That awkward moment when 3 different emergency services had no idea what to do with a wheelchair

My family has one car. It’s pretty old and not the greatest, but it gets us where we need to be so we’re grateful. We are hyper aware of how much we would struggle without it. On the side of our big green van (so big that my mom calls it a baby greyhound bus), we have a wheelchair lift. It was bought by Voc Rehab when my brother was starting college.

My brother and I can’t transfer out of our wheelchairs. Even if we could, our wheelchairs can’t fold up to fit in the trunk of a car anyway. Basically, that lift is the only thing we currently have keeping us from being 100% homebound.

I named the lift Liam a few years ago, and we can’t afford to replace Liam. Knowing that, we try our best to maintain him and take our van into the shop the minute we see something that might need repairing. Our main concern is avoiding a scenario that leaves us stranded because the lift has died and we have no way to get in/out of the car and therefore no way to get home.

Sometimes, though, we can’t avoid it.

Not long ago, we were at a nearby shopping plaza. I had just picked up my new glasses, and as we were getting out of the car we noticed that Liam was acting a little funky. First, you press the switch to unfold the lift and then another to lower it to the ground. It would unfold fine, but got stuck while lowering. We were able to lower it manually (you turn off the lift and then use a lever/pump thing inside) so we figured it’d be okay.

It wasn’t a big deal, it was still usable, but it was clear that it needed to be repaired. We were already out of the house, so we decided to walk over to Target and wander for a bit. Any time the van goes into the shop, my brother and I are stuck at home for a while, so we didn’t want to waste the day.

When we left the store it was around 4:30 in the afternoon. My mom opened up the doors and turned on the lift. We got it to lower manually and my brother drove on. As it was going back up, all of a sudden one side of the lift jammed and the whole thing tilted sideways. All I’m trying to say is I’m glad I wasn’t the one Liam was holding because I was panicking just watching.

Luckily, it straightened back out when lowering to the ground so we got my brother off the lift safely. It would lower, but it could only go about halfway up. We tried everything we could to get it working just enough to get us back home.

All we knew for sure was that something was caught in the arm of the lift as it raised. We tried turning it off and using it manually, we looked for anything loose or causing the jam, but nothing worked. The lift was stuck, which meant it was hanging out the side of our car and we couldn’t close it up. Which also meant we didn’t know if we could even get it towed.

Obviously, we couldn’t just leave our van in the Target parking lot, especially when we couldn’t close the doors. It was too late to take it into the shop or to even call them to see if they had any ideas of how to temporarily fix the lift. At this point, a half hour at least had already passed and we’d made no progress.

Our first attempt at getting help was calling AAA.

They were definitely confused when my mom explained the problem, but the operator said she sent a tow truck. She said that they’d have someone who could at least help us close up our van. We hoped it wouldn’t be too long of a wait because she put us down as a priority.

While we waited, since we were told it’d be about a half hour or so, we frantically searched everything we could online. I looked for manuals, people who could come and fix it, I tried to get in contact with MDA to see if they had anyone we could call but they were already closed. We tried to find an accessible taxi service to pick us up but were having no luck with anything.

We were stranded. AAA ended up being late, so we called back for an update to find they were nowhere even close to getting to us. We’d already been waiting for over an hour and were panicking more and more by the minute. The operator also told my mom that they couldn’t take my brother and I. We needed to find another ride home.

You’d think AAA would know of some company with wheelchair accessible vans, but nope!

While we waited, we searched again for any other service that could pick us up, but nothing was in our area so last minute. We considered walking home, but it would have taken us several hours on super busy and dangerous roads.

We had essentially run out of ideas, so we called the police for help. Shockingly, they had NO idea what to do with us, so they transferred us to the fire department.

AAA, the police department, and the fire department all responded with the same confusion. They had no form of transportation for people in wheelchairs, and they had no idea how to help us while we were stranded.

By the time anyone showed up, we’d been waiting for around two hours. Naturally, the fire department showed up at the same time as the tow truck. It was quite the show for my local Target. The men from the tow company immediately went over to look at the lift to see what they could do.

Several guys climbed out of the massive fire truck and began asking my mom questions. My favorite being “Do you have a ride for them? We can’t take them anywhere.”

I was just sitting there trying not to cry or go off on this man. How is it 2017 and three different emergency services have no way to get two people in wheelchairs home? How is that a reality? You could literally see their confusion when they thought we might not have any ride home. They had no idea what to do, even after calling their bosses. Literally, no idea. I shouldn’t even be surprised but I was in disbelief. Mostly, I was furious.

Everyone just focused on getting us in the van because there was no plan B. Even though we had tried to get the lift to work for hours, it ended up working when the man from the tow company tried it. Of course. Because why not?

Everyone was nice enough, but they were definitely condescending and acted like my mom was just some poor blonde woman who didn’t know how to work her own car. The fire department followed us home to make sure we also got out okay, and that was that.

Everything worked out for us in the end, but not everyone is that lucky. We got it fixed that week and it was something minor. It definitely could have been much worse. If anything, it certainly opened my eyes to the fact that in an emergency, we’re on our own. 

I’m telling this story because I want people to understand that accessibility doesn’t start and end with ramps.

There is literally no excuse for three separate emergency services having no accessible vehicles or any idea of what to do for someone in our situation.

I live in Florida and there’s a category 5 hurricane potentially on its way, so that terrifies me. Especially after what just happened in Texas. Evacuation is a privilege. If you don’t have money, or a vehicle, or a place to go, you’re staying put. I saw so many scared people who had no way to leave. They just hoped that someone would help them if their house flooded.

If my brother and I were left stranded on a sunny afternoon in a parking lot because no one had any idea what to do with a wheelchair, I don’t have high hopes for any disabled people needing to be rescued during a hurricane.

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