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Clippings: Walking a mile in another’s reality

For the past few weeks I’ve thought a lot about a twist on the popular saying, “don’t judge a man until you’ve walked a mile in his shoes.” The twist is this: After four weeks on crutches, I now better understand how it feels to be less than mobile.
Frankly, it’s not that easy to get around out there.
Cracked and torn up sidewalks in downtown Middlebury, uneven stairs into businesses, doors that are difficult to open and entrances too small to squeeze through (one crutch braced against the door and the other planted to allow the bad knee and leg to get up and over the door jamb is a common obstacle) and tables and chairs that are simply not arranged to accommodate those so impaired.
If I were disabled for any length of time, it would be frustrating to go downtown all that often. And even for those local residents who use a cane for stability or because of a bum joint, some places of business could be easier to get into and move around.
I look at our own business, the Addison Independent, and while we have a ground-level entryway just big enough for a wheelchair on the side of the building, it wouldn’t be easy to navigate. And with crutches, it’s certainly doable, but the double door entryways make opening and closing both doors an inconvenience to say the least and it takes a few semi-athletic moves to get the job done.
It doesn’t have to be that way.
I’m not an advocate for making every small business retrofit their entrances so folks in wheelchairs or on crutches can breeze through entrances with no effort for older buildings and downtown blocks designed in an different era (the cost is significant and sometimes prohibitive), but I certainly understand the value of the ADA rules to make buildings handicap accessible when feasible.
And with a little effort the interior of some businesses could make small, cost-free adjustments to make access and maneuverability a little easier. What’s needed is for each of us to put ourselves in those shoes and hobble around a bit.
In doing so, I started to really appreciate the automatic doors on the larger businesses like area grocery stores; the motorized shopping carts at Hannafords; ramps that meet ADA standards, the occasional elevator.
As a town, Middlebury does have ample handicap parking spaces, and I now realize why we need so many… it’s just not that easy to hobble down the sidewalk for a couple of blocks. I made the two-block jaunt from behind the Ilsley Library down Main to Carol’s Café and back on my eighth day after ACL surgery (knee) and it was a haul. Having those spaces within a block’s walk of any destination is totally appropriate and needed.
I know the town has a sidewalk construction plan to keep the sidewalks in good shape, and for good reason. The crumbled sidewalk on the south side of Merchants Row just east of the Battell Block to Steve’s Diner is in pretty rough shape. I never noticed it before surgery, but when you’re on crutches with a bum knee, you really have to focus to keep from catching the end of your crutch and maybe doing some real harm to your injury or yourself. And I’m in pretty good shape. When I see citizens who are slightly older, some using canes and others not, I noticed how focused they had to be to get over the same uneven stretches.
The point is easily understood: When you walk a mile in another person’s shoes, you gain a much better understanding of what they are going through.
If we put ourselves in those shoes, we’d stop grumbling about all those unfilled parking spaces set aside for that occasional use. When the sidewalk budget comes up for review, we’d pass it unanimously thinking of those who would love to walk the town’s streets but are intimidated to do so when it’s hard to navigate. When we lay out our stores, there’s no need to create a layout just for a few, but it doesn’t hurt to have a “temporary plan B” for those customers (an extra chair, or lending extra help) to make them feel welcome.
The positive news, it’s heartening to report, is that everyone is eager to help. Everyone goes out of their way to hold doors open; extra chairs are provided; coffee and croissants are delivered to your table without question; strangers in town offer unsolicited help just in case you might need it.
But that doesn’t mean it’s all that enjoyable to encounter obstacles you can’t negotiate on your own. Everyone likes to feel independent, to be able to get around to do the simple things in life — shopping, getting a cup of coffee, going to the bank or other services — without having to rely on others.
I think of Jim Ross, who was a tireless advocate of ADA compliance in Middlebury for years, and belatedly I appreciate his efforts all the more today.
Which is the real lesson about walking a mile in the shoes of others — the art is to try to understand another person’s perspective by taking the time to listen what they go through (without actually having to have surgery to put yourself there).
With a little imagination and effort, we can imagine the trials and tribulations of those who are have recently become homeless and need temporary shelter; we can empathize with those who have lost their jobs and need a way back into the marketplace or veterans who are trying to reenter a civilian society. We can understand why mentoring students at risk of dropping out of high school is so important and why on-the-job training is invaluable. And on and on.
We can’t walk a mile in everyone’s shoes, but if we take the time to listen and understand, that’s a great first step.
As for me, I’m off the crutches in another week or so; but hopefully I’ll remember the lessons learned and not forget that perspective.

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