Making the World Accessible… One Voice at a Time

I love it when I have guest writers come forward to write for Hearing Elmo. There are so many different types of disabilities, chronic illnesses, and debilitating health issues. Reading different perspectives and other individual’s stories is important. This week Hearing Elmo welcomes guest writer Kacey A., who lives in South Carolina with her husband.

Because I am such a fun and loving wife my husband recently invited to join him as he completed an assignment for his Master’s program. Secretly, I think his intent was to get me to the department store so he could beg me to buy him something!  His assignment was to visit a local establishment and evaluate it for handicap accessibility.  He probably wishes he would’ve left me at home.  Not only because I didn’t buy him a thing, but because he forgot how much of an “out of the box” thinker I am.   I had him taking more notes than he takes IN his Master’s class!

The establishment we chose was the local Belk department store. It is the only department store we have here in town, so it keeps a steady stream of business.  According to some statistics I found, a staggering 24.5% of our county is listed as having a disability.  So, I think it is pretty important for our businesses to be accessible to all of those who have disabilities.

But what does accessible mean?  When people think of “handicap accessibility“, they usually think of people in a wheelchair.  But what about those people who have a disability but don’t need a wheelchair?  Some disabilities require a cane, a walker, an assistance dog, or a simple chair/bench to sit down and rest for a bit.

The first thing I noticed during this visit WAS wheelchair related.  There were quite a few handicapped parking spots up close to the door, which was good.  BUT…because I’ve had some experience with loading and unloading wheelchairs, I also noticed that the parking spaces were the normal size with no little yellow striped zone to allow extra space to unload a wheelchair.  So, if you parked with a side-loading van lift, you’d either dump the wheelchair into the row of bushes or into a car.  Hmm, not very practical.

The next thing we noticed was the little sidewalk entry for wheelchairs/walkers/strollers/carts. It was made of bricks that looked like Legos, with all those little bumps on top!  It’s not easy to push a loaded wheelchair, stroller or a cart, let alone push it up an incline made of bumpy bricks.   I imagine it would be the same story for someone using a cane or walker.  Those bumps would just get in the way and may cause more injury. I’m not sure what these people were thinking when they put in bumpy bricks but I was feeling a little pessimistic already.

But then things started getting better.  The entry way was a double automatic door, which got a “double” a thumbs up because it actually gives a person some space to get in and out!  In between the two entrance doors, we spotted a courtesy wheelchair, which was another thumbs up for me.  There are people I know who don’t need wheelchairs on an everyday basis, so they don’t own one, but when they get out and about, they find they need one.  So a courtesy wheelchair is always a great thing to have available.

Feeling adventurous, we grabbed the wheelchair and my husband (who is also a  football coach) pushed me through the aisles as if I was the football he was rushing into the end zone before someone could tackle him.  I held my breath, shut my eyes and prayed quietly to keep from screaming, but when we stopped and I opened them, I realized that we made it clear across the store!  To my surprise, the wheelchair actually fit down just about every aisle. There was one aisle that had a ladder in it, but it was easy to maneuver around to the other side of the ladder.  Once I caught my breath, I started feeling a little more optimistic. We returned the wheelchair and headed towards the bathrooms….. where things got rough again.

Bathrooms are always difficult to “pass with flying colors” in my book.  For starters, the signs usually only have braille on them about half of the time.  I guess those with sight impairments don’t have to use the bathroom. Of course, I can see rather well and sometimes I have trouble figuring out if I should go in the door labeled “Blokes” or the door labeled “Sheila” at Outback. Sigh.

Anyway, moving on.  Then the door itself is usually an issue too.  Very rarely do you see a bathroom door that has a automatic “door open” button.  I grumbled to my husband about how this should be mandatory at all facilities in order to be accessible for those with walkers, strollers and wheelchairs. He looked confused.  So I had to demonstrate with my “air walker” what I really meant.  It is NOT easy to push a (sometimes heavy) door, maneuver a device AND keep your balance without bumping into someone who is coming out the door.   My heart is happy when I see facilities that just eliminate the door all together and have a small “maze of walls” that leads to the restrooms.

