A Handicapped Inauguration
The Inauguration of Barack Obama was an historic, life-changing, captivating experience for nearly everyone who refers to themselves as a citizen of this country or an inhabitant of this planet. Unfortunately, a seat in history’s theater was denied to myself and hundreds of others that wanted to watch the ushering in of an epoch of a renewed American spirit. Amidst the tears of joy, achievement, and progress, existed tears of pain and missed opportunity. Alongside the jubilation, frustration. With triumph, tribulation.
I write here to tell my story of the Inauguration. It may differ from most others that have been written, but all accounts are important. I especially want to thank the angels that were in the crowd to help Ellen and I on Inauguration Day. Warning: this post is very long.
Get up early, Get on the bus
Inauguration Day for everyone in DC that was planning to see the Swearing In, Inaugural Address, and Parade started off early. Really, really early. For my fiancee, my mother, my aunt and I, our day started at about 230AM. We had bundled up, had breakfast at 330 at the hotel, then boarded the bus for Union Station. Presidential Classroom (PC) was fortunate enough to secure 15 parking spaces for its buses at Union Station, an apparently very difficult thing to do. We mounted up and left.
Why do I say mounted up? Because getting on the bus, or anywhere for that matter, was no small feat for Ellen and I during our stay in DC. Thanks to surgery to repair my right knee’s torn patella tendon on December 2, I have been moving around with the aid of 2 really, really tall crutches, and/or a wheelchair that keeps my right leg fully extended, piloted by Ellen.
Trouble on the way in
Back to the buses, we had reserved spaces at Union Station. With the reserved spaces came written documents indicating special clearance/ability to enter into DC via bus on the freeway. That, for whatever reason, didn’t actually happen. I posted our thoughts/status in real time on Twitter, and took some [admittedly blurry] photos that I’ll have up shortly on Flickr.
To summarize, we were told by pretty much everyone in a uniform (Police, Military Reservists, Firemen) that we couldn’t do what we had permission to do. Nevertheless, our bus driver Krystal wheeled on a bunch of back-roads and neighborhood streets to get us to Union Station just after 430AM. Mission Accomplished.
The long walk…under the Mall
Ellen helped me off the bus and into the chair, and we were off. PC told us that Union Station was about a 1/2 mile from the Mall. While that is technically close to true (point-to-point distance is approx. 1 mile according to Google Earth), given the way that streets were closed and barricaded, the walk to the Mall was much longer than that. After finding out how to get where we needed to be, and following the hordes of people, we got moving. At this point, it’s about 22 degrees out.
Ellen wheeled me through the visibly uncomfortable but excited crowds of ticketed and non-ticketed attendees, already-agitated police doing crowd-control, and hustlers pushing Obama shirts, pins, flags, ribbons, dog tags, and anything else you can imagine. We were both bundled up: me with 3 layers on the bottom, 2 pair of socks on one foot, three on the other, 4 layers on top, scarf, 2 scull caps, gloves and winter coat; her with 2 layers on the bottom, extra-warm UGGs, gloves, scarf, hat, and multiple layers underneath a winter coat. We were bundled up and excited about the history that was about to be made.
Neither of us are too cold at this point. More than anything we were annoyed by the tragically uneven pavement on the streets and sidewalks that make life in a wheelchair all the more difficult. As we walked/wheeled through the 3rd St. Tunnel, we were cheered on by people admiring our determination to see Barack take the oath. We were excited. They were excited. However, none of us really knew what was waiting for us on the other side of the tunnel.
The slow walk…to the Mall
We’ve been moving now for about 45 minutes. After getting to the top of the ramp on the side of Mall opposite Union Station, the real action was in full effect. People who’d been camping out since 330AM already had marked their territory on Independence Ave. The lines to get into the Silver ticketed section were already overflowing. And worst, it was completely unclear where people without access to the ticketed seated/standing areas needed to go. Utter chaos ensues, which is trouble for Ellen and I trying to safely get me through this crowd without hurting my leg further.
There were no signs, no smiling volunteers in bright red hats to help Police and Military personnel direct traffic. Just tens of thousands of people (at this point) trying to figure out how to get as close as they can to the Capitol steps.
A voice rang out: “People without tickets need to go to 4th to get to the Mall.”
