My experiences with disability have been widely varied. I grew up with family members who were physically and/or mentally disabled which had a direct effect on my decision to pursue a career in physical therapy. I wanted to facilitate a person’s healing process and help restore patients to their families, home, work, and leisure. I have practiced as a physical therapist for 10 years now and have worked with people of all ages, races, religions, genders and socioeconomic status who have been affected by disability-acutely and chronically. Disability does not discriminate, but the opportunities to return home, to work or the community often do. Many times, before a patient would discharge, therapists would perform a home assessment and make recommendations to ensure a safe transition. There were times when these modifications could not be made due to lack of resources or lack of finances and the patient would have to transition to a skilled nursing facility or home to an unsafe or inaccessible environment.
For 7 years I was married to a man who had cerebral palsy and experienced the day to day life of someone with a chronic disability. I learned how his physical limitations provided the foundation for his every decision. It determined the clothes, shoes, and vehicles he would purchase, where he would go out to eat, how he would hunt, his profession, and the design of his house and business when he was building them. Fortunately, he had the resources to be able to live and work successfully. But what if he had not had those resources? What happens to the people who have to make every decision based on their disability, but have no or limited options?
I had several opportunities to serve on mission trips to distribute refurbished wheelchairs to underprivileged, disabled populations in the Dominican Republic and Romania and have seen first-hand what people do when they have no options. In the Dominican Republic a young boy would walk around on cement floors on his calloused wrists and knees, another family pushed their son around in an old wheelchair frame held together by duct tape. In Romania, disabled family members were kept in beds where they slept, ate, went to the bathroom and then were washed and changed. When each person came to the distribution site we assessed their specific needs and attempted to give them a means of functional mobility that would work for their home, their mode of transportation and their community. It was amazing to see how joyful and grateful people were for a wheelchair-for a new opportunity to get out of bed, to eat with their family, to sit outside, or to go to church and school.
Housing and Health
Currently, it does not affect me personally, although it may one day. I have experienced how it has affected the health of the people I mentioned in my stories above. We live in a society that assesses what a person CAN’T DO (DISability) and then attempts to accommodate to make things equal for the majority. There is a difference between equality and equity. Equality attempts to provide the same treatment and the same design to everyone in order to be fair. Equity, on the other hand, takes into account individual differences and provides each person with what he or she needs to be successful. What if we looked at the individual’s needs, strengths and ABILITIES and designed around that? I believe that is what Universal Design is and will continue to do!