Smashing Barriers

When I graduated from college, I got a job in Washington, DC, and moved there with a friend. We took a day trip from the campus and visited a lot of apartments before finding a place we liked and could afford in the suburbs outside the city.

I was excited and terrified to be starting my career, while also living farther away from my family. In early June, my family packed me up and we drove the six-plus hours to my new home.

The apartment search had been complicated, as always, by the needs of my rheumatoid arthritis. I use a motorized wheelchair for mobility and other adaptive equipment, which required space and accessibility.

I also needed a place accessible to public transportation for commuting to work, while also being affordable to a couple of new college graduates! With all these requirements, we ultimately found a place on a bus line in the suburbs that would take us to the Metro for getting into the city.

After moving in and unpacking, we looked at exploring the neighborhood to figure out how to get to the bus stop, grocery store, and navigate the area. My parents wanted to make sure that not only would the apartment work for my needs, but that I’d be able to function independently and safely.

We soon discovered a serious roadblock. Literally. The paved sidewalk from the apartment building down the block to the bus stop, stores, and everywhere else had a step and no ramp. The only way to get around was to motor my wheelchair out the driveway and down the shoulder of a highway.

My father was not happy. How could this be possible? How was it legal and acceptable? He called the road department and they said they could not do anything and to call the building management. Of course the building management said they could not alter a public sidewalk. Neither the road department nor the building company would take responsibility for this stubborn bit of curb. No one would do the work to make it accessible.

What to do? Smash it, of course! My father brought out some tools and smashed up the curb until I could pass through the rubble in my wheelchair and get onto the sidewalk. Miraculously, shortly thereafter, either the road department or the building paved in a ramp.

During the year I lived in that apartment, I used that ramp several times every day. I saw others use it—people on bikes or parents with strollers. My father’s act of rebellion, of not accepting no, benefited many people and probably still does to this day.

That winter we had a huge snowstorm that walloped the DC area. The government shut down for several days and all offices and public transit was closed. When the city began to stir again, a couple feet of snow was piled up. While the road was well plowed, no one bothered to clear the sidewalk and I was marooned.

Again my father made calls. Could the road department clear the sidewalk because the building said they could not? Again, another round of pointing fingers and refusing responsibility. Meanwhile, I could not get to work and had to take extra time off.

At last a plow came to clear the sidewalk and I credit that to my father. Either they got tired of his persistent calls or they were afraid he might drive down to their office and start smashing something. Whatever it was, the snow was removed and I could get back to work and the grocery store.

This is the attitude I learned from my father and I will forever be grateful. When it comes to what is right, never take no for an answer. There are things worth fighting for. There are rules worth breaking. And if the way things are built does not provide adequate access and support, it’s time to make change happen and smash those barriers.

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