Cool. Since we’re at 2nd, and it’s before 6AM, we should be straight, or so we thought. By the time we go from 2nd to 4th (about 30 minutes), the entrance was closed off.
“People without tickets need to go to 7th to get to the Mall.”
Ok, fine, three more blocks. No big deal. Us and thousands of other people have completely engulfed Independence’s traffic lanes and sidewalks and grassy knolls at this point. We are all marching together, getting heat from the thickness of the crowd. Then, the ridiculous happens.
Whenever there’s a problem, blame TSA
Because of the expected influx of pedestrians and the Parade that was to take place later on in the day, many roads around the Mall and the Capitol were closed off to traffic. The point of doing this is to set up a secure perimeter and to give all of these people on foot a place to walk safely. However, some undoubtedly well-educated individual decided that it would be a good idea for a motorcade of Police, Military, State Trooper, and TSA personnel to drive down Independence Ave. Yes, the Independence Ave. with thousands of people walking on it.
What does this mean in practical terms? That all of these people now have to get out of the street and onto the sidewalks on either side. What does that mean? The crowd, splits, skinnies, and spreads. They have to to avoid the now imminent oncoming traffic. So people get to nudging and pushing to the left or the right. This send people banging into Ellen, crashing into my leg, knocking it out of place, jostling the chair, all kinds of mayhem. All of this happened, of course, with little apology. Usually, we were looked at funny for getting in the way. I wonder if this is how handicapped people feel on a daily basis?
It got increasingly nasty as more and more convoys drove through the crowd. I noted the arrogant smirks on the faces of some of the drivers. It fit nicely with the rudeness of the pedestrians. I remember us being told to get out of the way one time when it wasn’t possible because wheelchairs don’t magically jump curbs. Thankfully, one helpful angel helped us by clearing a path for me to be able to turn my chair so that my leg was over the sidewalk and not in the street. At our next stop, Ellen was able to help a little boy by letting him stand with her behind the wheelchair because the oncoming traffic wouldn’t slow down enough to let him get to his mother who was in front of the chair. She was thankful, and some people were very helpful. Many however, were quite dismissive.
Then we heard that “people without tickets need to go to 9th to get to the Mall.” We got to 9th, and it was the same deal as 4th and 7th. Same thing at 12th too. This is getting frustrating as we’re almost a solid mile away from the Capitol. Count on TSA to ruin a traveling experience.
The Promised Land
Finally, around 13th we see the number of smiling faces begin to rise. Red skullies with white stitching popped up like Santa hats in December. It became clear that we’d finally be able to enter the mall and take our seat to witness history. We took a right onto 14th and were greeted and cheered on by giddy Inauguration volunteers leading people to the Mall. When we got up to the entrance, I even saw an ADA sign. We went to the woman holding the handwritten sign, and at that point a man took the reigns to the wheelchair and wheeled me over gravel and grass, past the refreshments booth, to the ADA section. There was no security.
What’s the opposite of an oasis?
We were in the closest ADA section, about 3/4 miles from the Capitol steps. We were placed in the 2nd row, behind a lovely group of women from central Ohio. It’s probably around 630AM at this point (1 1/2 hours before the gates were supposed to open). The sun shine is peeking over the horizon. We were prepared with the aforementioned layers of armor on our bodies, and with hand and foot warmers we had purchased a couple of days earlier. Now all we had to do was wait.
We are about 300 yards from the nearest jumbotron screen. That’s unfortunate for 3 major reasons:
- This particular jumbotron has NO sound.
- The screen is 300 yards away.
- A Refreshment booth is between the ADA section and the jumbotron.
#1 is just a technical glitch, that was definitely fixable. The combination of numbers 2 and 3, however, presented major challenges to the immobile and the barely mobile.
When we first got to the ADA space, there was still a decent amount of open field between us and the rear of the Mall crowd. As the crowd backed up into us though, the issue became obvious: those in this section, especially those in wheelchairs or sitting in chairs [due to their inability to stand] would not be able to see the sound-less screen in front of us. And actually, the refreshment line, which served much-needed hot chocolate among other things, snaked around to the point where people in that line were blocking the ADA view as well.
