VIEWPOINT: A Personal Problem - 27 East

VIEWPOINT: A Personal Problem

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Viewpoint

  • Publication: East Hampton Press
  • Published on: Jan 23, 2023

By Lorna Coppola

My daughter Maya and I stopped at a Family Dollar on the way home from buying seedlings for my vegetable garden. A car was parked in front of the curb cut, blocking handicap access to the store. The only access for me in my wheelchair was a good 75 feet away, which I immediately headed for.

Outraged, Maya stopped me and entered the store to request that the cashier get on the loudspeaker and ask the person to move their car.

The cashier replied with indifference that they had no loudspeaker. Maya discovered that the person at the checkout was the owner of the illegally parked vehicle. She told her that her car was preventing her mother, who used a wheelchair, from accessing the store.

The woman replied, in the most disinterested, flippant tone, “That seems to me like a personal problem.”

Now, let me break this down for you.

I am by no means unaccustomed to people blocking the handicap access. In fact, it happens quite often. On a block of a shopping center I frequent, there is only one curb cut per block, and there were numerous occasions when I found myself waiting until someone came out of the UPS Store, or bank, or beauty supply store, before I could do what I needed to do.

Or, even worse, many times, having gained access, I was unable to get back to the car because someone had parked in front of the only curb cut while I was inside a store. Sometimes I’m unable to get into my car, because even though I am parked in a designated parking place, someone has parked on the blue stripes and is too close to my car for me to get into it.

The thing that was so unusual about this time was that I had never seen the personnel of the establishment so indifferent, or the perpetrator so callous. Usually, the drivers are apologetic and courteous; the store personnel are helpful and sympathetic.

I honestly didn’t know how to respond. I normally make it a policy not to react to rudeness.

Maya has no such policy. She informed the person that she was parked illegally on two counts, in a fire zone and obstructing handicap access. The woman responded, “Take a picture of my license plate.”

One might think that seeing me waiting for her to move her car, she would have felt some remorse. Well, one would have been wrong. And the personnel at the Family Dollar were more annoyed at my daughter for saying something about it than they were at the illegal parker.

Being disabled puts a person in a vulnerable position. You might find yourself in need of help from a stranger. Your electric wheelchair might suddenly stop working and you might need someone to push you. You might drop something that you can’t pick up.

Because of this ever-present possibility of need, you might tend to be generally pleasant to people and not so critical of them.

One summer, I decided to take a 4-foot shortcut between two paved areas on the beach, and my chair got stuck in the sand. A couple stood and watched me intently for 20 minutes while I struggled in the hot sun. It would have required a minimal amount of effort from them to maneuver me out of the sandpit. However, another man came along and asked me if I needed help. It took him little more than minutes to extricate me — while the couple continued to gawk.

I am always amazed at the kindness and helpfulness of the strangers I run into at stores and in parking lots. It gives me the notion that most people are inherently good and if they feel safe they will offer their assistance to someone in need.

But not all people.

Once, I was running late for work, and I was running out of gas. I usually only go to full-serve gas stations, but as you must know, their numbers are diminishing.

My car has a ramp on the driver’s side, which is the same side as my gas tank, which makes pumping my own gas near impossible. I pulled up to the cashier’s booth of a self-serve, beeped my horn, and waited to catch the attendant’s attention.

A customer who was pumping gas into his car gave me the hardest look and said to me, “He’s not going to come out here for you,” with an emphasis on the “for you.” I told him that I was disabled, couldn’t do it myself, and that it was the law that the attendant was required to help me if I couldn’t do it for myself. He just gave me that hard look and repeated himself.

The service attendant did not come out. The hard-faced man didn’t help, either. I was late, so I just traveled the few blocks I needed to go in fear of running out of gas.

Clearly, not everyone has a helpful nature, and some people are just plain mean-spirited.

A recently released documentary, “Crip Camp,” produced by Michelle and Barack Obama, chronicles the experience of a group of teens with disabilities at a summer camp in the early 1970s. With the aid of their counselors, they experienced an eventful, fun and fulfilling summer that empowered them to challenge the unjust systems of inaccessibility when they became adults.

They held demonstrations, sit-ins, at state and federal capitals. They spoke at joint sessions. They got arrested. They engaged in behaviors that groups engage in when demanding civil rights.

There were no ramps anywhere. They dragged themselves up stone and concrete stairways, sometimes howling in sheer exasperation. They rode in the dark in the back of U-Hauls, because there were no handicap-accessible vans. Public transportation was not handicap accessible. There were no handrails or handicap-accessible bathrooms. There were no curb cuts. These modifications were considered too costly.

My personal problem is one that all people with disabilities share: how to balance independence with the need for assistance, how to be autonomous while knowing that you are going to need help from others on a continual basis. Some of those people are going to be strangers who are not obligated to help you.

Nothing is ever just given away. Every entitlement was fought for by someone. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act had been enacted in 1973 but was not enforced. The efforts of so many brave and determined people led to the passing of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990 — and all the modifications that make me able to drive a car to work, make a living for myself, enter stores and places of business.

That is why I can no longer take what I used to consider minor infractions of my rights for granted. Too many have worked too hard to let a snide twerp with no manners or sense of decency usurp my rights.

Lorna Coppola, a resident of Mastic, wrote this piece to share with the Poets Rising group, which meets at Hampton Bays Library.

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