In the way?

The inside joke I have with friends when I go out with them is the phrase “in the way”. I was just reminded of it this morning as I was reading email and a person with a disability alluded to being “out of the way”.

One of the things I noticed after I began using a wheelchair is that, due to the fact that moving in a wheelchair is different than walking, wheelchair users are perceived as – and treated as – being “in the way”. At first, I was quite upset to realize this and went to great lengths to somehow get out of the way. However, over time, I began to realize that my wheelchair and I were going to take up a certain amount of space in any given time and place and that was a matter of physics, nothing else. In effect there was nothing I could do about it.

And I certainly can’t control other peoples’ perceptions. If they choose to see wheelchair users – or disabled people in general – as in the way, then that’s it. It’s certainly not helpful to inclusion – it’s objectifying and, worse yet, creates an unnecessary hierarchy in terms of implying, somehow, that the disabled person can or should get out of the way.

This scenario , recreated over and over again, appears in many forms. If I’m waiting to use a handicap stall in a ladies’ room and it’s designed in such a way that the only place I can go blocks others, but if I move my place in line isn’t preserved, then the Catch 22 situation of being in the way becomes obvious not only to me but to an astute observer. Narrow and small waiting areas, whether they are in restaurants or doctors’ offices, create the same problem. So does poor placement of furniture that creates narrow spaces, crowding the ingress/egress space to a bare minimum.

So, until more awareness is raised about the physics of all this and the reality that more and more wheelchair users and others with mobility equipment and issues are going to be out and about, the inside joke of “in the way” will continue. Humor is probably a good tool to use – along with , of course, the goal of working toward and supporting Universal Design.

Copyright 2007 Ruth Harrigan

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “In the way?

  1. That is really funny. As a wheelchair user, I actually always think I am in the way. In fact, now that I think about it, I often ask people, “Am I in your way?” without any prompting whatsoever. The funny thing is, when I am on the move, I have no qualms about plowing my own path on a busy sidewalk, as I discuss in my blog post: http://wheel-world.blogspot.com/2007/09/speedy-gonzales.html.

  2. Enjoyed visiting your blog – thanks for coming by and leaving a comment (it’s always nice to hear from people) and this way I can put you in my blogroll too!

  3. Liz

    This “in the way’ thing happens to me all the time. For example, in the airport baggage area, waiting for my suitcase, surrounded by people, with bags on my lap, I was getting dirty looks like I should get out of the way. And one after the other, over maybe half an hour, people would want to get through the area and would ask me to move, often *while bumping into me*. They shove, they galumph by with their feet and huge bags, in a way they would not to a person just standing there or sitting in a chair.

    I had several responses. One was simply “No — sorry.” Another of course was “Hey, you, hello — do you realize you just bumped into me?” But for some people, I stopped them and said, “Why are you specifically asking me to get out of the way? Why not ask the several able bodied people around me to move, since it might be easier for them to step aside, and to move I’ll have to take off my brakes and move two suitcases and deal with the stuff in my lap?

    I take up more space than some, and I also need more space around me in order to be able to, say, turn around. I aggressively defend the space just in front of and behind my chair, so that I don’t get repeatedly bumped and kicked.

    During that time in the airport baggage line I had the people around me finally giggling and on my side. We were laying bets on whether people approaching would ask me to move or not. It was lovely to have people around me laughing with me and in on the joke… and to have them start to participate in asking the “get out of the way” people to watch their step and to make openings deliberately elsewhere in the line.

  4. Liz,

    I’ve had that happen too where people observe the pattern of what’s going on and “get it”. Our ‘taking up space’ in public spaces is worth discussing. Even if it is extra space, it still doesn’t account for some peoples’ overreaction to what really amounts to an inconvenience – their refusal to budge denies us our egress/ingress/etc. As for getting bumped and kicked, I wrote the Do You Really Want to Hurt Me? post about having my physical space invaded to the point of near injury – this is another observable public behavior.

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