Posted by: Habladora | July 21, 2008

Wheelchair Diaries: Documenting the Sidewalk Privilege

When Ophelia and Manafanana began Feminocracy, they wrote:

We wanted to focus more on the intersectionality of feminism with all the other -isms that affect women…

Even within feminism, some women are left behind, their voices silenced by the propagation of the myth that all women face the same obstacles because they share the same gender. We wanted to provide a space where intersectionality within feminism could be tackled rather than ignored or only briefly touched upon.

This call to be aware of other women’s perspectives, to not belittle the injustices that face women whose battles are different from our own, should be a central tenet of feminism. Yet, being aware of other people’s problems isn’t always easy, and it isn’t always comfortable. I’ve sometimes wondered if it is even possible for allies to exist. When we are called-on to acknowledge our own privileges, people tend to react poorly – finding it easier to victim-blame than to do the work of actually reconsidering our world-views and making changes to our assumptions and behaviors.

Yet, in a society where most of us feel more comfortable ignoring the problems of others than recognizing uncomfortable truths, Joan Tysinger’s Wheelchair Diaries is helping people see life from a different perspective.

In interviewing Joan for this piece in Feministe, I was surprised have to confront my own privilege. When Joan mentioned how difficult it can be when people leave their recycling bins in the sidewalk for collection, I cringed. I have done that. When she said that her path has often been blocked by the tail-ends of cars parked hanging out of driveways, I looked down. I’ve done that too. And when she said that most people have to be told that they don’t have to look away quickly when they see someone with a disability approaching, I sadly wondered, ‘have I done that as well?’

Joan, however, seems more at home with other people’s blindness to their own bad behaviors than I might be in her position; she’s had to deal with our ableism all her life. When I asked her if people act poorly out of apathy or out of ignorance, she replied, “They just don’t know – how could they know? And they’re never going to know if no one tells them.” The issue, of course, is telling us in a way that we’ll listen.

Wheelchair Diaries is just that – a way to show the everyday problems someone who uses a wheelchair faces while simply navigating city streets and sidewalks. The series of short documentaries are sometimes funny, sometimes frustrating, but always enlightening as they record Joan’s decisions and dilemmas in finding a path to public places around Atlanta, GA. As the Atlanta Journal-Constitution explains:

The piece, pairing two perspectives — the view from her chair and the same path shot by friends who walk with or behind her — creates a queasy sensation, which aptly complements her experience. Tysinger narrates as she goes, revealing the countless decisions and disappointments she faces as she negotiates an obstacle course of fractured sidewalks, missing curb cuts and lightning-quick green lights.

In this three-minute clip, Joan and her friend plan a route into a public cometary and face multiple challenges – the abundance of steps at every entrance, the need to find a short path due to the chair’s waining power, broken sidewalks, and sidewalks that narrow until they disappear completely:

As Anna points out, simply explaining to others what accessibility actually entails is often not enough:

…people get into arguments with me all the time about whether someplace is accessible. Clue: When you’re not in a wheelchair and don’t know anyone in a wheelchair, and someone who does fit into either of those categories says “this isn’t accessible”? They are NOT LYING.

Even when told, it can be difficult for us to see the challenges that others face. In a society where blame is easy and change is hard, Joan Tysinger seems to have found a way to communicate. As Joan explains it, “In creating Wheelchair Diaries, I have taken on the role of aesthetic activist: my work has begun to open eyes, alter opinions, and hopefully effect change.”



  1. It really reminds me of my college’s library. At the end of the year they put up a sign that indicated the general direction of the wheel chair accessible door. First, the arrow was pointing towards a wall. Secondly, the ramp in question led to a door that was locked from the inside. The only way a person in a wheel chair could get in is if the library was aware that they were coming. Sure, the building was wheelchair accessible, but the entrance was all the way around the back and the door was locked. Technically accessible, but not very practical.

    I saw an episode of Penn and Teller’s bullshit in which they asserted that no one really needed handicap spots or ramps–this opinion was informed by a man with a physical deformity of the hands and legs I believe that could get around without a wheelchair. He decided that he could vote with his dollars and if a business did not provide handicap access that he would go elsewhere. Even he seemed unaware that there are plenty without that luxury and that government regulations regarding non discrimination were necessary–as does this video. Even when it’s technically accessible, it isn’t necessarily easy to get from point a to b in a wheelchair.

  2. The goal of accessibility should be to enable anyone to enter, visit, and go to the restroom without much difficulty – not they only be able to do so with great effort or physical pain. I believe Joan mention working with a group called Concrete Change (?), which is an organization dedicated to advocating on behalf of those who use wheelchairs. Perhaps those who are reluctant to see this as a real issue should be reminded that the baby-boomers are reaching an age when they themselves might rely on the very ramps and handicap spots that Penn and Teller seem to think are necessary.

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