Sunday, 14 June 2015

STAIRS, THE FINAL FRONTIER

A reflection and two plugs

Reading Ralph Strzałkowski's latest blog posting reminded me how I had enjoyed editing some of his earlier postings for the book Never, Never Quit. So I though that I would indulge myself by making another quick edit in the same style, and pay my dues to Ralph with a link to his non-profit FDAAF, and a plug for the book –
Over the last few weeks I got to see two movies about people suddenly stricken with mobility issues, and that in turn made me think of my own. Characters who either temporarily, or permanently and increasingly over time, begin to see getting in, out and around their own apartments as an ultimate challenge, took me back to my childhood years in Poland and Hungary, and to say 'I know what that's like'.
In Take Care, now streaming on Netflix, Leslie Bibb plays a busy and active career woman who ends up injured in an accident that leaves her with both of her legs and an arm broken. She's proud, she thinks she can do it on her own, but she really can't – and staying in an apartment all by herself, up on the floor, turns out to be not such a great idea as she struggles to make herself a sandwich with one hand or even to use the restroom.
She was counting on her friends to be there for her, but then none of them really decided to drop everything just to cater to her every need. Bibb's character ends up having to learn to ask for help and to understand that she is limited. In playing up the Taming of the Shrew aspect of the film, she ends up crawling to her neighbor's door, a man she had had nothing to do with but unpleasant exchanges up until this point, to have him make her a sandwich.
The movie's funny. I didn't know much about it, as Netflix just showed it to me as something I should watch. And Bibb (Popular, GCB, About A Boy) is one of my favorite TV actresses. The only show her presence can't persuade me to watch so far is The Odd Couple.
I had a few laughs, but then I couldn't help but zero in on the disability portrayal aspect of the film, and ways in which I identified with main character's predicament. A lot of the film's humor comes from her not being able to do many of the things that she is used to with just one hand, such as opening the refrigerator and anything in it, and from how she tries to figure out how to make things work for her, until she guilts her ex-boyfriend into assuming the role of a nurse of sorts. We see her friends struggling to maneuver her on the stairs like a piece of furniture, with her legs fixed straight.
And that's funny, because you know that for Franny this is just temporary. In a few weeks she will be able to get on with her life and laugh about it as a bizarre thing that once happened to her. It wouldn't be quite as funny of course if somebody had to carry her down the stairs every day.
As soon as this thought popped into my head I started thinking about my own childhood. 
Like the weeks that my legs were in a cast, fixed spread with a stick between them, and how much of a production it was to move around. But then my everyday life was challenging as well. We were lucky to have an elevator in our building of course, but every time I went to school, or stayed at a rented apartment in Budapest, I had to face the stairs. And this was something I would get all day. Either by having my parents grab me under arms and walk up or like they showed us at the Pető Institute, having me face the grab bars and go down sideways.
This was something that I thought about and dreaded all day. It was exhausting, painful and long. After you had walked down and then walked up in the evening, you did not want to try it again or go outside again that day. And every time that I took a trip – with my class back home, across Europe with my parents, or the first time that I visited my cousin in Las Vegas, one thought would never leave my mind – what would I see there – as I braced myself for yet another challenge on the stairs. Both my legs are spastic: my knees allow only limited movement, so I get tired easily.
My right hand is spastic as well. I have ruined countless pairs of shoes dragging my feet up and over a stair. I remember calling a particularly impressive flights of stairs my Mount Everest. I would have to conquer this Everest, to my great satisfaction and exhaustion. And just like Bibb's character I get by with only one fully functional limb.
Let me tell you, if you have to brace yourself for something every time you go somewhere, just to get there, this takes so much fun out of doing whatever you get to do when you finally make it. Life should not be so hard.
Let's face it, we live in a world created by people without mobility issues, for people without mobility issues. For most of them, any challenge is just a passing inconvenience. But we grow in an aging society- and disability will end up affecting more and more people. Instead of an whimsical interlude that you can look back on and laugh at, just something that bed rest can fix.
The second movie, 5 Flights Up stars Diane Keaton and Morgan Freeman as an aging couple in New York. It might still be playing at a local arthouse cinema near you. The pair decide to sell their apartment where they have lived for decades and their relationship blossomed, in an area that is now an affluent part of town.
Walking up the stairs becomes increasingly a problem for the man, as well as for their ten-year-old dog, so they decide to move to a place where they can be more comfortable. Having settled in their nest, though, they struggle with the idea of a move.
[SPOILER ALERT] In the end as they reminisce about their history they decide not to sell. That part of the plot is pretty much unresolved and it serves for a feel-good ending, but they will still probably have to go on with the sale, or install a stair lift, or do something else, because neither the man nor the dog are getting healthier or younger.
I know that the movie is going for a powerful statement about not giving up to age and physicality, and the importance of roots and memories, but although the characters decide to live out their lives 'their way', unaffected, in reality they could be independent so much longer if they addressed the husband's mobility in some way. Sticking to your guns is important but so is quality of life.
This in turn made me think about all the stories about people in wheelchairs stuck in their apartments for days, weeks or months, because they did not have an elevator. And then I remembered how my Dad was considering swapping our apartment for something bigger so that I could wheel around easier. We didn't do it in the end, but the idea was to find something closer to my high school, and prep me for a lifetime in a room next to my parents.
Funny how that turned out.

The 2013 American Community Survey states that 13.4% of the Florida population has a disability, an increase from the previous year of 12.9%. The national statistics are alarming as well. About 56.7 million people — 19 percent of the population — had a disability in 2010, according to a broad definition of disability, Over 2 million more than in 2005. More than half of them reported the disability as severe, according to a comprehensive report on this population released by the US Census Bureau. This percentage has increased compared to a study in 2005. Those numbers are expected only to grow.
This is why I started FDAAF, the Florida Disability Access and Awareness Foundation, to promote more accessibility and positive images of people with bodily challenges. If you haven't already, I encourage you to visit http://fdaaf.org.
http://blog.lawyeronwheels.org/2015/06/stairs-final-frontier.html 

Never, Never Quit
Rafał (now Ralph) Strzałkowski was born in 1979, in Warsaw, Poland, with cerebral palsy, ten years before the fall of the Iron Curtain. From 1986 to 1990 he attended the Pető Institute in Budapest, Hungary, as a weekly boarder. After that it was back to school in Warsaw, then law degrees at Warsaw University, and the University of Florida. Today Ralph is an attorney admitted to law practice in Florida and in Washington DC.
He is also an activist. He has inaugurated FDAAF, the Florida Disability Access and Awareness Foundation. 
This book is a collection of 53 postings from his blog Lawyer on Wheels, selected for the unique light that they throw upon Conductive Education as remembered from the experience of a child, reflections upon his adult life that bear the stamp of his particular upbringing, and some of his further Conductive Education experiences in the United States.

See more of this book and order copies:



The two films (trailers)


Take Care (2014)

5 Floors Up (2015)


References


Strzałkowski, R. (2013) Never, Never, Quit, Birmingham, CEP

Strzałkowski, R. (2015) Stairs – the final frontier, Lawyer on Wheels, 12 June





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