Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Strapped in and ready to rock

When taking a bus, one of the most interesting things that I notice is how others hook up or strap down their wheelchairs. It seems like everyone has their own method or preferred hooking up/strapping down method.

I apologize for the craptastic art.

The first thing to consider is that everyone's wheelchair is different. It's just like how people drive different cars. My wheelchair has things that others don't, and vice versa. I mentioned on Twitter how no two people load their wheelchair the same way – it's because everyone's chair and car are different.

Instead of seeking a single universal answer, it may be helpful to think about where is a "good" place to place the wheelchair restraints and where is a "bad" place to do it.

Handrims are stable hooking-up/strapping-in places... right?

When assisting, some drivers immediately try to use the restraints on the handrims or rear wheels of the wheelchair. This is a BAD idea.

There is the misconception that the wheel is a stable part on a wheelchair because, well, the whole reason the chair moves is because of the wheel! But for most rigid manual wheelchairs, the wheels can detach (part of the mechanism that makes it easier to store the chair). You don't want to be attaching a vital safety restraint on a removable part.

In addition, wheels can be damaged or bent due to force. I have heard of cases where using the wheel as a location for the restraints has resulted in a bent wheel, resulting in expensive repair costs. (I have Spinergy wheels on my chair and they routinely cost $600 a pair.)

The backrest should be an obvious place to strap down the chair... right?

Another seemingly obvious place to place the restraints is the backrest bar. After all, it's one of the closest areas to the restraint belts on a bus, right?

Well, it is the closest for sure. But I don't find that it is a safe place to strap down a wheelchair either. There are two big reasons why I don't think so.

The first reason is exclusively for rigid manual wheelchair users. Many rigid chairs cannot be folded down vertically (as in folding it down until the rear wheels are an inch apart from each other). Instead, they rely on the backrest folding DOWN on to the seat. As you can guess, since the backrest is a moving part, you don't want to be compromising its structural integrity by using it for a restraint belt.

My other reason has to do with safety and applies to all manual wheelchairs. Some people don't think of this, but wheelchairs can tip backwards. There are many methods to tip backwards (mostly to do "wheelies"). I tend to use my hips. But some others use their backs, which means – you guessed it! – putting force on the backrest. Imagine strong G-forces being applied on the backrest. It would be the ultimate wheelie, a.k.a. falling backwards and knocking your head on the ground.

Okay, how about using a non-moving part?

Another possible area to put the wheelchair restraint belts is on the axle area. This axle is also known as the "centre of gravity" bar. While it is movable, it requires strong tools to do so. I have great hand function and arm strength and believe me, you may need VERY strong tools and willpower to adjust it. Putting force on this axle will not cause the wheelchair user to tip backwards and it would take some extreme effort to make it move. This should be a good place to put the restraint belts, right?

I have never tried to use that bar, nor do I wish to. Why? Because I simply don't know if it would be damaged if the bus brakes and G-forces are applied to it. That bar is one of the most vital parts to a wheelchair that would be a complete nightmare to replace (and perhaps it might even be un-replaceable). I can't say it's a BAD idea to use it, but I can't say it's a GOOD idea either. It would be a huge risk to even test it, in my view. If anyone has input about this, please post in the comments; I'd appreciate it.

The method that is least risky to me and my chair.

My method is to choose a spot that is least likely to move, bend, or become damaged – the front bar, just above my casters. That bar doesn't look as secure as the other locations I mentioned, but for a titanium frame, it is least likely to bend. It will not move no matter what. It does not affect any moving parts. It is also easy to reach when getting off the bus. And it won't tip my chair over, which is a big plus. In short, it is nearly a foolproof place for the restraints.

Some drivers have expressed doubt over the security of this method. To the naked eye, it actually does look like a flimsy way to strap down a wheelchair. But this is the only method I've tried that has NEVER given me any problems. I've even been on a bus that had a collision before and this method passed the test. So when drivers look and ask, "Are you sure that's where you want the restraints?", I just look at them and say, "Definitely."

Do you have a preferred method of hooking up your wheelchair on a bus?

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Invisible/subtle disabilities and transit: Not always a good mix!

As a wheelchair user, there are certain perks on public transit. The most obvious one is that we usually get loading priority as well as first dibs on the space at the front of the bus. It does not matter if there is a stroller or a walking person already in that place -- we trump everyone else.

