Friday, June 12, 2015

Stairs- The final frontier

In the last few weeks I got to see two movies  about people suddenly stricken with mobility issues that in turn made me think of my own. Characters that either temporarily or permanently and increasingly over time begin seeing getting in out and around their own apartments as an ultimate challenge  took me back to my childhood years in Poland and Hungary and say "I know what that's like". In "Take Care" now streaming on Netflix, Leslie Bibb plays a busy an active career woman that ends up injured in 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 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 understand that she is limited. In playing up the "Taming of the Shrew" aspect of the film, she ends up crawling up  to her neighbor's door, a man she had nothing 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 suade me to watch so far is "The Odd Couple". I had a few laughs, but then I couldn't help to zero in on the disability portrayal aspect of the film and ways I identified with main character's predicament.

 A lot of film's humor comes from her not being able to do many of the things she used to with just one hand- such as opening the refrigerator and anything in it - and how she tries to figure out how to make things work with her until she guilts her ex boyfriend into assuming a 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'd be able to get on with her life and laugh about it as a bizarre thing that happened to her. It wouldn't be quite as funny of course- if somebody had to carry her down the stairs every day. And 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 movie around. But then, my every day 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 it's 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 Peto Institute- have me face the grab bars and go down sideways- it was something I thought about and dreaded all day. It was exhausting, painful and long. After you walked down and walked up in the evening, you didn't want to try it again or go outside that day. And every time I took a trip- with my class back home, across Europe with my parents or the first time 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 only allow limited movement so I get tired easily. My right hand is spastic as well. I ruined countless pair of shoes pulling my feet up an over a stair as I dragged them. I remember calling a particularly impressive flights of stairs my Mount Everest. I'd have to conquer them to great satisfaction and exhaustion. And just like Bibb's character I  get by with only one fully functional limb. But  let me tell you- if you have to brace yourself for something every time you go somewhere just to get there - it takes so much fun out of doing whatever you get to do when you finally make it. Life shouldn't be so hard. But let's face it. We live in the world created by people without mobility issues for people without mobility issues. For most of them, any challenge it's just a passing inconvenience. But- as we grow in an aging society- disability will end up affecting more and more people and instead of an whimsical interlude you can look back on and laugh, it won't be something bed rest can fix.

2013 American Community Survey states that 13.4% of the Florida population has a disability -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 reporting the disability was severe, according to a comprehensive report on this population released by the U.S. Census Bureau. This percentage has increased compared to a study in 2005. Those numbers are only expected to grow.

This is why I started the Florida Disability Access and Awareness Foundation, to promote more accessibility and positive images of people with bodily challenges. I encourage you to visit  if you haven't already.

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 decides to sell their apartment, where they lived for decades and had their relationship blossom 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 their 10 year old dog - so they decide to move to a place that they can me more comfortable in. Having settled in their nest 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. They will probably have to go on with the sale, or install a stair lift. Or do something else, because neither the man or the dog are getting healthier or younger. I know that the movie was going for a powerful statement about not giving up to age and physicality and the importance of roots and memories. 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- the quality of life. And 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 didn't have an elevator. And then I remembered how my dad was considering swapping our apartment for something bigger, 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. 

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