Several people in our section got so frustrated as his view was continually obstructed, that he called out for one of the red-hatted volunteers to clear a path for him to see the screen. It was literally tragic comedy watching the reactions of those who were asked to take 2 steps to the left or right so people who couldn’t stand could see. These folks could have used some of Obama’s empathy and emotional intelligence.
Stupid question: why not elevate the ADA section and place it off to the side? Maybe then everyone could see. I digress…
Next, they run out of chairs. What this means is that there will be people who need chairs to sit in because they are elderly or otherwise unable to stand, may not have places to sit. A gentlemen steps to the front of the section to announce this to everyone, and to ask all those able to stand that are in the section (read: the “assistants” accompanying the handicapped people) to give up their chairs.
Ellen gives up her seat, and then asks the obvious question: where do I go now? If she stands up where her seat was, or anywhere else in the ADA section, she will be blocking the view of those behind her. If she leaves the section, we get separated, permanently. The guy doesn’t answer her question, she gives up her seat, stands off to the side, and of course, gets screamed at by folks in the back. Pardon her for being considerate. If only she had been given another option. I digress yet again…
Why can’t this thing start earlier?
We’re in position, and starting to get cold. Ellen goes and grabs me a hot chocolate. I’m conversing with the folks around me: the ladies from Ohio in front of us, the man with no legs directly behind me. We were all in the same boat, chatting mouths with chattering teeth. I was starting to get pretty cold at this point, but we hadn’t busted out the reinforcement hand/foot warmers yet.
The hot chocolate helped, but I was still freezing. I’ve had problems ever since I was young with my fingers and toes getting very cold relatively quickly. I was doing pretty good today. Very good, according to my standards. Nevertheless, it started getting bad around 830AM, 3 hours before the ceremony is scheduled to begin.
We then bust out the hand warmers and feet warmers, but they only provide temporary relief for me. Ellen, whose feet were quite warm, put warmers in her gloves. I put some in mine too. They warmed things up decently, but my feet were becoming a problem. Couple that with the bottom half of my legs, which were beginning to freeze. Ellen helps my feet out by putting a foot warmer in my left shoe, and by wrapping up my elevated right foot in her scarf and placing it between her legs. I also put my gloved hands inside her jacket. It’s all working, but it’s incremental. The ladies in front of us and the man standing at our right just outside the ADA section offer hand and foot warmers to us. Their generosity definitely extended our stay, but it wasn’t enough.
Do you want to leave?
Ellen asked me this at least 4 times before I admitted defeat. The bottom line was that I couldn’t feel my fingers, or my legs from the knees down. There were people literally freezing themselves into medical emergencies in this [and other ADA sections].
Why? Because everyone knows that one way to stay warm in the cold is to move around. It’s why your body trembles and shivers. It’s why you see people jumping up and down or swaying from side to side or waving their hands when their out in the cold. Motion = blood flow = warmth. Well, when you have a bunch of people that cannot move, they can’t get blood flowing everywhere they need it, and they get cold. Bitterly cold. It would have been great to have considered this when planning out accommodations. Perhaps the heat fans Ellen saw in restricted areas could have been helpful in ensuring that the immobile were not in unnecessary danger.
I finally caved to the numbness, cold, and pain at like 945AM. I did so with tears in my eyes. Tears because I knew that my weakness cost Ellen her chance to see something no one had ever seen and that no one would ever see again. Tears because my physical inability to handle cold meant that the money and effort that we had spent to get to that place on that day at that time would not pay off because we wouldn’t see what we wanted to see. Tears because I failed, defeated by the elements that I thought I’d adequately prepared for. It hurt.
So Ellen wheels me out. We are officially going the wrong way on a one way path out of the Mall. Let’s just say that swimming upstream is not for the faint of heart.
Somebody help these people
The first obstacle we encountered upon exiting the ADA section was the grass and gravel that stood between us and the exit. It’s not clear to me who though that it made sense to make a wheelchair path out of those. Once we got back to pavement, the next challenge was getting out onto the street. There are Police, Fire, and Military personnel directing traffic on 14th and Independence. We get their attention, not to get out, but to ask for some medical attention. Can we get some assistance? The answer is, of course, no. But, they will let us out into the street. Great, thanks.