The general hierarchy is generally, from top to bottom: wheelchair users, people with disabilities, the elderly, and those with strollers. To be honest, sometimes I do not feel very good about this hierarchy because it sometimes puts some people who actually need or deserve the priority seats at a disadvantage.

Before I go further, I have a confession to make. I can walk.

Okay, I cannot walk very well and it takes a lot out of me in terms of strength, energy and stamina (not to mention there is a significant risk of losing my balance and falling). But as long as I'm wearing my leg braces (sometimes accompanied by crutches), concentrating hard and going slowly, I can walk to a certain extent.

However, people often do not realize that not all wheelchair users are unable to walk. Some just have great difficulty walking or find that they cannot function fully without the use of a wheelchair or other assistive devices. Some may not need those devices but may have other limitations that restrict their physical abilities.

Where am I going with this? The other day, I boarded a 16 bus in downtown Vancouver heading towards Arbutus. A passenger boarded the bus and from my angle, it was quite obvious that she had some sort of condition that affected her muscles (my best guess was cerebral palsy). She had some difficulty with balance standing on board a jerky trolley bus and since her hands were affected, holding on to a pole was possible but still not optimal.

Since it was during peak hours, the bus filled up quite quickly and at one point, several elderly passengers came on board. Some healthy-looking young people did not surrender their seats for some reason (some were immersed in their Blackberries and some were even sleeping). Eventually the young woman gave up her spot since nobody else was doing it.

As the bus started to move, she tried to hold on to a pole but had difficulty doing so since the bus was absolutely packed. Since I was paying attention, it was obvious that it would be better for safety if she had a seat. However, people are so accustomed to giving their seats to people who are either visibly aged or use mobility devices that she was more or less ignored or overlooked.

Since there was a fold down seat in front of my wheelchair spot that would not impede me and I was getting off near the end of the route anyway, I immediately folded it down so I can offer it to her. Right away, someone thought, "Oooooh! A seat!" and tried to take the seat for himself. I had to assert myself at that point and say it was specifically for that woman. It was interesting how confused everyone looked; they did not understand why she would need a seat, until many stops later and after much visual scrutiny.

This is not the first time I've seen someone with an invisible or subtle disability ignored or overlooked. The most common situation in this category is younger people with conditions requiring more subtle assistive devices, such as a blind cane or walking cane. (Yes, some younger people have to use canes to get around too.) Theoretically they could ask for a seat, but this is Canada. We are often almost too polite to ask.

I guess the point of this story is to show that while it is a challenge to take public transit as a wheelchair user, it is a million times more challenging to do it as someone with an invisible or subtle disability because those people are often seen as "able-bodied" even if they use certain assistive devices. So if you are young and able-bodied and sitting on a priority seat, please stay alert (and awake) and be on the lookout for anyone who may need it.

P.S. -- other points:
  • Even for wheelchair users, some people actually do not realize that they need to give up their seats. I have had to be assertive and actually tell them what to do (no matter how obvious it may be).
  • I have tried going on public transit without a wheelchair before, wearing leg braces and using crutches. Not impossible but not something I ever want to do again.
  • If you're young and able-bodied, please do not fall asleep in the priority seats. How do you know if someone needs them if you're unconscious?
  • Know your bus: it makes things a lot smoother if you notice where the wheelchair seating spots are on the particular bus that you are on, so you know if you need to move.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Bus Stop Hop 2011: Bring your best wheels. Wear comfortable shoes.

Yesterday was the 10th annual Bus Stop Hop. For those who don't know what it is, it is an event hosted by the British Columbia Paraplegic Association in partnership with TransLink. In short, it is similar to "The Amazing Race" where you try to hit certain locations and find certain objects/facts faster the teams competing against you.

The twist to this? You must use public transit to reach those places. This includes the bus, SkyTrain, SeaBus and Aquabus. There were fifteen teams and each team consisted of two able-bodied participants and two participants with mobility impairments. My team had one absentee, so we had someone from TransLink (who was originally there to shadow us and take photos) become our unofficial fourth member. The two rolling people on my team consisted of one manual wheelchair user (yours truly) and one power wheelchair user.

It was my first time at the event and it was cool to meet so many new people, and to come across those I've met before -- definitely one of the better networking events I've come across. This year's event was apparently the largest one ever in its ten years of existence.

The day started and ended at Performance Works on Granville Island, and the locations that were required were Vancouver International Airport, the bus cloverleaf on Granville Street at West 5th Avenue, Lonsdale Quay and Science World. At each location, you must obtain a fact and write it down, get a signature from a staff member there, or complete a task.

