair was a significant impediment to mingling. Or perhaps I should phrase that differently, because it is not me who is an impediment, it is the design. Most places are not designed with anyone but the able-bodied in mind, which means when you use a wheelchair, you park yourself somewhere out-of-the-way - at the end of it able or next to the potted plant - and stay there for the duration. This is not conducive to meeting anyone and even the best friendly and inviting expression on your face is not going to magically draw people to your. So you end up talking to the plant and running screaming for the door as soon as you can.

And there are layers to this, layers that go beyond design or thinking outside the box when it comes to the physical aspects of creating an environment for social interaction. The more I thought about this, the more I saw how it is all connected. But this is long enough already, so I'm saving that for Part Two and for next week.