When my then husband and I first came to California in the early 60's one of our first stops was the relatively new Disneyland in Anaheim. I had sprained my ankle on the cross country trip and was unable to walk. We rented a wheelchair for the Disneyland tour and, like a Biblical miracle, the Red Sea parted before us. Everywhere we went people ushered us to the front of long lines, cleared paths for us to get to the front of any crowd for the best viewing. They did this smilingly and unasked. The poor young thing (I was in my early 20's) and her young squire with their shiny new wedding bands got the best that they could give. We were amazed. After all, we were fresh out of New York City and the everyone for himself ethic of the subway system.
Times have changed and I certainly have. I am far from a dewy newly wed and my difficulty in walking is, alas, no longer temporary. This past week I went with two friends on a road trip to the Monterey Bay Aquarium. It was the maiden voyage for a recent purchase bought for events exactly like this - a three wheel electric motor cart. Since a scooter conjures up a much speedier and youthful conveyance, I had referred to what I have as an electric chair, but that has a different common meaning!
Whatever it's called, the thing weighs about 40 pounds, has a rechargeable battery, and folds to fit into the trunk of my car. It operates much the same as the electric carts available for the handicapped in many supermarkets. One sits on the seat, grasps the T bar that holds the controls, and pushes one lever to go forward and the other to reverse. It goes in neither direction at any great speed, less than 5 mph, but just in case there is a tiny red button which sounds like a defective smoke alarm to serve as an ineffective horn.
As soon as we took it from the car and I was trying it out in the parking lot we were approached by one of the many volunteer docents. The young women cheerily led us through a maze of back doors and hallways into the Aquarium itself.
Fortunately the Aquarium wasn't all that crowded because while I soon handily managed moving forward, going around a stopped stroller or a large group of tourists and their cameras was more difficult. Turning tight corners or going backward, which was needed in getting out of the elevators, was a real challenge. Occasionally someone held the elevator doors for me; occasionally no one did and they closed on my cart or on me.
There were more than a few obviously disabled people in the Aquarium crowd. Wheelchairs, crutches and canes were common although mine was the only motorized cart I saw. A few people went out of their way to smile, make an encouraging comment, or hold children back from my path. One woman several years my junior even patted my head! Most people, however, "didn't see me". They crossed in front of my path without any acknowledgement or stood in front of me blocking the view from my seated position.
Whether it's people in general who have changed in their willingness to accommodate others, or the difference in my being young and pretty and therefore the object of sympathy vs an older woman in a population growing older all the time, I can't tell, but there were certainly no parting of the seas in general public accommodation this time.
As an educator I frequently say there are no true statements that can be made starting with "No men ever ..." or "Women always...." Humans are unique in their behavior. Here, while the Aquarium staff and volunteers were uniformly pleasant and actively helpful, trained to be so I assume, I could see no discernable difference in age, culture or pattern in visitors' reactions to me and my cart. Some people saw me, some did not. Some people sympathized, most ignored. A very tiny minority commented. I don't think I would have noticed this had I not had such a totally different experience at a tourist attraction so many years earlier.
So, any generalizations to be made about social interactions with the handicapped, travelling in crowds on a cart, or American tourists I leave to the reader. One thing I can say definitely say: The Monterey Bay Aquarium is well worth seeing - on foot or on wheels.