The Future is Accessible

photo by Ken King Wheelchair Sports Federation media volunteers; (left to right) Matt Gephart, Eric Gissendanner, and Katier Harris; travelling to Sochi for the 2014 Winter Paralympics
photo by Ken King
Wheelchair Sports Federation media volunteers; (left to right) Matt Gephart, Eric Gissendanner, and Katie Harris; travelling to Sochi for the 2014 Winter Paralympics

by Michael Dougherty

My father once told me in a rain-worn Irish pub: “If there’s a roadblock, climb over it.” I once crawled through a construction pit that broke up a Los Angeles sidewalk because I was going to be late for a movie. I lost my shoe, too. So, my dad was preaching to the choir. I am reminded of it, though, as the Sochi Winter Games are underway and there are more than a few hundred athletes who face similar roadblocks. The tenacious ones understand already some variation of my father’s advice, but Russia poses interesting challenges because it has had to revamp its infrastructure to accommodate these athletes for the very first time on home soil.

The callous might believe that not enough has been done. The language difference can be troublesome. The elevators don’t work properly. Ramps are hard to find. Certainly, the desire to see Russia fail, an odd facet of human nature within popular culture, colors the expectations that followed them into the opening ceremonies last week.

Still, as I rolled thunder through the Sochi airport, it struck me how much care individuals took in getting me to where I needed to be and at what time. They have worked to get the appropriate transportation, complete with lifts, door-to-door and show me, sometimes several volunteers at a time, where to go in the Olympic Village. All of this has been enacted with eagerness to please and be helpful.
The experience of accessibility has been a surprisingly positive one. Given that my major attitude toward this subject runs toward the pugilistic, due in large part to my adopted city in California’s own failing infrastructure and it’s refusal to cotton to basic civil rights when it comes to public transportation. That’s for another time.
In particular, ramps here in Sochi are omnipresent. They’ve made traversing the sidewalks in town easy, to the degree that my anger has dissipated and I am able to simply enjoy myself. There are more than enough vans with lifts and the service is quick and streamlined. The elevators work and the volunteers keep the wheels spinning around the clock. You can say a lot about Russia, but they figured out and executed this huge, ground-breaking endeavor with a great deal of precision and energy.
photo by Ken King Sochi 2014 volunteers pose for a photo at the first USA vs Russia Sled Hockey game.
photo by Ken King
Sochi 2014 volunteers pose for a photo at the first USA vs Russia Sled Hockey game.

I don’t think this is a mistake and it has to do with all these  volunteers offering their time and space to us. That the volunteers are young people, mostly college age, means a great deal, even if it’s hard to articulate now. The Russian government has made some abhorrent political decisions that show them as bullying rather than powerful. The pernicious cloud of disability maltreatment hangs over the Sochi Paralympics and the Russian people. The next generation of Russian citizens, though, hold the power to keep changing their country and its attitudes. Enough of them together could shift the cultural tide toward a more inclusive and humanistic one, devoid of ancient prejudices, possessed of a new compassion. A government is only as good as its people will allow it and the old regime, even the current one, stands on shaky ground because myopia and fear-mongering hold back progress. Yet, these everyday youth clearly have it in them to seize back the political soul of their nation by not collaborating with oppression and keeping their hands reaching out to those in need. As Tony Kushner wrote in “Angels in America”: “And only in politics does the miraculous occur.” There is a miracle here waiting for the future, a new Perestroika for the disenfranchised.

So, I think it’s appropriate to tip our hats to our host nation. It almost feels like we’re fitting in, and that’s saying something. So, if you see one of the volunteers in those must-have super fabulous jackets exploding with all those gay (see: un-ironically happy) colors, give him or her a thumbs up when they point the way. It can only do good and reinforce that there’s nothing to be worried about on either end, at least until one of us falls down an open manhole and dies. Then worry. A lot.

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