By Chris Hibbard - Lethbridge Herald Local Journalism Initiative Reporter on November 29, 2023.
For the ‘average’ Lethbridge citizen, the city is quite easy to navigate – 20 minutes from one side to the other. For many other residents however, it’s a whole different story.
Tim Hamilton was born with cerebral palsy. He has spent the entirety of his 64 years in a heavy electric wheelchair. He can move his right arm and he can move his head. He can speak, he can eat, he can drink and he can laugh and joke around.
He can use a computer and a telephone and he has a Facebook account. He likes sports, he likes movies and he likes socializing. But from the time he wakes to the time he goes to bed, his life is a bit more challenging than most.
Hamilton lived with his parents until 2010, at which time he moved into a care facility on the city’s northside. Health care aides and nurses assist him in the morning, using a lift to get him out of bed and into his chair. He requires some assistance in using the bathroom, getting dressed, and sometimes in using a fork and knife for his food. At night time, the whole process is reversed. But during those waking hours, Hamilton keeps himself as busy as he can.
He’s a regular fixture at all local Bulls baseball and Hurricanes hockey games. He goes to see movies at The Movie Mill. He attends church on Sundays. He volunteers as a greeter at the hospital.
He goes up the street to the pub to have a hamburger. He calls the Access-a-Ride bus every week, booking rides days in advance to fit his schedule. He calls his a satisfied life – a life that certainly requires making a few concessions. Hamilton says that if he’s careful, he can go “practically” anywhere he wants, he just has to make choices.
He is unable to go to some local businesses, however, because they don’t have wheelchair ramps to get to the door. He’s unable to go to others because they don’t have push buttons to open the doors automatically. There are certain streets and areas he has learned to navigate around because they are bumpy, cracked or don’t have flattened portions to get from street to sidewalk.
Yet he remains an active member of the community and he tries not to let these things affect his attitude.
“I can’t really say for sure how Lethbridge compares to other cities as far as being wheelchair-friendly,” Hamilton says, “since I’ve never really lived anywhere else.”
On a scale of 1-10, he said, he’d give Lethbridge a fairly high rating of 8 as far as accessibility goes.
“The downtown has lots of old buildings so it’s a challenge. Many of them have doors that are a step above street level so I just can’t go to those places,” Hamilton said. His only main complaint about this is that there are restaurants and pubs downtown that have pizza and poetry and live music which he calls missed opportunities.
Multi-floor buildings must have elevators, or only the ground floor is accessible. Plus, winter months with snow and ice make things a bit more difficult, as well.
“It takes me a space of about six to eight feet to turn the chair around full circle, and I often have an assistant with me, so little dinky rooms are not good,” he says.
He says the main aisles in most stores are wide enough, but some smaller stores he’d have trouble navigating around. Some stores have items more than six feet off the ground, and he’d never be able to reach them (or even see them) on his own, from a seated position. Similarly, the teller windows at banks are often a bit too tall, and the plastic windows that seem to be everywhere now since COVID make it hard for him to hear and be heard by employees.
“COVID almost killed me,” Hamilton says. “I’m a social person. I like going out. Two years stuck inside being lonely and bored was absolutely awful.”
His wheelchair weighs a lot and has batteries that require special chargers at night. Just to replace the cushion he sits on every day can cost nearly a hundred dollars. His batteries have died in public before, leaving him immobile and frozen in place. But the worst part about his life in a wheelchair, he claimed, is a human condition.
“Many people see me and they automatically judge me. That man is handicapped they think. They think because my body is in this chair that my brain must not work well either. But they are wrong,” Hamilton said. “Just spend 15 minutes talking to me and you’ll change your mind about that.”
Hamilton has a positive attitude. He claims that a large part of his life is about waiting. He waits for help when he pushes the call button. He waits for dinner. He waits for the bus. So he’s developed a lot of patience over the years, and he’s learned what works best for him.
He will phone the Access-a-Ride number a week in advance to book his trips. “Some people have had bad experiences with it,” Hamilton said, “but if you don’t book it you don’t get it, and if you try to book it for today or tonight, you might not get it.”
Hamilton jokes that he was one of the very first riders on an Access-a-Ride bus in our city.
“I think I was their third passenger ever.”
He appreciates the friendly drivers on the buses, but wishes bus service would continue later than 6 p.m. on Sundays.
“There goes any thought of Sunday night dinners or church services,” he said, believing it should run until at least 9 p.m. every day, to include everyone.
If given the chance, Hamilton will talk at length about inclusion, about acceptance, and about how people with disabilities are still valuable members of society.
“Businesses should hire more disabled people. Some of them work harder than the non-disabled ones I bet. There’s a myth about competence. If your company hires a disabled person, the business will naturally adapt to their needs – not the other way around,” Hamilton said. “Everyone should be included. Everyone deserves an equal opportunity.”