So let’s say you manage to get in the door, or get lucky to find a place that doesn’t have a door.  Well, you are usually “home free” then because most places have the handicap accessible bathroom stall.  However, most people never even notice that most places are missing a lowered sink.  This isn’t just an issue for those in wheelchairs.  Some of those sinks are REALLY high for children to get to to wash their hands too.  Then you have the mom who stands and lifts each of her seven kids up to the sink to wash their hands.  Or she just breaks out the hand sanitizer on the way out the door.

Sigh.  Speaking of mom’s.  You know how most restrooms have a baby changing area?  Yeah, those are great, except for this one.  It was RIGHT in the way of the door.  So when it was down, no one could go through or come out.  Not very convenient.  But my other issue with these is that they have a weight limit.  What happens when you have a large child, or even an adult who needs to be changed?  I have seen ONE place that had a “Changing Counter” to allow for that.

Okay, I think you get the picture of why bathrooms never really get a thumbs up from me!  We finished up and my husband was getting anxious to leave, but I wasn’t done.

As we walked through the store, I noticed that besides the shoe department, there wasn’t a single place to sit down for those who may just need to rest.   Not even at the fitting rooms!  Chairs are such an easy and relatively cheap fix.  Considering the number of  people these days with fibromyalgia or arthritis that  need that short break so they can continue to enjoy their day without regretting it later, you’d think that even a small department store in a small  town would have some chairs!

And finally, what may be the most important aspect of being “accessible” — the employees.  Some facilities may not have everything someone needs, but friendly and helpful employees go a long way.  They may be able to find a chair for someone to sit down in.  Or they simply smile and repeat themselves to those who are hard of hearing.  They can move things around for those in a wheelchair or a walker.  They can lend a hand in opening that heavy bathroom door.  They smile as a person and their assistance dog walks by rather than scoffing and yelling about a dog being in the store. Friendly employees really go a long way.

People who don’t have disabilities don’t think of accessibility issues until the issue is staring them in the face.  How do we train employees to be understanding in a world that wants to criticize and condemn? How do we educate people in a world that would rather be ignorant because it is “easier”?

A disabled person’s limitations and accessibility issues usually go unnoticed because the person in the situation doesn’t have the energy or the confidence to ask (or demand) that organizations do something to help them have easier access.    How many people do you know who would rather just stay home than worry about making a scene somewhere?  I know far too many.  How do we build confidence in those around us who have disabilities to fight for their rights?

More importantly, how do we get businesses to think about these things before the “fight”? Organizations usually do only what the ADA requires and don’t think anything else of it.  While I think the  establishment we visited did well compared to some other establishments in town, there is still room for improvement EVERYWHERE.  But how do we push for that improvement in a day when so many organizations are looking for ways to cut costs instead of increase them?

The only answer I can come up with is this —  Stand up for yourself and those around you who are disabled. If you are blessed to be without a physical impairment, start thinking about those who you know who do have impairments while you are out and about.  Would they be welcomed into the store with their assistance dog?  Would they be able to easily maneuver around the facility?  Would they be greeted by friendly employees and treated with respect?  If the answer is no, then speak up.  Let someone know.  There is no need to make a scene, but simply let our voice be heard…. one voice at a time.

By the way, my husband got a 100% on his paper that week.  So maybe he didn’t regret taking me after all!

Kacey A.

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Not-So-Fun Life Lessons on Vacation

A little morphine will put a smile on the face of most anyone!

Kyersten is a frequent guest writer at Hearing Elmo. She is a KODA and has participated in HLAA, Walk4Hearing, and Fidos For Freedom activities most of her life. She is a junior in college and is majoring in Psychology.

Okay, I’m really, really stubborn

Being someone who hates doctors and hospitals, I pretended nothing was wrong for almost a week. After all, if you pretend it isn’t there, it doesn’t exist right? Besides, you’re not supposed to get sick on vacation, that’s no fun.

But pretty soon I knew that I had, I decided, the stomach flu. So I went to the urgent care in my grandparent’s town. Or rather, one of them, because being a city of retired folk, they have about a million urgent cares.

After running a urine test and blood test (blech), the doctor discovered my white blood cell count was dangerously high. SOME stomach flu. They decided to give me an IV. Or, at least they suggested it…at first.

“No thanks, I don’t want an IV,” I smiled.

“Well, we need to give these medications, and it’s best through the IV,” explained a nurse.

“No, I’ll just take a pill,” I replied, smiling but firm.

“No, we’re going to have to put an IV in there,” said the nurse, smiling but firm.

