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When I Realized I Can Help Make the World More Accessible

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Being 15 years old and having a disability forced me to look at the world through a different lens. Throughout the 19 years I lived with my foot, there were times I needed to use disability parking spaces, and sometimes used store scooters. I would only use these things if I needed them because there were times I was fine to walk further, dance, play volleyball and go bowling.

After my amputation I have had to change so many ways of doing things, including developing a new disability lens. Now I live with a scooter in my home and my car, in case we have to go somewhere that doesn’t have one. I have a shower chair and can no longer stand up to take a shower. I believe God must have known I would at some point need these things and blessed us with the house we have. My father-in-law built me a ramp so I can go in and out of my house. All of these things were supposed to be temporary, but they are now an everyday part of my life.

For the last four years, I could only go to stores that had their own electric scooters or didn’t require having to walk very far. These mainly consisted of big box stores and grocery stores, and only if there was one available. If there wasn’t one available I would have to leave, stand on my crutches, or just sit and wait until one was available. I love to go shopping, even if it’s just to look, so this has definitely made a difference in where I can go. It also explains why I can be in Target for hours at a time if there is a cart available.

Over the last four months I haven’t been able to walk on my own. This caused me to have to change my life even further — everything from going to work, pumping gas, picking up my kids from school and of course shopping. My disability lens also changed. I noticed one morning that our local Kwik Trip has a disability sign on their gas pumps along with their phone number. It took my pride a few tries, but I finally called the number and it was so amazing to have someone come out and pump my gas and even get a drink for me. It sounds like a small thing, but to not have to climb over the back seat, come out the back passenger side and then figure out how to get inside on crutches to carry a pop is a huge thing. It’s something most people take for granted. Then I started to look at other gas stations to see if they had something like it, and so far I haven’t found one.

I started thinking about how nice it would be to just have an app that would tell you where the most accessible places are, but at the time there really wasn’t much out there. [Editor’s note: Google now collects this data, and there are other apps as well.] I started doing my own research into how to get something like that going. I am a child therapist, though, not a computer or app programmer.

After praying about it and asking God how he wanted me to help, I was led down a different path. After several months I was able to finally leave my house and go to a store. I was so excited to be there, but I ended up getting frustrated because I couldn’t get around where I needed to go and felt embarrassed. One of the team leaders saw me and talked to me about how frustrating that must be. It was so nice to have someone who worked there just acknowledge that fact. She encouraged me to write a letter to their store and let them know the struggles I have when I go there.

Life got busy, so I never wrote the store. I did return though, about a month later. It was during the day so there weren’t very many people there. I was excited to be there and get to take my time and look around because I had no kids with me. I started out in the women’s section and within 20 minutes I had run into the racks in the store’s cart 25 times. It was slow enough that there were plenty of people to come and ask if I needed any help with anything. I could tell a few were some sort of managers of the store. I joked with them about how I had continued to run into things, so unless they could change their store they probably couldn’t help me.

I also told them about my experience at Kwik Trip and how amazing it felt to have a business make a change for a person like me living with a disability. I continued to joke that I had several suggestions for their store, but also informed them of how many people are unable to come to stores because of these barriers. One of the managers asked if he could follow me around the store the next time I came, and if I had any suggestions he would love to hear them.

This inspired me even more. I started doing more research and according to the U.S. Census Bureau there are 51 million Americans living with a disability as of 2010. That is nearly 1 in 5 people! I had a list going of things I thought would be helpful to have changed in businesses — but I am only one person. So I decided to find out from other people what they thought would be helpful. I posted a question to every Facebook group I am a part of with other people living with a disability, which was over 200,000 members. I asked, “What would make it easier to go inside a business for those living with, have a family member or working with a person living with a disability?”

The response was astounding. I heard from fellow amputees, people who live with or care for people who primarily use a wheelchair, people with chronic pain, people with low vision, people with service animals and people living with disabilities that are more difficult to see on the outside. Through the research I looked up and all of the responses I received I made a checklist for businesses of things that could be changed to make it possible to let all of their customers into their stores. I didn’t tell anyone what business wanted to meet with me because I didn’t want anyone’s answers to be biased.

A few weeks later I let the manager, Anthony, know I would be returning to the store to get a few things and he asked if he could follow me around. I came prepared with my checklist and all my research to let him know just how many people are living with a disability and how many people could potentially be living with a disability by the year 2030. He followed me around and saw all of the barriers I faced in the store that he never would have seen if he tried going through the store in the scooter. I also learned things about the store that I never knew were available. He also told me they were planning to do a remodel at their store and that it hopefully isn’t too late to try to get some of these changes into their plans. I left feeling so blessed to be given the opportunity to show him what it looks like to look at the same store through a different lens.

I took the notes and information I got, put together a cover letter and a checklist with all of the suggestions and emailed it to him. This experience was amazing because it brought me to other people living with disabilities, other people advocating for those living with disabilities and a business that is willing to look at their business through a different lens. This wasn’t just a small local business. This business was Target, in Janesville, Wisconsin. Now the checklist and suggestions are in their hands and I can’t wait to see what changes can be made. As if I needed one more reason to love Target!

About a week later I was tagged in a post on Facebook about a 12-year-old boy on “The Ellen Show” who is in the process of making an app called The Ability App. I love “The Ellen Show” already because of all the amazing things she and her staff do for others. I also love that a 12-year-old boy is developing this app, not because he has a disability, but because he saw a man in a wheelchair trying to get into a business and how difficult it was. The app is going to rate different businesses on accessibility so those of us living with a disability know whether or not we can come into their business. I was so excited that I sent him a message on Facebook to thank him and to share with him and his family the experience I just had and the checklist thousands of us had input into making.

This experience has also made me start reaching out to other disability advocates, so we can all team up and encourage businesses to step up and make changes so we can safely come inside. Obviously some changes require money, but some are small things that don’t cost a lot, if anything at all. Target was the first business willing to look through the lens. It has opened up the dialog with even small businesses I go to, like the dentist’s office and the chiropractor to show them how they could make changes to make their businesses safer and more accessible for everyone to come in. I can’t thank these businesses enough for this and I thank God for leading me down this path.

There are many scared Americans right now with all of the changes going on with the government and healthcare. My hope is that we can all team up to make changes together. I’ve been inspired spiritually through working with others, reading what others have written and watching what others have done. I hope that together we can inspire people to make changes so we can live in a world that gives us the ability to get around a little easier.

Let’s promote these businesses that are willing to make the changes to let all of their customers inside. Use the #WillYouLetUsIn hashtag to tell everyone about them!

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Thinkstock photo by Gyn9038.

Originally published: August 28, 2017
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