British Columbia·First Person

Let me be that person you know in a wheelchair, so we can all think about how to be more inclusive

Before becoming paralyzed, I had no idea what it meant to be ostracized from society for something I had no control over, writes Codi Darnell.

Before being paralyzed, I never had to contend with the fact the world wasn't made for me, writes Codi Darnell

After being paralyzed, Codi Darnell said her disability opened her eyes to all the ways the world isn’t designed with wheelchair users like herself in mind. (Submitted by Codi Darnell)

This First Person article is the experience of Codi Darnell, a Vancouver mom who uses a wheelchair due to a spinal cord injury. For more information about CBC's First Person stories, please see the FAQ.

My phone lit up with a notification a few months ago. A new message in our family group chat showed a photo of my sister-in-law and her husband's brand new deck, accompanied by five words: "Patio is open for business." 

Like many people during this pandemic, they've been busy with home improvement projects. But this deck had a feature that many others do not: Because they know that even one step is too many for a wheelchair user, their design included a perfectly graded ramp.

And with that one gesture, I knew I, too, was welcome. 

I wasn't born a minority. But a three-metre fall at the site of our house addition in 2016 rendered my legs useless and left me a full-time wheelchair user.

Before that, as an able-bodied, white, non-transgender, straight woman, I never had to contend with the fact the world wasn't made for me. So, imagine my surprise when I re-entered the world on wheels after my accident and discovered that my value to society felt diminished. 

Before I was paralyzed, I never knew a few stairs could mean the difference between feeling included and feeling ostracized.

Before I was paralyzed, it never crossed my mind I might go somewhere and not be able to use the bathroom. 

Before I was paralyzed — while I was never habitually punctual — I never thought I'd be late to my daughter's swimming lesson, circling the parking lot with her in tears because the few accessible parking spots at the community centre were occupied. 

Before I was paralyzed, it never occurred to me I might not be able to take my children to soccer because access to the fields required stairs or a dangerous attempt to push myself up a steep hill. 

Before I was paralyzed, I never thought my life would change in such a way that would bring these issues into the spotlight — for me, and for the people who know and love me.

But then I was paralyzed and found what didn't change were my responsibilities as a parent and a partner. It didn't limit my desire to go shopping, to attend events or go to restaurants and hotels. 

What it did change was the vantage point from which I saw the world. Through the lens of disability, I saw I was an afterthought.

When her relatives created this patio with a wheelchair ramp, Darnell said it made her feel seen as a wheelchair user. (Submitted by Codi Darnell)

Creating wheelchair access in our communities and businesses shows that people in wheelchairs are wanted. It shows that society sees the value in my business and I wasn't forgotten in the process of planning. It tells wheelchair users that our existence matters

I'm not just talking about ramps and elevators. It's also paved pathways and playgrounds with solid surfaces. It's tables and counters that are standard height rather than bar height, and bathrooms with wide, automatic doors and grab bars. It's more parking spaces that are sufficiently wide enough, with curb cuts that aren't positioned so a parked vehicle blocks the access point.

It's about forethought and understanding that people in wheelchairs deserve equal access.

These solutions are easier to see when the struggle becomes personal, which is why my sister-in-law and her husband planned their new deck with a ramp. However not everyone has a family member or friend who is in a chair. Not everyone has a personal connection that takes the issues of wheelchair access from vague to tangible. 

So let me be the person you know in a chair. 

A woman, wife and mother who is just trying to get groceries, play with her kids at the playground, meet friends for dinner and maybe, one day, see a post-pandemic concert.

If you have that connection, you might be more inclined to notice when a ramp is masquerading as a storage space, or you might think twice before pulling into the accessible parking stall, even just for a minute. You'll be another set of eyes on the wheelchair access of the world, helping society become more inclusive.

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Codi Darnell is an aspiring memoirist and mother of three from Metro Vancouver. She was named Vancouver Mom’s Top Blogger in 2018 for her blog Help Codi Heal that chronicles her experiences as a mom, wife and wheelchair user.