Oberlin Blogs

How I Became the Electric Yeti and Why Snow is a Social Justice Issue

March 6, 2015

El Wilson ’18

I am a person who likes to be physically feeling something at all times. I have to bring something to fiddle with to every class or my right arm will end up looking like a wall decorated by an inexperienced graffiti artist. Despite my non-binary gender identity, I keep my hair long because I love to run my fingers through it. I'm tempted to join the pottery co-op simply because I like the feeling of clay in my hands even if I have less artistic talent than a newborn.

Considering this, it shouldn't be that surprising that I like rain and snow. I love feeling the water landing on me, so when I woke up the first day of classes to see white dots falling from the sky, I nearly fell off the right side of the bed. An hour and fifteen minutes later (getting ready in the morning takes substantially longer when your leg muscles are so spastic that putting on pants is the equivalent of doing yoga), I hopped in my wheelchair and started my journey to King.

After gliding down the ramp on the side of Dascomb, the simple trip became a quest of brute strength. The sidewalks were covered in a layer of snow and ice so thick that I felt like I was wheeling on a treadmill. The wheels spun and spun but never got traction. My wheelchair moved about .00000000000007 miles per hour. Eventually, a guy who looked like he spent a considerable amount of time at Phillips Gym decided to save the disabled damsel in distress and pushed me to King. Even he had to occasionally get out in front of me to pull the front wheels over a mound of snow. (If that guy is reading this, I want him to know that I am incredibly grateful.)

I walked to and from my remaining two classes (which were in Mudd and the AJLC) that day. Was I physically capable of doing it? Yep. Did it leave me so exhausted that I ended up taking a nap on the floor of my room? Yep. My feet cave in on themselves, and my toes point outward and overlap so much that if they were teeth I would need braces until I was thirty. Although this means that they are super cute, they're not very good for walking long distances and tend to get mad at me if I push them too far. Therefore, I prefer to spend my time on four wheels. This means that my body just isn't used to walking, so by the end of that day my feet were hurting, and my entire body was exhausted. I may as well have gone to the gym for twelve hours. The next day I had a class in Severance, which is considerably farther from Dascomb than any of my other classes are. Deciding that I wanted to be able to at least stand for the remainder of the week, I emailed my Developmental Psychopathology professor to inform her that I was trapped on one half of campus and therefore would not be attending class. Luckily, Professor Morean is a bowl of awesomesauce and even offered to Skype me into class if the problem continued.

90% of the time I love being disabled. If I woke up one morning to discover that my cerebral palsy was gone, I would break down in tears. It would be the equivalent of waking up and suddenly being straight. I wouldn't know what to do because I wouldn't be myself anymore. I would be a fundamentally different person.

However, I must acknowledge the other 10%. The only times I hate being disabled are the occasions when I'm in physical pain (usually after a medical procedure) or when I'm facing systematic oppression and injustice. Being snowed in was a devastating combination of the two. I was angry, lonely (because I didn't really have leftover energy to do fun stuff), and in pain. My poor roommate got the brunt of my constant lecturing about the extreme ableism I was experiencing.

The good news is that there is the Office of Disability Services (ODS). There is no question that ODS is severely underfunded. Yet they do wonderful things with the resources they have. Less than twenty-four hours after contacting them about the problem, I met with the director, Jane Boomer, who offered to have the college lend me an electric scooter to get around. The scooter is the one often lent to athletes after they break a leg so that they can still attend classes. It's the type of vehicle you see old people use in grocery stores. When I told one of my friends that I was getting the scooter, she said that I was going to be an electric yeti that terrorized campus by accidentally running over people's feet. Due to my status as a novice driver, she was totally right.

The scooter had its failings. Once, the battery ended up having to be replaced after it died at the corner of West College and Main Street when I was on my way to a friend's birthday party. (The result of this incident was that Safety and Security drove the friend I was with and me back to Dascomb, and then the friend pushed me in the wheelchair all the way to the party. That was fun.) At the end of the day, though, I was just happy to be able to get around.

The scooter doesn't resolve the underlying issue of the snow. The fact of the matter is that I would much prefer to be able to just use my wheelchair. I like being able to use my body to its fullest capacity. Besides, I shouldn't have to use a scooter in the first place.

As part of its mission of equality and diversity, Oberlin College should hire people (maybe even students) to go outside with shovels and clear the snow when it becomes too difficult to do simply by truck. End of story. Disability is diversity. My body just happens to be different from most of the other students here. (Yes, I know there are some obvious disadvantages to having my body, but most of those disadvantages are a result of living in a society that isn't made for people who have bodies like mine. Besides, there are disadvantages to being really tall, short, or pale and no one says those are inherently inferior.) That doesn't mean I shouldn't be able to get around campus. Although we talk a lot about privilege here, I rarely hear people address typical privilege. "Typical" is the term the disabled community uses to refer to non-disabled people. The fact that the College clears the snow in such a way that it is perfectly walkable but nearly impossible to wheel on is a perfect example of typical privilege. Obviously, there are financial obstacles that make hiring large amounts of people to clear the snow challenging. However, equality should be the College's first priority. If Oberlin admits a diverse body of students, they are obligated to meet those students' diverse needs.

Now that the snow is beginning to melt, I am relieved to be back to wheeling around campus. I have never been so happy to feel the bumps in the sidewalk underneath me and to be able to pop a wheelie in the middle of class. There is a part of me that is sad to see the beauty of the glimmering snow disappear, but this part of me is very small. Although being the electric yeti was kind of fun for a few months, I hope the College recognizes the need for more intense snow removal next year because I much prefer to be viewed as human.

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