“No I really don’t want it, just give me some pills, I’ll go pick them up at the pharmacy,” I said, slightly more desperate. The nurse pursed his lips. He was cute and a fireman…but married with twins, so a total loss there. He was just the enemy who wanted to stick the needle in me.

“Okay, well, you have to go get my grandma first. NOW.” I said. (All of my 20-year-old independence was out the window when it came to a needle!) I needed grandma, and I needed her NOW.

Thankfully my practical grandma calmed me somewhat and they were able to give me an IV, into which they slid medications and fluids into my body. Ooooo morphine. The world looked more amusing and less painful. But the morphine didn’t keep me from panicking somewhat when they decided to send me for a CT scan at a local imaging place. SOME stomach flu this was!

Deciding that perhaps I was wrong about the whole stomach flu thing…

After drinking 2 large bottles of nasty poisoned Gatorade (they claimed it was because of the dye mixed into the Gatorade), I was led to a back room.

The technician looked about my age. I was slightly suspicious how much experience he had. He led me to a room to change into some unflattering and itchy clothing. After waiting for a bit, I was led to the Machine.

“Now, this machine is going to take pictures of your insides,” he explained. I wondered how old he thought I was….I was getting a lot of “you look 16” comments recently.

“Oooh, can I put them on Facebook?” I asked, trying to lighten the mood.

“I supposed you can request a CD of the electronic versions of the pictures,” he replied seriously. Okay-y-y. (No sense of humor!)

The CT scan was boring and the technician bossy.

“Breathe in…hold your breath. Breathe out. Breathe in. Hold your breath. Breathe out”. Over…and over….and over….and over. I wondered if this really was taking pictures of my insides or was trying to calm me down from the harrowing IV experience (which, if I may say, was still in my arm. I was pretending it wasn’t there though).

I was sent to the waiting room. They called the fireman nurse and doctor. Pretty soon they called me up front. The fireman nurse was on the phone.

“You’re going to have to go to the hospital immediately. I was able to get a bed for you,” he said. He explained the process of getting there.

I nodded obediently as if he could see me, my rebellion rather withered. I assumed at this point it probably wasn’t stomach flu.

“Okay, I’m going to go get some stuff first,” I said politely.

“No…you need to go NOW,” Well okay then.

Well, this is all very…new…and…well, uncomfortable

So I went. I called my parents, who I had been keeping updated. I texted my brother to tell him I loved him. And I mentally prepared myself for surgery.

And then I waited.

And waited.

And waited.

They decided they needed to do more tests.

The first test they decided to do they quickly concluded they could not do because I am a virgin. They were very peeved. I almost apologized even.

“I’m really sorry I’m not like so many other young people nowadays and haven’t lost my virginity several times over by now!” On second thought, no, I was proud of the fact I was a virgin.

So instead they did an ultrasound. Wait just a minute, didn’t they just establish I was a virgin? So why exactly are they doing an ultrasound? But no, there are apparently other reasons to do an ultrasound. Grandma was completely fascinated. I was just uncomfortable.

Late that night Mom and Chloe arrived, both were tired but very happy to see me. My grandparents went home and I was knocked out by some sleep medication while Mom kept watch by my bedside in the hospital.

I was comforted by her presence and she said I kept reaching out towards her in the night, to reassure myself she was there. You’ll always need your mom.

Tests, tests, and more tests…and I never even got a grade

Kyersten needed a "Chloe hug" once the morphine kicked in...

The next day was filled with more tests, including an MRI. The MRI was probably the highlight of my hospital stay… if there could be a highlight. The MRI technician looked like a mad scientist and he was absolutely hilarious. The MRI itself was kind of cozy, and he actually had to wake me up once. I felt rested after the scans.

After all the tests, including so many blood tests that I lost count, it was time for them to consider what to do, because they were really not sure what was wrong with me. They did another blood test to once again confirm that I wasn’t pregnant (as though the two ultrasounds, the urine test, the blood tests, and oh yeah…the fact I am a VIRGIN, wasn’t enough to confirm!)

Wednesday was the day. I wasn’t scared of the surgery, I was in too much agonizing pain to care. I had never before felt such pain and I hope I never do again. A terrible migraine hit me on top of my stomach pains. Then, my IV decided to try to burst my veins; thankfully, the skilled nurses got it out in time. Unfortunately they had trouble finding a new vein and dug around in my left hand for awhile before moving to my right arm.

