Navigating Stanford in an electric wheelchair

Nov. 2, 2017, 1:00 a.m.

The bike lane or the sidewalk – that is the question.

Every day, as I’m going from my home in West Lag to Main Quad for classes, I struggle to decide which path to take. Born with a disease called Spinal Muscular Atrophy (SMA), I maneuver the world in an electric wheelchair.

Before college, I got a brand new, shiny, speedy wheelchair that goes six miles per hour. This, by the way, is a tremendous upgrade from my previous chair which only went four miles per hour. Four miles per hour required my friends to do an awkward speed walk if I was zooming at full speed, while six miles per hour is the perfect jogging pace for the average person.

When I search for directions on Google Maps, I can anticipate my travel time to be somewhere  between the two estimates listed under the walker icon and the biker icon, respectively. Similarly, I do not quite know where I belong: On the sidewalk or in the bike lane?

I’ve tried both. In the bike lane, I am self-conscious that I’m going too slow, blocking the bikers behind me, and terrified that I’ll get hit by someone in the “Circle of Death.” On the sidewalk, I often find myself stuck behind a group of people walking slowly, or shyly asking a pack of tourists if I can go past them since I need to get to class.

This internal battle to decide where I fit best extends beyond my whereabouts on the street. Yes, I am disabled, but does that mean I should join the disability-related clubs on campus? In one of my lecture halls, there is a seat designated for individuals with disabilities in the front row, but I’d have to strain my neck to look at the board – should I sit there? The short answer, I have discovered, is no.

I think my friends would agree that as much as I am a disabled person, I am a completely “normal” person as well. While I need assistance with everything ranging from brushing my teeth to cutting up my food in the dining hall, I love midnight TAP runs and stress over midterms just as much as the next Stanford student. In this way, I always find myself somewhere “in between” – teetering between the abnormal and the ordinary. I was contemplating this whilst stuck behind some students on the sidewalk one day, when I realized that I’d been having the wrong mindset about this topic.

There is no such thing as an “average Stanford student.” In fact, there is no such thing as a completely normal person in general. Everyone teeters on the edges of normal and abnormal, in their own way. And even those words – normal and abnormal – are subjective to each individual’s experiences; it just happens that my “abnormal” is physically visible.

After realizing this, I’ve enjoyed joining clubs because I want to join them, not because I identify with the club’s particular affiliation. I’ve chosen where to sit in class because I want to sit there, not because it’s the ADA seating option. I’ve gained the confidence to say, “excuse me” with conviction, as I zoom past people on the sidewalk, no longer stuck – knowing that I fully belong in the “in between,” as does everyone.


Contact Angie Lee at angielee ‘at’

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