Thursday, September 15, 2016

Invisibility is Killing Us

Wheelchair users are more likely to be killed as a pedestrian when crossing the street. This is a fact that arises from a study that, finally, looks at the experiences of people with disabilities in real world situations. As disturbed as I am by what the study found, I need to state that I'm grateful that the question about traffic safety as it applies to people with disabilities was even asked.

I'm sure that many wheelchair users have horror stories about the simple act of crossing the road. The most vivid story I have was when I was in New York City and crossing the street. We had plenty of time to get across but when we got to the other side we noticed that the curb cut was in really, really bad shape. There was no way that I could get up the curb cut frontwards so I needed to turn around and go up backwards. This took a little time, not a lot, but enough time to leave me out in the street when the light changed. There were a few moments of terror as Joe and I scrambled to get me out of the way of traffic that didn't care that I was there and that I was trying to get off the road. That scared me so much that I've found my heart rate increased just with writing about it.

To be clear, this isn't just a New York City phenomenon I have pedestrian horror stories from cities across Canada, the US and the UK. It seems to come with the territory of having a disability. But there is a quote from the article I linked to earlier that I'd like to pull out and look at:

" ... a shockingly large share of fatal crashes involved no reported signs of braking or steering away suggests that some drivers simply fail to see people in wheelchairs crossing the street."

Now, if you are a wheelchair user like me, this scared the shit out of me. They try to explain it by guessing that the reasons that we are lower to the ground and that we may move more quickly than regular pedestrians. I don't buy it. Children are lower to the ground and I don't see the same stat for them. People break for kids. And dogs dart out into the road and people break for dogs. This not braking thing really needs to be investigated.

No, I'm not going to suggest that drivers see a person with a disability and yell, "Hunting Season" and take aim. But I think prejudice is involved. I think there is a kind of invisibility that comes with disabilities that is born out of sheer prejudice, people have trained themselves not to see us. They walk into us on the sidewalk, as if we weren't there, what's the difference in driving into us on the road.

Our place in the community can only be secured when we are VISIBLE, when we are SEEN, when people don't need to look away, avert their eyes, or throw the invisibility cloak over our bodies and our chairs.

FFS, they don't break, or swerve ... why isn't this bigger news?

Because our concerns, even when validated by research, are made, well, invisible. 


Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt said...

People with WALKERS in marked crossing (stripes) wearing WHITE pants are not seen when crossing.

Scariest night I ever had - after singing for the Easter Vigil Mass - crossing back to get my car, on the main street in downtown Princeton, NJ (US), TWO different cars almost ran me down as I walked as fast as I'm able (not very). How can you not see a large woman STANDING with white hair and clothing (I'm 5'10") in the crosswalk? It's a 25 mph zone!

Andrea Shettle, MSW said...

I wonder if this "failing to see wheelchair users" thing might start in early childhood. Parents often yank away a child who is staring and scold them for staring at (noticing the existence of) a wheelchair user. But how many of these parents then go on to explain why it's rude to stare from the perspective of the wheelchair user? And how many of them explain what other reactions would be appropriate? Might they be inadvertently teaching their children that disability is so shameful and horrible that you can't and shouldn't even look? And should, instead, train yourself to completely fail to notice a wheelchair user altogether?

Namaste said...

This is why I chose to raise my kids in co-op housing shared with people with both physical and developmental disabilities - so they would grow up seeing people as people and not as objects to ignore. Proud to say it worked.

Moz said...

Dave, this is common news in the bicycle-riding world. Inattentional blindness is a real thing, and as you've noted, it kills people. Studies from cycling suggest that bright clothing and lights don't help, because the problem is not that you're literally invisible, it's that the brain filters out irrelevant details... like wheelchairs, cyclists, that flower-shaped cloud, the man in the gorilla suit and so on.

For cyclists the solution is more cyclists. The more often motorists see cyclists, the more aware they are of them and thus the more likely they are to notice them.

