I am approaching a busy intersection in my electric wheelchair. I look to see if I can cross in the crosswalk. The traffic lights are still green, but the “don’t walk” symbol is up. Traffic is passing through the intersection and a car is waiting to turn left. I decide to zip across while the light is still green. I enter the crosswalk and pass the cars waiting on the red light. Halfway across, I don’t bother to look back because I assume I can be fully seen at this point. I’m almost at the other side when suddenly, the turning car slams into the right side of my chair. I spin 180° and tip over on the right, smashing my shoulder and snapping off a footplate. As I skid to a stop, I mentally check my body parts. My shoulder is on fire!
Half a dozen people leap out of their cars and rush to my aid. I release my seatbelt and roll onto the wet concrete on my belly. It’s terribly awkward for me as I have limited mobility. Plus my hood is up, my jacket is pushed up to my armpits and my legs are encased in raingear. I can’t move! Gentle hands roll me onto my back and sit me up. That’s better. I can breathe. Another pair of hands join in and I’m hoisted to my feet. A kind, nurturing woman wraps her arms around me and helps me shuffle to my wheelchair that someone has kindly picked up off its side.
Once in my seat, people begin retrieving all the items that sprayed out in various directions when I landed: water bottle, pill container, broken sunglasses. Someone drapes a light blanket around my shoulders. A smiling woman asks me questions about how I feel. Shaky, sore, but grateful it’s not worse. The fire department, who happens to be just around the corner, shows up, then an ambulance, and finally the police. I answer a bunch of questions, then head to the hospital.
In the end, the X-ray showed a fractured collarbone, but the hardware from my shoulder replacement was intact. It seems the only damage to my chair was my broken footplate. I was bloody lucky! I was also informed by the RCMP Constable that I am technically at fault for crossing when I did. The driver was also at fault, obviously, for hitting a pedestrian in a crosswalk. But the whole experience left me reflecting on what happened, why it happened and how it could have been prevented. Here are some of the things I learned:
I am not invincible.
Common sense, right? A car is five times my size, at least six times my weight, and can travel 20 times faster. I should be wary. But having never been struck by a car, and always having vehicles drive so cautiously when they see me, I had grown complacent and a bit reckless, which ultimately led to this accident. Note to self: “The vehicle will always win!”
I am not seen.
I often assume drivers see me because I have a reflective flag on the back of my chair, and I wear a white jacket or bright colored rain cape. However, in reality, most people don’t see me. First of all, many able-bodied people don’t actually “see” disabled people. They have been conditioned by society to overlook, ignore or avert their eyes from disability. Secondly, being in a wheelchair puts me below most drivers’ line of sight, even below the hood of their truck or SUV. The closer they are, the harder it is for them to see me, despite the bright outerwear. Lastly, most power chairs are dark in color, so from the side or back, especially at a distance, I am no more visible than an electrical box or pile of garbage bags.
I am responsible for my own safety.
It would be wonderful to trust that drivers are watching out for me as much as I’m watching out for them, but that’s simply not the case. There are many drivers that fail to look before they turn, speed through yellow lights, creep into the bicycle lane, drive too fast, drive distractedly etc., and there is nothing I can do to change that. Since I’m the one who will suffer the ultimate consequences, I’m the one who must watch out for myself. That means crossing roadways legally, making eye contact with drivers, looking before I enter the road and avoiding potentially hazardous situations.
The brighter the better.
I live near Vancouver, B.C., where the weather is grey, gloomy and rainy for at least six months of the year. If you’ve ever driven in that kind of weather, you know just how hard it can be to see. As a wheelchair user, I need to consider this as part of my safety checklist. I travel in my chair a lot, and in some areas of my community, I must use the bicycle lane because there are no sidewalks. It’s time to invest in some lights for my chair, preferably flashing. Looking on Amazon, I can see the low prices are worth potentially saving my life!
Make eye contact.
I always make eye contact with the driver before I drive out in front of them. This time I didn’t, and well, just because they “see” you doesn’t mean they see you. A driver’s eyes are constantly shifting and assessing their surroundings. Their eyes may pass over something or someone, but they don’t necessarily register it. When you make eye contact with someone, there is an immediate, almost physical recognition. You see them and you know they see you. Only then can I trust that they won’t drive into me.
And on a lighter note, people can be pretty awesome!
Getting hit by a vehicle while in a wheelchair can be pretty shocking, terrifying, disorienting and painful. It’s difficult to think straight and determine what you need. Feeling those first gentle hands on my back, and seeing all the pairs of feet running toward me was instantly consoling and anxiety-reducing. Everyone was so kind and patient, none of the delayed drivers honked or grew angry, and people asked me what I needed before grabbing and moving me. The driver was badly shaken and bawling, and nobody assigned blame or behaved aggressively. Although, being Canadians, there were an abundance of “sorrys” as people moved and shifted and strapped me back into my chair!
I have had my fair share of discrimination, marginalization and ableism, but it is really warming to know that when “sh*t hits the fan,” people will happily come to the rescue. The paramedics were also inclusive and respectful, asking if I wanted to stay with my chair, arranging for a taxi when I said yes, and riding to the hospital in the cab with me.
I hope my story helps other wheelchair users to remember their “common sense” and take accountability for their own safety. I was very lucky this time. The next person this happens to might not be so lucky.