Disability 101: Wheels in Germany
June 20, 2010
I am sitting at my computer in a foggy haze of exhaustion, an exhaustion that quite nearly tipped me over into a desperate crying jag. But not yet. Perhaps later.
It has been eight days since I returned from my trip to Germany to see my daughter graduate from college. With my MS, I’m not recovering well from the ten-hour flights, five-hour train rides and the eight-hour time difference. But even so, I am so glad I was able to be there. Now all my friends are asking about my trip, “What was it like in Germany?”
First of all, I would like to say I am so very proud that my daughter, Tory Sigmond, Summit High School class of 2007, has graduated from Jacobs University Bremen with a BSc in Biochemical Engineering and a B.A. in International Logistics Management. Yes, she is still an overachiever. What an amazing experience she had attending a university that attracts students from all over the world. How amazing that she now has friends who come from all over the world.
I had the enormous pleasure of staying with the wonderful German couple who were Tory’s host parents during her stay in Bremen. They helped Tory acclimate to the German culture and were her nurturing guides. They did the same for me.
They took me to see 1,000- year-old cathedrals and 500-year-old farmhouses. We toured museums and ate cake with no sugar at outdoor cafes. They carried my wheelchair up cathedral steps, helped me to find paths around cobblestones, and strolled with me down country lanes admiring duck houses on river fingers that placidly amble along.
They answered my endless questions and helped me to understand all things German. They fed me so well. The bread! The cheese! Such wonderful hosts.
Now as I sit in my exhausted haze, my mind wanders through all I saw in Germany. One thing surprised me. Germans have an expectation that all people who use wheelchairs will always be accompanied by a family member who is helping them.
Yes, as you might imagine, this created some awkward moments as I burst onto the scene with my stubborn, sometimes obnoxious, insistence on being independent.
The German train officials looked at me with great concern. “Are you traveling alone?” they asked, their eyes round with disbelief. The German flight attendants on the German airline also ask “Are you traveling alone?” with similar eyes expressing shock and disbelief.
It was almost always possible for me and my wheelchair to get where I wanted to go in Germany, as long as I had help. It is not possible to access the train or get through the museum independently. But one can do it if one has help.
You will be pleased to know that I kept my overbearing, American opinions about independence to myself while I was in Germany. I was in their country and it was not up to me to try to change their country. But once safely back at DIA, I reveled in my independence as I rolled quickly through the airport toward home, having my own private celebration of the ADA’s 20th anniversary.
The danger was me growing smug in how much better we have it here. But then I realized that here in the U.S. there are people with newly-acquired disabilities, unable to work but unable to obtain social security benefits, who wind up homeless, with no benefits and no family to help them.
I don’t think that happens in Germany. Then I am not so smug, but rather humbled.