Unfortunately the solution "confine more people to wheelchairs" isn't really a good one :)

Other things that help are lowering speed limits (which reduces the severity of the crash), longer crossing periods (which also helps people who walk slowly), and better street design (this is a whole engineering discipline). I suspect you are also at "the wrong height" for many vehicles, like children you're going to cop a bumper to the chest if you're hit by an urban assault vehicle. Removing those would make us all safer, BTW, as they're involved in a disproportionate share of crashes.

h smith said...

Moz, wheelchairs are not things that we are "confined" to, and why couldnt part of the solution be more people using wheelchairs? They are not a bad thing or something that can only be used by people who can't walk. That type of thinking is part of what makes us invisible.

Moz said...

h. smith: By all means, if you don't like the phrase "confined to a wheelchair", please suggest an alternative. "choose to use wheelchairs rather than remain in bed", perhaps? To distinguish them from your implicit category "people who choose to use wheelchairs when they could choose to move freely without them".

I hoped that it would be clear from my post that I was talking about ways to increase the number of people using wheelchairs, rather than those who already do. But to be explicit: I think it would be bad to pass laws requiring able-bodied people to use wheelchairs, just so drivers expect to see people in wheelchairs. I also disapprove of involuntary bodily modifications to achieve the same result. I think it's fair to describe a law, criminal sentence or involuntary modification as confinement. That's what they call it when people are put in prison.

It did pass my mind that people could be persuaded to use wheelchairs voluntarily, but I thought that that would be hard and likely sidetrack into appropriation.

I also doubt that it would work. What's the huge advantage to using a chair over walking, if you can do both? I say that as someone who has spent decades working to encourage people to ride bicycles. And bicycles have clear advantages - they're cheaper, faster, more direct and more convenient for many people in high-density urban areas (like inner city Sydney, Australia, where I live). While the car industry has done a heckuvajob persuading people that paying a huge price to sit in traffic is worth while, their initial offer was faster, easier transport with no schedules or routes... and that was very attractive. It's worn off now, obviously. But, to get even 10% of the population off their feet and into a wheelchair... what's your offer?

P said...

Moz---RATHER THAN REMAIN IN BED??!! Oh my that's a beyond ridiculous assumption between TWO states of being (wheel chair or in bed are the ONLY options?! REALLLLY?)

I believe his point in the article and comment is that if society were more accessible then MORE people would more comfortably use wheelchairs as necessary as opposed to being very limited in movement and safe from pain!)

h smith said...

Moz, how about the term disability activists use, 'wheelchair enabled'. Youre right that its called confinement when people are put in prison, but youre wrong in your assumption that wheelchair use is equivalent to being in prison, or a punishment/sentence, or anything other than a completely valid option for moving around in the world.

And why on earth would it be 'appropriation' for able bodied people to use wheelchairs? The *only* thing that makes them 'for disabled people' instead of 'for everyone' is marketing. Backed up by ableism. (Which incidentally objections to body modifications also are (ableism). If someone chooses to have their legs amputated they dont become less of a person because they have no legs, or use a wheelchair.)

Wheelchairs have many of the same advantages as bicycles because they are simply a different arrangement of wheels and seat. Instead of using your legs to move the wheels you use (depending on equipment and ability) your arms/hands/head movements etc, and instead of sitting on a saddle you sit in a seat. Which also means you have a seat with you wherever you go, very handy in all sorts of situations. Wheels of all kinds are faster, can take people further and are less energy intensive than walking whether theyre on bicycles, wheelchairs or skateboards, and wheelchairs can do cool tricks just like bikes and boards. Depending on the type of chair there can be fitness benefits just like bikes have, and a lot of people would benefit if wheelchairs were seen as just another option for getting around instead of as something different that is only for disabled use. Most kids are keen to 'have a go' in wheelchairs before theyre told to fear the equipment because 'disability is bad', imagine if we just didnt tell them that lie..