A story of being in a whole buncha pain…oh and experiencing being “high”

That time was the worst part of the hospital stay, all I could do was lie on the bed and sob, feeling like a complete baby and wanting so so so badly to be home. My amazing Grandma and Mom were there, answering tears in their eyes. At one point Mom left to talk to a nurse and my Grandma prayed for me…which I needed to hear because all I could pray was “please God please please, please God”.

The nurse, in desperation, gave me a new medication which made me very….well….high.

“I think my words are messed up,” I gasped. I stumbled, shaking as if I was having a seizure to the bathroom and back to the bed.

“I can’t talk, my words are gone,” I moaned in confusion. Mom and Grandma were whispering, used to trying to keep quiet because of the migraine.

“Please don’t whisper….your lips smack together more,” I complained. My poor long-suffering family!

They finally wheeled me down to be prepped for surgery and I did feel a bit nervous. The pain, however,  was over-riding everything else again. The weird pain medicine had worn off. A nurse’s humming drove me insane, as did the loud talking of the nurses around. I really wanted to be in a quiet hole somewhere. Mom asked the nurses to quiet down (bless her wonderful, protective heart), and most of them did, except the loud humming one.

She gave me papers to sign. I apologized for my clumsiness, saying I was not left-handed (the IV and various wires were on my right arm). She snapped at me to use the other arm then. I meekly admitted I needed to use the bathroom.

She ripped the different cords off me (I had spent some moments trying to see if I could change my heart rate, before the headache returned…it was fun!) and took me to the bathroom, hooking my IV on the door, and leaving me. I was terrified someone would open the door and pull the IV out, so I hurried. Barely able to even lower myself to toilet by myself, I half-crawled to the door and yelled for help. I was definitely learning humility! Another, kinder, nurse came and helped me.

Going under the knife…and having little cameras looking inside my body….weird

Then it was a blur, I was wheeled to the room, and after prepping me a little more, I waited for the countdown.

And woke up in recovery.

“I have to pee,” I cried. I was assured I didn’t need to. I sat there whimpering for a few minutes about not being able to see (my eyesight was blurry) before I gained control of myself and calmed down. I felt kind of silly when I realized how much I had been crying. Now I was just confused. I squinted around me. I had no idea what happened in the surgery. The hospital doctor came by and seemed truly pleased to see me. He explained that my appendix had ruptured, they removed it, and cleaned up the infection. Ewwww. Eventually I was wheeled up to my room, I was happy to see my nurses and family, in a very drugged-out foggy way.

The time where I felt like Frankenstein

After another couple of days of recovery, which all seemed like a blur, a surgeon came in to look at my wounds. I watched them uncovered the bandages.

“Oh it looks so good!” he said. I almost screamed…or passed out, I was still deciding which to do before he left. Nine terrible looking staples were stuck in my stomach. I decided I was having a nightmare.

“What is that?”, I whimpered. My mom comforted me and explained the fact I had staples, not stitches. I felt absolutely horrified. I decided to pretend they weren’t there. (I was getting good at denial. It can be psychologically healthy sometimes).

The drug-induced blurred ending of the story…they put me on a lot of medications

The next few days consisted of different milestones. Leaving the hospital… sleeping a lot at my grandparent’s home… going to the airport… setting off the metal detector with my staples… flying home… being pushed through the airport by a speed demon wheelchair “pusher”… and finally arriving home alive. (All of course in a drug-induced stupor).

What I Learned…oh the joy of life lessons

Yes, it wasn’t the best vacation but my pain and suffering eventually stopped. There was a fix. It eventually slowed and I became stronger and felt better each day. In spite of the trauma of events, it was just a “blip” in my life.

I was forced to think about my friends and family who do NOT have a “fix” for their physical problems. I thought of how the doctors at first were skeptical that something was terribly wrong. During the exploratory surgery, I finally had proof something was wrong. (Even though my appendix wasn’t where it was suppose to be… I knew I was special).

I have friends with Lyme disease who do not have “proof” of their illness and are treated with skepticism. I can now understand … in a small way… what they go through and not having a doctor listen to you. It made me appreciate those emotional trials they go through in addition to their physical ones.

