Tuesday, February 23, 2010

More customer service horror stories...and lessons to learn

From reader comments and Facebook posts, it's clear that our recent experience at Jewel Osco was not an isolated incident. And it got us to thinking about other examples of customer service-gone bad. Just a few of the horror stories:

  • Chilly Reception at Chili's: Most restaurants are great at accommodating customers with disabilities. To us, their philosophy is simple: They treat us just like any other customer. Unfortunately, it takes just one slip up or bad experience to create an impression that may last for years. While Chris was an undergraduate at Northwestern, he wandered into a Chili's with his personal assistant to grab some lunch. His PA had to make a phone call in the lobby, while Chris approached the hostess stand to ask for a table. The hostess ignored Chris for the entirety of the PA's phone call. Finally, the phone call ended, and the PA approached the hostess. At that point, she had an obvious look of relief and asked him how many people were in the party. It was clear that Chris had been over-looked and marginalized. That's not a good way to encourage a customer to return. For anyone that encounters a similar experience, it is important to realize that a power wheelchair does not imply that a person can't communicate. The best way to handle it would be to talk directly to any person with a disability, if they can't communicate back to you verbally, they will find a way to share with you what they need. Be it through themselves, their personal assistant, or through some other means. And it's common courtesy to treat all people like human beings.

  • North-worst Airlines: Throughout high school, Dan played on a wheelchair basketball team that traveled across the country playing in tournaments. Most airlines were tremendous in handling the crunch of 15 wheelchair athletes, many of whom had more than one wheelchair. This grouping, unfortunately, does not include Northwest. During one infamous flight, the flight crew took about 30 minutes to load our entire team onto the plane. This wasn't too bad considering they had to help about 10 of us to our seat in an aisle chair (a chair with wheels that fits down the narrow airplane aisles, used to transfer people who have trouble walking to their seat).

  • However, once we were all situated on the plane, and the rest of the passengers were in their seats, the pilot came over the loudspeaker to give information. The first words out of his mouth were the following: "We apologize for any inconvenience, we have a group of quadriplegics on the flight." Nearly all of us gasped. There was so much wrong with those 14 words. First, maybe one or two of us on the team were actually quadriplegics. A quadriplegic is somebody who has some sort of impairment in all four limbs (a paraplegic has a disability affecting two limbs). We understand that some disabilities are difficult to differentiate from others, but it's best to never assume what a disability might be. Also, we had paid Northwest for the flight, and we should be given the proper respect and services that we paid for. A company should never apologize to others for providing assistance to their paying customers. Isn't it the job of flight attendants to attend to passengers on the flight??
While these examples are nearly a decade old, from time to time we still encounter similar experiences at stores, restaurants, movie theaters, etc. It seems as though a few simple lessons can help prevent these misunderstandings from becoming any more prevalent.

We'd love to hear your similar experiences...please share them!

Monday, February 22, 2010

Why Being in a Wheelchair Doesn't Suck

Part One in a weekly series.

Let's face it: there are a lot of times when being in a wheelchair sucks. You can't always stomp your foot when you're angry, you can't stand up for the 7th inning stretch at the White Sox/Tigers game, and you can't go to wheelchair birthday parties because there are no handicapped parking spots left. Many people focus solely on the negative aspects of having a disability. But constantly harping on the downers is no fun at all. So each week, we're going to examine one reason why it's nice to be wheeling around all day.

This week's positive: jumping the line or no lines at all. Growing up, Dan's friends used to always take him to Cedar Point with them (an amusement park in Northern Ohio) because customers who used a wheelchair didn't have to wait in line for rides. As an added benefit, amusement parks will allow you to stay on the ride twice instead of having to get off and wait in line again.

Amusement parks aren't the only place where a similar phenomenon exists. When Chris goes to White Sox games, he gets to avoid long box office lines. When he goes into the gate 4 handicapped entrance, there is a box office window specifically designated for people with disabilities, which rarely has any line at all. This gives you an advantage to get to your seats and snatch a freshly grilled hotdog before the first pitch.

Finally on a more historic note, at a high profile political rally in November of 2008, Dan and Derin jumped the line about 4 times with their own personal Secret Service escort, bypassing hundreds of thousands of people waiting in line (and got personal pat downs).

So it's easy to see, if you hate waiting in lines, become friends with someone using a wheelchair, and you may reap these benefits as well.

Next week's reason: it's better than the alternative.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Excuse me ma'am...I'm right here!

Derin, here, Dan's fiancee and Chris's favorite able-bodied Minnesotan. I've been with Dan for almost 6 years, and we often get the assumption that I'm a) his sister, or b) his personal aide. I have yet to give into the temptation to tell them that it's just my turn to let him out of the secret back room to see the real world.

So typical day, we headed to the grocery store, Dan is up at the cash register waiting to pay, and I'm still unloading the cart. Cashier leans all the way around the register to peer down the conveyor belt at me and ask if I have a preferred card, while Dan is sitting right in front of her. Dan looks right at her and hands her his preferred card. Guess those people at Jewel have caught on that people who use wheelchairs can't hold onto a piece of plastic the size of my pinky.

This seems to be a trend in our relationship. How many times has it happened to you?

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

What is Muscular Dystrophy?

By Chris

While Dan and I both use wheelchairs, it is obvious to tell we have differing physical abilities. Both of us have had disabilities since birth, but they are unique. I have Muscular Dystrophy and Dan has Spina Bifida. I have Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy (DMD) which is the most severe form of the disease. I was diagnosed after analysis of a muscle biopsy at the age of four. At the time life expectancy was predicted to be 14 years. At the time of this entry I am nearly 28 years old. That's right, almost exactly 2 times the predicted lifespan.

Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy occurs nearly entirely among the male population. People diagnosed with this disease lack the gene which produces dystrophin, a protein that is integral to keeping calcium inside muscle cells. Without calcium muscles cannot be maintained or developed. Eventually all muscles within the body are affected. Currently I am on medications for cardiac, pulmonary, and neurological symptoms. I also have a pacemaker defibrillator and a tracheostomy tube which is attached to a ventilator at night. I use a large power wheelchair with a tilt and recline seating system. I also have a personal care assistant who helps me with my personal care needs as I am very limited in what I can do for myself physically.

Muscular Dystrophy progresses over time. Up until the summer after I turned 11 years old I was able to walk. I always walked slower than other kids and cramped up much sooner, a typical situation for boys with Muscular Dystrophy who often walk only on the front part of their feet. Over time I have become weaker and weaker, but that's just the way it is.

If anybody observes the physical abilities of Dan and myself, the differences become obvious. Unlike me, Dan can push himself around in his manual wheelchair. He often climbs out of his wheelchair and around his apartment like some sort of trained chimpanzee. That's not meant as an insult, it's just the best way to describe his movement. I use battery power and need much more assistance to accomplish certain tasks. This has been a nonscientific description of a genetic disease. Feel free to send your questions. Non-doctor Chris signing off.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Does the disability logo need a makeover?

The current disability logo has become ingrained in us as a part of American culture. It's in every parking lot, on thousands of license plates, on any push-button, and outside every accessible restroom. But is it the best symbol for Americans to use to represent the disabled population?

First, lets look at the positives of the current logo:
  • It's simple and easily recognizable: It's not a complicated design, and it's easily reproduced, making it easy to create signs, paint parking spots, etc. It's also very clear what the logo represents. It's a person in a wheelchair. There can be no confusion over that.
  • There's little controversy regarding its use: From my past experience, there seems to be very little controversy surrounding the logo from within the disability rights movement. I've not once heard from somebody offended by its use.
  • It's part of our culture: At this point, the current logo represents the Americans With Disabilities Act, and in general, disabilities of all types. We're used to it. As is everybody in most major developed nations, as most countries use a symbol that more or less resembles what's posted above.
Now, I would hesitate to call what I've written as a ringing endorsement. In fact, there are many things I dislike about the disability logo. The negatives:
  • The logo is stiff and rigid: The person in the picture isn't moving, and can be interpreted as "just sitting there." While there are no handle bars on the back of the wheelchair, it seems as though this person would need the assistance of somebody else in order to do just about anything. This just feeds into the pervasive stereotype of individuals with disabilities: They are helpless, inactive, and always need assistance from others. Do we really want that as the "universal" symbol of accessibility?
  • The logo is accepted nearly everywhere: As mentioned above, I've heard very few complaints about this logo, and in fact, had given it very little thought myself until recently. Does this mean the disability rights movement has accepted it as our logo?
What got me thinking about this post was a logo I saw on the doors of a store recently. The logo there looked a lot like the one at the right. It was simple, yet in the end, brilliant.

This logo (which I found at www.bushprisby.com) took the old one, and simply added arms in motion. That tiny addition makes an enormous difference:
  • It shatters the helpless stereotype: The person in the new logo is propelling him or herself, without the need of any other assistance. It sends such a simple message. People in wheelchairs, in fact, can go shopping on their own, can park their cars on their own, can use an accessible restroom on their own.
  • It's not stiff and rigid: As a generic symbol, it gets rid of the idea that an individual in a wheelchair sits in his or her chair all day waiting for something exciting to happen.
  • It's starting to catch on. As I mentioned, I saw a similar logo to this outside of a store in suburban Chicago, while companies such as Inclusion Solutions already utilize this logo on their products.
  • It's still similar to the old logo: A shift to the new-look logo would not cause whiplash within the general public. The colors and overall theme are the same. In fact, I would guess that a high percentage would not even notice the difference. So this would keep us in line with the "universal" symbol for disability while updating it for the realities of the 21st century.
After taking that all into account, I think it's time we re-examine our current disability logo and make some tweaks. A small step here can lead to a giant leap in the perception of those with disabilities...

Monday, February 1, 2010

The "cripple nod"

I'm sure all of you have experienced it at one time or another. In fact, I'm sure many of you have initiated it at one point. I'm guilty of it many times in the past. It's the moment when you're wheeling down the street and you encounter another person in a wheelchair. Invariably, he or she will either wave, nod, or acknowledge you in some way. Why? Because you're in a wheelchair too! I like to call this the "cripple nod."

Now, obviously, the "cripple nod" makes a lot of sense. If you're in a chair, you clearly share some of the same experiences as the other person. You've encountered the jerks who take handicapped parking spots from you, you've had to maneuver around curb cuts that are covered in snow and haven't been shoveled, etc. So you get it. And because you get it, you are somebody to acknowledge and perhaps befriend.

I hope it doesn't make me rude or a bad person, but I don't like this line of thinking. To me, the whole point of the Disability Rights movement is to fully integrate those with disabilities into the "able-bodied" community. This is why all buildings should be made accessible, all classrooms should have resources for the disabled, etc. Along those same lines, I just want to be treated like everyone else in the "able-bodied" community. Would you nod at me if I were just walking down the street by myself? Probably not. In that sense, I feel like some others with disabilities are unable to look past my disability. All they see is my wheelchair, and immediately they think they can trust me.

When Chris and I first met, Chris sent his personal assistant over to grab me because I was wearing a Tigers hat. He just wanted to talk baseball. It didn't matter that I was using a wheelchair. And in the grand scheme of things, that's what I want. I want somebody to acknowledge me because I did something nice for them. Or I'm wearing a the hat of their favorite team (or biggest rival). I don't want special recognition simply because I'm sitting down as I make my way down the street...