Shuffling to Independence Through Thoughtful Accommodation

05 Nov, 2014 Bob Wilson


I traveled to Toronto this weekend to attend the funeral of an uncle, my father's brother. I flew from Sarasota, and met my almost 95 year old father who was flying in from New Mexico to attend the services. 

Even though he still drives and owns two businesses, he suffered a fall a few years ago that is now starting to greatly affect his mobility. He fell in his garage, suffering a "break in place" of his pelvis. As one of the primary caretakers for my mother, who at the time was still at home and suffering from Alzheimer's, he insisted (upon leaving the hospital) on an intensive 7 day physical therapy regimen so he could get back to "caring for his wife". It was a decision that is now returning to haunt him, as he has difficulty walking and maintaining his balance. He personally would have been better off following a longer and more complete therapy regimen. But nothing quite frankly would keep him from my mother's side.

When I made our travel arrangements, I notified the airline that he would require wheelchair assistance both in Denver and Toronto. I also told them that he is a stubborn old goat, and they would probably have to wrestle him into the wheelchair. I arrived in Toronto just a few minutes ahead of his flight, and waited for him within the Customs area. We spoke by phone as he was getting off his plane. I was under the silly assumption that he was being wheeled off. I should have known better. When the door to the plane opened, he simply got up with the crowd and shuffled off.

30 minutes later, while I was wondering where the hell they had taken him, I saw him approaching the customs checkpoint. He was shuffling along, cane in hand (he normally resists using the cane, except when his pain in the ass children make him do so. This was one such occasion). 

Toronto's Pearson International is a huge airport. His plane landed at one of the farthest gates from the Customs area, and the Customs area is larger than some airports. It was a haul, and we weren't even halfway done. We had to finish getting through Customs and then walk to the rental car area, which, by the way, is in Saskatchewan (something has to be, after all). All told, I arrived at the airport at 3:10, and drove out around 5:00 - but my father, God bless him, went the distance. Or shuffled it, anyway.

For the return flights this morning, I had a problem. My flight was scheduled for 6:30 this morning. His flight was at 8:30. I had to go through Customs in Terminal 3, and he had to do so in Terminal 1. Not only did I have to bring him to the airport very early for his flight, there was no way I could personally get him to his destination without missing my own flight. Despite his mild protestations that he could manage on his own, wheelchair assistance was going to be needed.

He and I discussed that at breakfast yesterday morning, and he quietly lamented that it is "difficult" giving up your independence with these things. I understood where he was coming from, but told him he was looking at it the wrong way. We are a society that accommodates those with special needs. If he was a 20 year old who had lost both legs, the same services would be available to him, and these would not represent a restriction on his independence, but rather an extension of his ability. By accepting a simple accommodation, we are insuring he can get to the places he needed to go. 

He paused a moment, and said "That is a good way to think of it", to which I replied, "Yes. Now you keep thinking that when I am shoving your ass in that chair tomorrow morning". 

Despite my rather curmudgeonly portrayal of him, he really is a fine man with an excellent sense of humor. We had a pretty good laugh over that.

I do think this is a valid point to remember for those of us in workers' compensation. We often deal with people grappling with newly acquired impairments and limitations. Identifying accommodations that can maintain and extend their independence should be a primary objective of everyone managing their care. We should also help some of those resistant to this inevitable change in their life (and their employers!) to understand that these accommodations are not a hindrance or assault on their independence. They are designed to protect and further it instead. For many of these people, a little assistance and accommodation will mean the difference between a productive life or a dependent one.

I sometimes think in our process centric industry this is a critical point that gets lost in the shuffle. We really do, as an industry, need to learn to un-shuffle a few things, and communicate a bit more...

And speaking of shuffling, I scheduled the wheelchair assistance for this mornings travel. A very polite young man was waiting for us in the car rental return area as we pulled in, just as promised. We got my father into the terminal, where I hugged him and bid him farewell. I am writing this in flight, and will be posting during a layover in Charlotte, NC, so I don't have a final ending for this tale. For all I know my father has escaped his handler and is shuffling amuck, creating havoc throughout the facility. But I doubt it. He is slowly accepting that these things are benefits here to help him, but it has been a very long learning curve. This is the man, after all, who was initially denied access to "Meals on Wheels" because he told them he could just drive down and pick the meals up (I'm not kidding. That really happened).

Whether an unexpected accident or the results of living beyond your expected years, a reduction in ability does not need to be disabling. Thoughtful accommodations can preserve the freedoms and mobility that we as human beings so crave. Our job is to make that happen, and to see that it is utilized by those who could best benefit. 

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