My (half) Day in a Chair

Yesterday I participated in the “Day in a Chair” event in Balboa Park, a program coordinated by the Balboa Park Learning Institute in partnership with HeadNorth. I spent the morning of my day in a wheelchair going about my routine in the workplace. It was an eye-opening experience that taught me a lot about accessibility at MOPA.

I started my day at the San Diego Museum of Man where we met the staff and mentors from HeadNorth, a local non-profit that does advocacy about spinal cord injuries. We learned more about the common causes of spinal cord injuries, and two survivors shared their stories of day-to-day life in a wheelchair. They gave us some tips and advice before they set us out in our own chairs.

My first challenge was getting from the Museum of Man back to MOPA. I walk that route every week, but the slight incline back to the east end of the Prado made it a long trip while traveling in the chair. What would have taken a few minutes walking became a 30 minute workout as I pushed myself up that hill. When I reached the building I got stuck in the slight gutter at the edge of the Prado walkway. This small feature of the landscape that I step across every day was suddenly a blockade to me getting to my office. After a few minutes of struggle I found a way across without falling over. It was only 10:00AM and I was exhausted.

I work in the administrative offices on the upper level of the building. There is only one elevator, and it is located on the History Center side of the building. I realized as I took the elevator up that if I needed to go downstairs later in the day that my trip would take two or three times longer than usual. I had already decided to go about my daily activities, but would now have to change my plans for the day to accommodate the time it took to travel between these spaces.

I finally arrived at my office and was beset by seemingly small obstacles. My doorstop could not be reached without almost falling out of the chair. The gap between my desk and the wall was just barely wide enough for the chair to fit through. My computer keyboard was too low and made it difficult to type. I responded to a few emails then realized I needed to go downstairs to meet with some staff. I went back across the building, rode back down to the lower level, and went back across the building to MOPA’s front entrance. I picked up a cup of coffee on the way. Do you ever wonder where someone in a chair puts their coffee? They put it between their legs and hope it doesn’t spill.

After all of these challenges, these small details I usually ignore that now slowed down every moment of my day, I was not looking forward to traveling through the lower leve of MOPA. However, I was pleasantly surprised at my experience. We recently installed automatic doors that open at the press of a button so getting through the enormous glass doors was simple. Once in the atrium it was easy to get around. I never took so much happiness in having space to move around without bumping in to something. I went into the galleries, and found them easy to navigate. Having spent the first couple of hours of my day pushing around it was nice to sit and look at the exhibitions from a different perspective. The galleries were quiet and calm, and I cannot think of a time I enjoyed them more. The art was all at a level that I could view comfortably, and anything that needed to be touched was not a challenge.

We were only given half of the day in the chair and I honestly do not think I would have made it for a full day. After those few hours in the chair I felt that I was going away with a different perspective on where I work. I hope to see “Day in a Chair” become a yearly event in Balboa Park so that all of us have a chance with this experience. Please visit HeadNorth’s website for more information about their programs and “Day in a Chair”.