I had a fall off an inaccessible, narrow footpath that was raised above the neighbouring grass, with no lip or barrier. I injured my knee. I could barely hobble. I was using my white cane like a walking stick. With some help, I managed to drag myself into Accident and Emergency at Wellington Hospital.
I had to wait in the waiting room for hours, of course. They gave me a hospital wheel chair to sit in, since I couldn't walk and I screeched in pain whenever I tried to bend my knee. They just left me in the waiting room.
I am functionally blind, with no useful vision in these conditions. There was no way to operate the clunky manual wheelchair and use my white cane at the same time. I was understandably reluctant to just roll forwards, bowling over my fellow patients, bouncing off the furniture, injured foot first.
Whenever the need to pee got too desperate I had to talk loudly and hope there were other patients who could go and physically fetch a receptionist for me.
Excuse me, total stranger. Who may or may not be there. May or may not be able to walk. And may or may not be slowly dying. But nature calls and I don't want to play ten pin bowling with these chairs. Could you please see if one of the stressed, overworked reception staff will pop over sometime in the next five hours? Thanks ever so.
None of these is the access barrier I am writing about here. No, the access barrier I most want to highlight came when I finally got to see a doctor.
My knee was examined. Having been off it for several hours the pain had subsided enough for me to stand, so long as I didn't put much weight on it. The doctor determined that nothing was broken, and that it was the kind of injury that legit hurts like hell, and takes a while to heel, but just needs rest at first, and then gentle exercise.
The doctor then explained that he would normally give me crutches, but he couldn't see how a blind person could safely use crutches. So he was inclined to just send me home with nothing.
He was going to send me home. Unable to walk. To a house with stairs. Where I live alone.
No home assistance. No mobility aids. Nothing. Just some over-the-counter painkillers, and instructions to rest up for a few days. Presumably by levitating.
But he said it was up to me, and I could try crutches if I really wanted to, but he wouldn't recommend it.
I asked for crutches of course.
He then tried to explain - without any visuals, naturally - how to use crutches. Obviously these were instructions on how a sighted person uses crutches.
So, under the scrutiny of a doctor - who would take any mistakes I made as proof that giving me crutches would be dangerous - I had to not only learn from verbal instructions how to use a pair of crutches (I'm Autistic and my spatial awareness and ability to pick up physical activities is pants) but I also had to figure out - on the spot - how to adapt the instructions for use while blind.
I nearly didn't advocate for myself. I nearly didn't take the crutches because the doctor didn't want me to. It was only the fact that the thought of the pain of walking across the car park again made me want to cry. That thought overrode how tired and worn down I was, and made me overcome my social anxiety, and just say,
Yes, actually I would like crutches.
Over the next few weeks I figured out how to use the crutches effectively, if rather slowly.
Balance on good foot and crutch. Sweep ground in front with other crutch. Put both crutches on ground, step forward. Rinse and repeat.
It was slow, and boy did I learn there are not enough drop off zones on streets near buildings, when a hundred metres takes ages and hurts a lot. But I was sort of able to get around and go do essential things. I don't know what on earth I would have done without crutches. First week I couldn't get as far as the bathroom without them.
This isn't the only incident - for me and for many many others I have talked to - when doctors and medical staff have zero clue about how to care for and support blind, or otherwise disabled, patients. How can someone teach me effectively how to use a medical aid when he himself doesn't think it is possible?
I've had doctors reluctant to prescribe pills in case I get them mixed up, until I describe how I tell medicines apart.
I've even had a doctor guide me to a chair, then ask me if I drive. Admittedly, that was hilarious!
The point remains: how can doctors and other medical staff possibly give us the best treatment when they have no idea how to interact with us - let alone how our disabilities impact us - and how to best assist and treat us.
Frontline staff must have access training and sensitivity training. We're a quarter of the population! It's ridiculous they don't know how to care for us.
I want new accessibility laws to make sure people with access needs - like me - are able to get out and about safely in the first instance. And, should the worst happen, receive competent and compassionate medical care. Just like everyone else.
This is a story about the barriers many face. We're sharing it because we want a law that puts accessibility at the heart of an inclusive Aotearoa New Zealand.