I thought about my friends and family with disabilities and illnesses that have no cure. At the times I was tempted to feel sorry for myself (and yeah! I may have given in and had a pity party or two), I thought of the fact that there was a light at the end of the tunnel for ME. It made me appreciate the bravery of those who live each day with no “light at the end of the tunnel”. They still live life to the fullest. I know they have times of weakness and maybe a pity party or two. But they live each day with the strength and bravery that I can never imagine having myself. Pain and helplessness (doing simple tasks like using the restroom), makes common life tasks more challenging. I never fully appreciated what those with chronic illness and disabilities go through each and every day. It helped me go through my small trial of physical pain and helplessness…I thought of these people and felt motivated to keep at it, to be strong. I am awed by their strength. From this experience… I now have new heroes. Those who overcome physical challenges every day.

Kyersten Diane Portis

20-year-old Guest Writer to Hearing Elmo

© 2010 Personal Hearing Loss Journal


A Common Dust Speck

To others it was just a common dust speck. To Horton, it housed an entire world in need of assistance, with hundreds of lives at stake on the brink of being (gulp) boiled. “Common” is subjective, for what is commonplace and boring to one individual may be exactly opposite to another.

Losing to Learn to Appreciate

Having an acquired disability like hearing loss and a balance disorder often teaches me to be appreciative of things I once took for granted. Activated merely eight days before, what blended into the background as a normal, ordinary, and mediocre sound to my husband, was the astonishing, spine-tingling gurgle of sound to me! It took me 15 minutes to finally pinpoint the sound of the electric coffee-maker in his office.

“How could you not hear THAT! What a wonderful sound! It is so distracting! It fills the entire room!” I exclaimed.

“Honey, it is such a commonplace sound it doesn’t even register for me!” he replied.

I was stumped! This gurgle-burp, sigh of steam… commonplace? Doesn’t register? No way!

Subtle cues

If you’ve never had any experience with a hearing assistance/balance assist dog, there are cues that are subtle… even invisible to someone other than their partner. My husband is constantly amazed that I am able to scoot the cart out of the way of a “mother of two in a hurry” at a store when I only have one cochlear implant. Finding the direction of sound is quite a challenge. However, Terry isn’t watching what I’m paying attention to while we shop. If Chloe turns her head and pricks her ears up, I automatically look in the direction her nose is pointing. To me this subtle cue shouts, “Well! Would you look at THAT, Denise!”

When air pressure and bad weather create a vestibular nightmare for me, it is the subtle cues that Chloe and I communicate most effectively. On a “normal day”, I’ll drop something and can slowly bend to retrieve the object. However, on a “bad day”, I only need to look at the object I dropped and intercept Chloe’s gaze… for she has most certainly already noticed the dropped item too. Sometimes I only smile and she cheerfully retrieves the object! Other times I may point and ask her to specifically fetch something. (You don’t ALWAYS want your dog to retrieve dropped items. For example, my husband Terry dropped a large candle from the top of the closet this weekend. I did not want Chloe to retrieve any of the glass scattered over the carpet and had to “shoo” her away!)

Chloe may go through a day and only alert me to the kitchen timer a couple of times, my cell phone, and retrieve my garden gloves from the yard. Those tasks may seem very ordinary and commonplace. Yet without those alerts, my tea kettle would have boiled empty and the chicken defrosting in the microwave may have sat in there all day! I would have missed the call from my husband reminding me that he was working late. I would have had to retrieve those garden gloves myself in the middle of a yard with nothing nearby with which to pull myself back up! So common and subtle cues are subjective. They may be very important alerts that enable me to live more independently.

Just Help

I know people who do things to help others who are never noticed. They don’t want the attention. It can be something as simple as paying a military person’s meal for them when you see them in a restaurant.

Perhaps you help a mother get her stroller up on the curb, or take a shopping cart to the “cart corral” for a customer in a hurry.

Don’t ever underestimate any help you are prompted to give. We are called to serve… to make a difference. Even people with disabilities can help others. I know someone who is blind and deaf who emails “10 Blessings” a day to various people. As I’m the occasional recipient, I can tell you those blessings come on days I need them most.

You don’t have to have money to help. Most acts of service are free.

You don’t have to have a lot of time to help. Most opportunities take seconds.

Don’t ever look at a day as a “common” one. If you really set out to do so, you can make a difference in someone’s life.

If you listen really carefully, you may even hear…

“We are here, we are Here, we are HERE”

Denise Portis

© 2010 Personal Hearing Loss Journal