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’ stanford.edu.

Login or create an account

Apply to The Daily’s High School Summer Program

Priority deadline is april 14

Days
Hours
Minutes
Seconds