In addition, there was a trivia sheet that each group completes for points, as well as extra tasks for bonus points. This means that even if a team came in first in terms of time, they can still slip to second or third place because of points.

Each team had their own strategy. It seemed like the majority of them decided to start inward and move outward -- in other words, start at Granville Island and move farther and farther before reaching Vancouver International Airport (the furthest destination). After all, Granville Island had the most tasks and bonus points in the race so many seemed to decide to get them out of the way first.

...which probably meant chaos at the same locations. So our team decided to do almost the opposite -- start farthest away and move inwards to the final destination.

Our idea:
  • Go to the 5th Avenue bus loop: [first location]
  • From there, catch the 50 False Creek South bus to the Canada Line.
  • Take the Canada Line to Vancouver International Airport: [second location]
  • Take the Canada Line to Waterfront Station.
  • Take the SeaBus to Lonsdale Quay: [third location]
  • Take the SeaBus back to Waterfront Station.
  • Take the SkyTrain to Science World: [fourth location]
  • Take the Aquabus from Science World to Granville Island: [fifth location] *
  • Complete all the Granville Island bonus tasks.
* Remember this step. You'll see why later.

In short, our routing was planned to look like this:

View Bus Stop Hop route 1 in a larger map

We had it all planned out. So while everyone else tackled locations closer to home, we set out for the 5th Avenue bus stop.

And then my wheelchair decided to malfunction.

What happened was that my footplate's bolts were loosening up and the footplate slid to the point where it was scraping the ground. It was kind of dire for a few moments as we went up the hill adjacent and below the Granville Street Bridge. Somehow, we made it and as the task at the stop was bring handed off to my partner, I took the time to make a pit stop repair; thankfully my partner had a tool kit handy (lesson learned; I'm going to the hardware store tomorrow).

EDIT: Access Eco BC blog has a photo of the wheelchair malfunction. My "greatest" moment captured on camera!

We were the first team to that location and we had luck on our side at the start. We did not have to wait for more than a few minutes for any of the buses or SeaBuses until our return from Lonsdale Quay.

At the airport, we finally ran into some of the other teams. But we were confident; we were certain that nobody else had the 5th Avenue bus loop yet, so we were probably one stop "ahead" of the others. We completely blazed through all of the locations until after Lonsdale Quay, when we narrowly missed a SeaBus by a couple of minutes, resulting in a 15-minute wait for the next trip. Our momentum hit a snag.

Our next stop was Science World, which was conveniently under renovation. There was a bit of confusion as the lady at the information desk was not told about the Bus Stop Hop; this lapse allowed some of the other teams to catch up in the meantime.

After that, we thought we were home free -- one more Aquabus ride back to Granville Island to complete the final tasks, and that was it!

Or so we thought.

Because, you see, this is 2011. This is the digital age. That means unless something has "LOL" or "OMG" in it, we are not likely to read it.

We completely missed the tidbit in the instructions saying that the Aquabus was only running accessible services between Granville Island and... David Lam Park. From Science World, taking transit to David Lam Park was difficult if not nearly impossible on a Sunday schedule with two wheelchair users at the same time.

So we decided to hike it.

My partner kicked his power chair into high gear and I went into my wheelchair racing mindset. Our TransLink staff member had to leave after Science World, so our lone able-bodied team member had to jog it -- in her sandals/flip-flops.

It was no short trip by any means and she had to actually run to keep up with the team's high-speed power wheelchair user and rabid (though occasional) wheelchair racer. I have no idea how she did it, but she survived all the way to David Lam Park. (I had to hold on to my power wheelchair partner for a lift for about 10% of the way, so it was quite insane.)

So eventually THIS became our route (pay attention to the False Creek area):

View Bus Stop Hop route 2 in a larger map

After accomplishing the tasks there, we arrived back at base camp on Granville Island, answered the trivia questions and sent our stuff in. Third place! (We later slipped out of that position due to points, but anyways... THIRD PLACE!!! -- in our deluded little minds where leprechauns rule the Earth.)

All in all, it was pretty fun. Just waiting for the aches to kick in from yesterday's wheeling sprint from Science World to Yaletown. It hasn't happened yet but it probably will in a bit, which should be awesome.

Random post-blog thought:

(Next year, maybe have a friend stand by at Science World with a racing wheelchair. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice...)