Michelle Lewis

As Interviewed by Adeline L., March 20, 2017

Michelle Lewis: In Her Own Words

So there are certain laws for buildings regarding wheelchair and disabled accessibility. Do you ever run into problems with this?

Yes. Lots of parking lots are at an incline and that's harder to deal with. There are older buildings here in [Austin] that I've run into where there might be a ramp into the building, but the ramp is so steep that it's hard -- if not impossible -- for me to push myself up.

One of the biggest problems as far as infrastructure goes is that I'll go and I'll pull into a handicapped parking spot. The parking spot itself will be level, but there is an incline where the degree is probably more than a 45 degree angle, I would say. The parking space is just barely bigger than a car. If I'm on my crutches it's hard getting in and out because once I open my door and step out, all of a sudden there's a slant. Then when I walk around to get my wheelchair out of my car that parking space is raised up maybe six or eight inches above the rest of the parking lot. I can't lift my wheelchair because it puts the back end of my van above my waist. I can't lift my wheelchair that high. Whoever came up with this idea was not disabled.

I guess there's a law that says that the actual parking space has to be one level, so what that law has done is forced property or business owners to retrofit their parking lots. In order to make that one space level, they raise it up and just make that spot level [instead of] the rest of the parking lot. When I see spaces I try to really pay attention. If I see it, I can't park in those handicapped spaces so I park in a regular spot which has its own problems because there may not be enough room for me to wheel around the side. That's probably the biggest issue.

So I see you have some problems with getting in and out of buildings and vehicles. But let's say once you get inside a restaurant or maybe you need to use the restroom the restroom. How often do you encounter problems with that?

Pretty often. Again, I don't know what the law says, but there should be a certain amount of room between tables at a restaurant. There's almost never enough room for me to wheel between people because there might be so much room between the tables, but once you put a person in a chair sitting at that table... And then when it comes to restrooms, everyone knows there's supposed to be a handicapped stall in every restaurant. Well, the door, for instance, to the stall needs to open outward -- not inward -- because if it opens in[wards] you can't close it. And that's just often not the case. I remember going to an Outback Steakhouse and trying to go to the restroom and literally every person with their back to the aisle had to either get up or scoot their chair in very far in order for me to fit down the aisle to get to the bathroom. And then once I was in the bathroom, there was a very large metal trash can in the handicapped stall so my wheelchair wouldn't fit into the stall with that trash can in there. Luckily a friend was with me and was able to pull the trash can out for me so that I could fit in the stall and shut the door.

Did you have any problems like that in school?

Yeah, off and on. I did run into a problems in middle school, especially. It was shortly after they discovered the scoliosis and I wore a back brace and I was walking with a walker. When I first started school, they put me in PE, [and] well I couldn't I couldn't do PE, you know? And my mom had already talked to the administration, to the principal and everyone to try to make accommodation for me, but for the first few weeks of school I was actually in a PE class and they said "Well you can just sit out during PE." But I was coming home from school every day just exhausted. My legs and my ankles and my feet were very swollen, and my mom was very worried and couldn't figure out what was going on. Finally she asked me about PE and what was I doing.

I said, "Well, during PE, I just stand there." And she said, "What do you mean you just stand there?" I said, "well I told the coach, 'Hey I'm not supposed to do PE.'" And they said "okay, well just sit down" and I said "well I can't sit on the ground" because I couldn't get back up easily with my back brace and weakness my legs and so on. And I said "I need a chair." And they [the PE teacher] were sitting in a chair and they said, "well there's only one chair and I'm in it. So you can either sit on the ground and your friends can get you back up or you can just stand on the side." So I was just standing on the side because I was too embarrassed to get on the ground and have my friends try to haul me back up. And of course, when my mom heard about that she was livid and got the situation taking care of.

In seventh grade my junior high was two stories. My mom went ahead of time to the school and made arrangements -- thought she had -- and said, "Hey, everything, all her classes, need to be on the first floor okay? None of them on the second floor." So we get to school the first day and all of my classes are on the second floor.

I was in the gifted and talented program and the [principal] said “well, we'll just put her in other classes” and my mom said "no you won't. She's going to stay in these GT classes that she's supposed to be in." And he [the principal] said "but it's the first day of school and all these teachers are on the second floor and she said, "Well, have them pack up their stuff and switch them to the first floor. That's your fault. That's your problem. It's not hers or mine. You knew prior to her coming she was going to be here." (And I was in a wheelchair at that time). And so he said "well, we could just have some of the students carry her up and down [the stairs]." Students. Carry me, in my wheelchair, up and down the stairs, which is just so obviously ridiculous that it's be hard to believe that that person was the principal of the school. But anyway that didn't happen. The teachers that were on the second floor had to move down the first floor. But it wasn't without my mom just going after the principal and the assist[ant principal]-- just everyone. She was notorious to say the least. But I'm so glad that she was.

Were you teased?

I don't really remember being teased. The issues and the problems that people with disabilities really run into is more of... almost like an obliviousness. It's like the average able-bodied person who can walk and talk and use their hands and legs and feet and arms are just unaware of how hard life can be for someone with a disability. They're aware of the challenges that we face day to day. And now, because of the various military operations we have going on, you know, there's more and more vets who are disabled and so there's a little bit more awareness, but I get frustrated sometimes because I feel like people who are in other minority groups that are small minorities on the fringes, not talking about racial things.

For instance the transgender bathroom issue has been constantly in the news and talked about and the bathroom bill and all that Title 9 or whatever. And I think yes those people -- that's their issue and it needs to be dealt with one way or another and handled one way or another. But there are so many more people who have physical disabilities. So many. Millions of Americans who do. And we run into things all the time -- doors that are too heavy to open and close, and I know that there are laws that govern that. Just things like that we run into things all the time.

And I think that these issues are every bit as important as whether or not there is a bathroom to accommodate a student who has gender identity issues. I think that the American With Disabilities Act covers a lot of things, but if there are people with disabilities that are on these committees or whatever whoever makes the laws and makes the adjustments. There need to be people with actual -- people in wheelchairs -- who are making those decisions because otherwise they just have no idea what needs to be done and what doesn't.

So anyway, that's my story.