I just listened to the newest episode of This American Life. This week’s theme was crybabies and, among other interesting and somewhat irritating (because crybabies are irritating) stories, there was a piece about disabled people in California suing businesses that did not comply with current accessibility codes. Under the Americans with Disability Act, people can claim up to $4,000 per violation. There are now some people who make a living going from business to business suing against infractions. Ira Glass calls this phenomenon a sort of “cry baby cottage industry.”
You can listen to the story below. It starts around minute 34.
The story has all sorts of interesting social implications, one being that California has some of the best access for people with disabilities in the country, another that business (like hotels) are starting to deny service to disabled people or are treating them with suspicion due to worry over being sued. But, while you could argue about the benefits vs. the costs in the story, or bring up the downside of an arguably over litigious society, or the benefits to having a system that monetarily holds people and business responsible for their actions, for me, the thing this story brought up was the difference between the U.S. and Quito when it come to accessibility.
In a city were pedestrians not only don’t have the right-of-way but seem to be hunted for sport, Quito is not a place you would expect to have much in the way of accessibility for people with disabilities. With sidewalks that crumble into large holes, sharp curbs that drop off into puddles the size of small ponds, and construction sites that are never marked (my boss was walking one day and came centimeters away from being hit in the face with a welding torch), this city it is not the most wheelchair friendly place I have ever lived.
In the four months I have been here, I have seen exactly two wheelchairs. The first was used by a man wheeling down the middle of a busy street I have to cross on a daily basis and, on a daily basis, fear for my life while doing it. The second was used by a woman who is part of a big family that lives in the park across the street from my house.
For the first man, I would hold no hope that he survived his journey except that he appeared to be exceptionally savvy and, if you’ve lived in Quito in a wheelchair for any period of time you can probably handle a few speeding cars. I can only guess that he was using the street because the sidewalks were in such poor shape that his wheels would not navigate them or that he could not get up on the sidewalk in the first place.
The second woman, I’ve witnessed outside my window taking the family’s small children in her lap and wheeling them around in circles. I sometime catch myself looking down at this group of people who always gather in the same spot under a street lamp—the woman in a wheelchair either playing with the three tiny children or selling cigarettes and gum to passersby, the men helping to direct cars into parking places and then asking for money from the drivers in exchange for protection against thievery. I realize that I am not thinking about how, in the U.S., you would never see a toddler crawling around on the curb or a baby put down for a nap on the pavement—and then suddenly I am thinking that, but with an emotional detachment I do not expect, or like.
I don’t know how the woman in the wheelchair feels about the access in Quito. I don’t know how she feels about her entire family sleeping under the awning of the print shop next door, nor do I know how she feels about me looking down at her from my apartment window almost every night.
More common than people in wheelchairs, are people who should have wheelchairs but don’t. Every day, on my walk home from work, I pass by a man with no legs. He is in the same spot when I pass by around 6:30 each evening. He begs for change. When I first saw him I wondered how he got there. Unable to walk, I imagined that someone he knew dropped him off in a car each day and picked him up each night. Then, one day I saw him on the same street but much further down, begging for change. Since then, I have seen him many times going from his spot in front of the pharmacy to his spot five blocks down. I’ve watched him cross the busy street I usually run across in order to avoid getting hit by cars turning left. Using his arms like crutches, he swings himself down the street.
A friend once told me that he saw two tourists walking down the street. They stopped when they approached him. One by one they took pictures of themselves standing next to him.
I have never given this man money—not once in the dozens of times I have passed by him and he has looked up at me with an outstretched hand. I’m not sure why I haven’t just given him ten or twenty cents, or what it is that compels me to keep moving on without a second thought as to what it might be like to be someone else.
After listening to the This American Life story, I find myself being thankful that, in the U.S., people who cannot walk can own wheelchairs and drive cars and use public restrooms. I wish we didn’t have to be reminded (and in some cases threatened with legal action) to take care of each other—but we do. And, while litigation might not be the best solution, at least it’s something.