My friend has multiple sclerosis. MS is a nasty disease, which has robbed my friend of the ability to walk. She gets by with an electric scooter and a wheelchair, but for someone who has traveled around the world, it’s been a tough adjustment.
When our family was going to a water park for a birthday party recently, our friend told us she wanted to meet us there with her nephew, who was visiting her. The idea was that her nephew would play with the boys at the birthday party at the water park.
At the park, our friend had fewer options. There were two lifts: One assisted her from her wheelchair into a pool, and another did the same for the hot tub. But my friend has traveled around the world; she wasn’t content to sit and soak like a dish sponge.
She wanted to ride the slides. Specifically, the biggest, hairiest slide in the park.
So she and her husband asked whether they could do that.
The first lifeguard was nice, but said the rule was that if she could get up the stairs (about four flights of them) by herself, she could ride the slide. That seemed arbitrary. What did the ability to walk up the stairs have to do with hanging on to the inflatable raft on the way down? You couldn’t use your legs on the raft anyway. On the slide my friend wanted to ride, your butt sat in a hole, and your lower body was immobilized, or was supposed to be.
That was discouraging. I once wrote a story about an engineer who spent a half day in a wheelchair to get a sense of what it was like. He was astonished at all he ways that streets and sidewalks and ramps that were built to code — the way his manuals told him — were nevertheless unusable for people in wheelchairs. I’d learned the same thing with my friend. Every doorway, every step, every time she got in a car, or got on a streetcar or bus, or went in to a restaurant — everything we take for granted is a possible barrier for her.
A little while later, my friend asked another employee, and got another no.
There were people who were grossly overweight, and really out of shape, whose upper body were far weaker than my friend’s, who has an impressive set of triceps as a result of propelling a wheelchair. But I understood the rules … which are often set up by lawyers as a result of someone somewhere suing someone else.
But my friend wasn’t giving up so easily. She went to the central first aid desk and asked a third time. This time her husband, my wife and I came too, to emphasize the point that we were willing and able to get her up the stairs.
The woman she spoke to was more senior, and was very apologetic. But she still said no.
I walked away from that feeling pretty defeated. I could go back and ride the slides, but it didn’t feel exactly right. I had free roam of the place, but my friend was hampered by a lack of machinery, and a set of invisible rules.
But then, about 15 minutes later, my friend came over, grinning. They’d changed their minds!
Up the stairs we went. The line was long, and we took turns piggybacking my friend up the stairs, while taking a lot of breaks while the line wasn’t moving. When we got to the top of the slide, we had to convince the girl working at the top that we’d gotten permission (since she was the first one we asked).
She relented. We got my friend into her seat, and off we went. With four adults, we had a lot of weight on the raft, so it was a pretty wild ride. But we made it to the bottom intact.
My friend was happy. We were happy for her.
Funny how that ride ended up being the highlight of the day.