I remember a time when going to the doctor’s office was as simple as walking up to the office door and going inside. It was simple, a basic rote task that required basically no effort or planning. God, I miss those days. Over the years as my disability has progressed, going anywhere has complicated in immense ways, and it’s even worse now that I live in France.
I used to live in America, where things aren’t exactly perfect, but we had something that made disability easier to navigate. The ADA offers a sliver of dignity for disabled people, promising big accommodations in public spaces. And while it doesn’t often meet those promises, it is something. It helps and it protects. Here in France, there is similar policy. But it doesn’t cover much. People often rely on the excuse that the buildings are too old to make them accessible. They say that there’s no way to add ramps or lifts because of the architecture. What I hear in theses excuses? That people prioritize buildings over people. If the buildings are too old to be accessible, build a new building.
Let me briefly describe for you a trip to the doctor’s office, which is something that, as a disabled person, I really need to do often in order to sustain life. First, I need to make an appointment, which I have to do over the phone. I don’t speak enough French to do it on my own, and because of some hearing issues, I struggle with phone calls. But, thankfully I have a partner who is able to call and make the appointment for me. Back home, I would be able to do this online, or with an app, or even with email. Some offices are catching on to this here, but they are very few and far between.
Next, to get to the office, I need to travel to the next town, up the mountain quite a ways. If I wanted to get there by myself, I would need to take the train. However, the train station near my home only has stairs up to the platform.
Ah, my nemesis -- stairs. Almost every building has a step up to get inside. Ramps are rare, or if they exist, are too steep to try to handle on my own. Stairs are everywhere though. In every building, on every street corner. Whole immense staircases to tiny steps that prevent me and my wheels from getting through. And you never know where they will show up. The doctor’s office? The shop? The restaurant my friends picked? The hotel? The OFII office? The prefecture? Look around and count all the steps you see on the street the next time you are out and notice every single building that I am not able to get into.
But anyway, I can’t take the train. I could take a chance on buses, but then I have to hope that the bus is equipped and that I can rely on the driver to help me, because I cannot traverse the ramp by myself. So, that’s just another thing I can’t do, and by now it’s already evident that I can’t do this independently. So, my partner has to take me. Which means he has to disassemble my wheelchair in order to fit in our small car, and reassemble it there, but first, we have to find parking.
Parking is a problem everywhere. But we live in a tourist destination, and my doctor’s office is right across from one of the major lifts up the mountain. So, it’s extremely crowded over there. And thankfully they did add a few handicapped parking spots around the area. But people are people, and they block the spots, and sometimes people without disability parking permits will take the spaces, which is beyond frustrating. Worse though, even if you find a parking space, most of them do not have the space needed to comfortably reassemble the chair, or transfer to the chair. But we manage, and I get in the chair and now we have to deal with the next ever present evil in this world: terrain.
As a wheelchair user, paved areas are a godsend. I’ve tried to get around places that have no paved surfaces, and it is not a good time. But even the paved areas here are just a terrifying minefield of terror. There’s so many cracks and uneven dips and valleys. Lots of the surfaces have sunk or lifted so that the ramp up the lip of a sidewalk is now just as difficult to roll over as the lip itself. This is actually why one of my wheels cracked, and my chair is now broken. Thankfully, my wheelchair shop had a loaner wheel, or I would be pretty much immobile. They recently repaved the roads near my house, but the sidewalks? They are the same death traps they have always been, with cracks that feel like these deep black holes of craters that will possibly end me.
My partner does most of the work here again, helping me avoid as many of these traps as possible. And then we get to the door. Doors take work and coordination that would be a simple press of a button in most places in America. I don’t understand why France has never heard of motorized door openers, but I have never seen one here. My partner has to pull open the door and balance it on his leg while helping me to push through just enough so that my body prevents the door from closing. Then he can get behind me and help push me the rest of the way in. We have another trick where I pull the door open as he pulls my chair back then I push it as far open as it goes, let go with a little push, and we try to pass through before the door can swing shut. It’s exhausting and sometimes painful and again, risks damage to my chair. I’ve rolled away with bruises and scratches just because a heavy door closed too quickly.
We get inside, hopefully without sustaining damage or injury. And we can only roll a few more meters until we are met again with them. My nemesis has returned to haunt us. There are stairs up to the doctor’s office. Is there a lift? Not always. And even if you can find an elevator, they are often too small for a wheelchair to fit. I have been to offices where after everything we did to get inside the building, we end up not being able to get to the office because there is no way to get a wheelchair there. In one place, since I’m not paralyzed, we leave my chair at the bottom at a small set of steps, and my husband helps to pull me up them and basically carries me on his back to the waiting room. I injured my back recently from falling, and I can’t see the doctor about it because I know I can’t get into the office.
And all of this is just what it takes to get us through the door. To have a place to exist in that space. I remember a time when it was easy. I remember when I could just walk inside. The stairs and bumpy terrain were no more an obstacle than a stiff breeze on a cloudy day. It felt like a drizzle of rain, but now it’s a monsoon, and sometimes I feel like I’m drowning in it all.