That meant the Ellen had to get me and the wheelchair up a grass-covered berm and through a narrow opening. This is extraordinarily difficult, but I think that one person actually stopped to help us at this point. We then got down to the sidewalk and started moving back the way we came in, slowly.
We were struggling. Ellen was tired, cold, and worried about me. I was cold, disappointed in myself, and sorry that I was ruining our experience. We saw uniformed people and asked them where we could get medical help, and they were not helpful. We asked how to get to Union Station, and they pointed us in that direction. At this point, an angel named Damon saw us and came to help. I wasn’t sure who he was with, but he had a Media credential/name tag. He also had a hand cart with some camera equipment on it. He came over to us and offered to help. We told him we were trying to get help for me and to Union Station. He said he was heading that way himself and would walk with us down there. He showed Ellen how to handle his equipment, and he pushed me in the chair. When he flipped me around to bring me off the sidewalk curb onto the street, I caught a glimpse of Ellen. In our brief eye contact I saw her pain and disappointment, which deepened my own. The tears froze on my cheeks.
Damon pushed me in that wheelchair for 10 blocks, until he met up with his party. That is unbelievable. Who knows what his plans were before he encountered us? I do know that it is that type of compassion, that sense of humanity, that I hope is the essence of my fellow brothers and sisters during the Obama Era. The only thing that gained steam more quickly than my discomfort was my gratitude toward this man. When we stopped, he told me these kind words:
You got a good woman there man. She loves you. Take care of her. There is nothing more important in this world, more beautiful than a flower. A woman who loves and will take care of her man. Always remember that.
He said something similar to Ellen before he was off.
So much for the Red Cross
We got dropped off and went about a half block when we saw 2 younger people with Red Cross jackets. We asked them where we could get some medical attention. At this point, Ellen has taken off her coat and draped it on my legs in an attempt to warm them up. These Red Cross people, like every other person “there to help” were not helpful to us. I asked if we could get one of those golf carts we saw whizzing around, the ones that were supposed to be used for those with medical needs, were transporting able-bodied folks. The Police said they belonged to the Military. The Military said they belonged to the Police. The Red Cross people didn’t know anything. They directed us to a Police officer who had the unenviable task of calming the mob of Silver-ticketed Inauguration attendees that stood between us and the tunnel to the other side Union Station.
We were able to get the officer’s attention after an announcement had been made to the crowd. When we asked if we could get medical help, he first directed us to a Metro station that we knew was closed, then he told us to move off to the side and wait. We went off to the side as instructed, and waited. And waited. And waited. Finally, someone let us behind the gate so we would be out of the street. The problem was we couldn’t get onto the curb.
Enter Angels 2 and 3
A man and woman who had seen our exchange with the officer stepped out of their place in line to intercede for us. They talked to the officer and asked what could be done to help us. I’m not sure what he told them, but they came back to us and helped Ellen lift my chair onto the sidewalk. The two of them then walked with us against the flow of the line to help clear a path for us to go 2 blocks in the opposite direction. Along the way, they made sure that people did not hit or hurt us by standing in the gap and by yelling at folks to get out of the way and stop pushing. It was truly heroic. When we reached one intersection, we saw another Police officer who was as helpful as all the rest. Our two heroes at this point had walked us at least 2 blocks, when the cleared a path and solicited the help of others to lift my chair off of the sidewalk and onto the street: 2nd street. This was the tunnel street.
A hero bigger than Obama: Sgt. David Thomas
We went for 3 blocks, and asked another uniformed officer for help, and he gave none. We had completely struck out. A moment later, a soldier, Army Special Forces Sergeant David Thomas came up to us and asked if we were alright. The clear answer was no, and the combat medic brought us over to his Hummer. When we got there, we explained our situation, my condition with the surgery, and how long we’d been out there. It’s about 11AM at this point.
At this point, my body is shaking pretty violently. Sgt. Thomas tried to take my pulse, but I was shaking to much. He went into his truck and grabbed something to take my blood pressure, which he told me was through the roof. He told me to be calm so that I wouldn’t hyper-ventilate on him. I told him I wouldn’t at which time Ellen came up behind me and whispered to me to help me try and be still. Sgt. Thomas asked another soldier to grab some blankets out of the, which they wrapped me up in. They then called 911 and a nearby DC Fire Department (DCFD) unit to come help.
