PERSPECTIVE ON DISABLED RIGHTS : Five-Inch Mountain in the Capitol : Even in the seat of state government, a guy in a wheelchair can’t find a properly equipped bathroom.
My intention was to observe a Sacramento protest demonstration by my fellow disabled people against the recent Deukmejian budget proposal. I had driven all night from Los Angeles to keep the heat from further disabling me and my aging van. I found a blue-curb spot outside the Capitol, dropped the wheelchair lift and headed for some breakfast in the cafeteria in the cellar.
Officer Israel of the State Police confided to me in the rotunda that the disabled had demonstrated every week for the last three weeks--about 40 the first two weeks and about 80 the week before. “They’re all very nice. We just push their wheelchairs out and they don’t resist.” He paused, then added, “Nothing like the farm workers. When they came, they really tore up the place.”
Soon I was ready to tear up the place myself.
All a wanted to do was use a toilet. But many years after the passage of access laws, and after an enormously expensive renovation of the Capitol, the only thing changed was that the doors were wide enough to get in with a wheelchair. The pressure needed to open the door was just as vault-like as in the old days, though regulations had long called for a two-thirds reduction. The mirror, dispensers, sinks--and most important, the toilets--were at traditional levels. As I transferred from my wheelchair to the toilet seat, I knew I was in for trouble.
The legal regulations call for handicapped toilets 19 inches high--level with most wheelchair seats. Additionally, many of us use heavy, sophisticated cushions to prevent pressure sores, adding to the wheelchair height. These Capitol toilet seats were less than 14 inches high. Supercrip Mark Wellman may climb El Capitan with his arms, but many of us power-wheelchair users do not have the strength to raise ourselves five inches up and then swing to the side. I was trapped. I could not get off the toilet seat.
I struggled. I tried every angle, every leverage point. I wanted to tear out those bars supposedly installed to help the disabled. They hemmed me in and kept me from getting the angle I needed. They were installed at the standard height for a high toilet seat. Only a double-jointed hyena could use the bars to help here.
Finally, dripping with sweat, I began dismantling my wheelchair. I carefully removed the arm with the power control, laying it on the floor. I removed the pedals. I removed the heavy cushion and propped it against the wall. I put the brakes on.
A final effort got one cheek on the seat of the wheelchair. Reassembling the chair and getting the cushion under me involved another herculean effort.
As I washed my hands, wiping the sweat from the face I could barely see in the high mirror, I wondered when genuine, material, equal opportunity would arrive for the millions of disabled people who are manufactured each year in our factories and on our highways, shot in our slums, overdosed in our suburbs, or simply invaded by the wrong virus. Here in the Capitol of the state alleged to be the leader in progress for the disabled, a disabled person still cannot go to the toilet without contortionist efforts.
Later, as I watched the sweating handful of California’s disabled gather to protest funding cuts proposed by the governor, I couldn’t help questioning the focus of the demonstration leaders. They were trying to save a group of independent-living centers designed to serve the disabled. As worthy as these agencies may be--and their effectiveness is profoundly questioned by many disabled--the money at issue is a piddling $5 million out of cuts of thousands of millions. With such narrow, self-serving leadership, is it any wonder that the Capitol toilets are still unusable by many disabled people, decades after regulations requiring access?
Maybe what the disabled need is a militant union and a leader from among them like Cesar Chavez. I hear that before he came alog, farm workers, too, didn’t have toilets to use when they were out working in the field.
That night, as I headed west in search of a cool place to sleep in the van, I couldn’t help but wonder at how little had changed in California. The governor and Legislature seem to be once again in the hands of the robber barons. Even the initiative process introduced by the reformer Hiram Johnson seems to be in their grasp. And here I was, just trying to find a cool Target or K-Mart parking lot where the cops wouldn’t hassle me for sleeping in a 10-year-old van with 105,000 miles on it.