When DCFD got there, they took my vitals again. Sgt. Thomas asked them to take my blood pressure again because his reading was so high. It had went down a bit, but it was still very high, especially for me (my blood pressure and heart rate are normally very low, lower than average). They wheeled me to the other side of a bus that was standing, blocking the street. we waited there for a while, waiting for the ambulance they’d called for me.
Ellen and the DCFD guys thought it’d be a good idea if I waited on the bus. It was on after all and it was warm. The problem was that those buses had been instructed by Capitol Hill Police NOT to let people onto them while they were blocking the roads. However, the driver obliged Sgt. Thomas’ request and let me on. The DCFD had to lift me out of the wheelchair and onto the bus, since I couldn’t stand. I’m still without the use of my legs, even the good one, at this point. They put me on the stairs, and Ellen joined me.
Where’s the ambulance?
I was apparently one of 40+ hypothermia-related ambulance calls. Unfortunately, EMS was as responsive as the Detroit Police Department to a break-in on the East side. This was in large part thanks to the ambulance getting caught up in tens of security checkpoints. Wow, that’s ironic.
While on the bus, Ellen and I talked amongst ourselves and with the bus driver, a nice man with Christian Tours of North Carolina. I apologized profusely to Ellen, but she told me it wasn’t my fault. She was great. The soldiers and firemen checked in on my periodically and to give us ambulance updates. After about 40 minutes on the bus, I was starting to warm up. If you’re doing the math, you noticed that by this point we’ve missed the ceremony .
A little more than an hour passed, and Ellen asked if I could stand. She suggested that we make our way back to beat the crowd and get back to Union Station. I was able to do this, and we thanked everyone as we got off the bus. I thanked them all, Sgt. Thomas especially, for being the only people in uniform to help us on that day. They really saved me from having an all-out medical emergency. They pointed us to the tunnel and we were off.
The home stretch
This trip through the tunnel was a little different. Less people. Less noise. I guess everyone who was going to be somewhere was pretty much there. Ellen got us through the tunnel, and up the other side. There, we saw something beautiful.
It was a throwback to the 40s, when people would gather around a radio to hear the news or a political speech. We saw cars pulled over with their windows down and doors open. We saw boomboxes blaring on the sidewalks. But instead of blasting music, they were playing the words of the newly-sworn-in President Obama. 50 people gathered around a car. 10 around a radio. All listening to one man speak to a world ready to welcome him as its leader.
Ellen snapped some pictures of us and the scenes, and we went on back to Union Station, where our warm bus awaited. The journey was over.
The rest of the day
We were back on the bus at about 1230PM. We left Union Station at 245PM, and got back to the hotel around 4. Ellen and I watched the Parade on TV and went to 2 balls: The Presidential Classroom Ball, and the Inaugural Peace Ball. We then went to bed, tired, frustrated, and thankful that we could at least say “we were there” in some sense.
The moral of the story
I think that the accommodations for handicapped individuals were deplorable and unacceptable. This is terrible, especially since I know that Obama’s positions on helping those who are disabled are groundbreaking. The Senate Inaugural Committee could have taken a page from their President’s playbook on that one.
My particular situation gave me a renewed empathy for those with special needs. Things are challenging enough for these people, who want nothing more than to not be an afterthought. Unfortunately, the disabled were dismissed as second-class when it came to being a positive part of history. I will do my best to make sure that we include everyone when we talk of access and opportunity.
I also want to lobby for better signage not only for events but for public spaces in general. We have too many creative people in this world not to be able to come up with signs that do not hinder beauty but absolutely increase the usability of public spaces. Signs alleviate stress by eliminating confusion. Ambiguity + crowds = chaos.
Further, we need better communication between everyone in a uniform that’s assigned to help the general public. Wasn’t one of the Bush Administration’s goals with the Patriot Act to better coordinate communications between government agencies and first responders? That didn’t quite work in DC on that day, a day in which the city was actually declared a Federal Emergency area.
Finally, and most importantly, the reasons I’m marrying Ellen were emphatically reaffirmed. Every man should be so blessed to have such a woman in their life. If you do, hold on tight. If you don’t, keep searching.
Thanks for listening. Let’s enjoy holding our new President accountable.
One Love. One II.