Eliminating Physical Barriers So All Can Come Into God’s House and Know Him
by Katie Leatherwood, BBI Missionary
RIGA, Latvia – Besides the physiological challenges, living with a physical disability is accompanied with daily challenges of accessibility, especially in Latvia. Latvia is full of very old towns with very old buildings. Most of these buildings are not adapted for wheelchair accessibility. I live on the 2nd floor of a building that was built in the 1800s and has no elevator.
During my time living here, I have found that the stairs to get to my apartment are a limiting factor of having friends over that use a wheelchair; stairs can limit relationships! When I first arrived to Latvia I had heard stories of people that stayed in their home for months at a time without leaving. I could not believe how this was possible! After some time in Latvia and living life alongside people with disabilities, I can now see how this is a very sad reality. This unfortunate reality is much due to the old multi-story buildings that are the most prominent housings.
Since I have been in Latvia, I have been blessed to know many people who depend on wheelchairs for their means of independence and mobility. Living life alongside them, I have become aware of the many challenges and considerations that are part of their daily life.
I want to take you on a trip throughout Riga, so you can get an idea of some of these challenges. This trip is a compilation of my observations of life in Riga with friends that use a wheelchair.
We have a day planned to meet for coffee, have lunch with friends and then go to the church for an event. The day starts by planning to catch the most accessible bus, one that has an automatic wheelchair ramp that can be easily deployed without inconvenience to other passengers or driver. We board the bus and ride to the cafe. We go to a cafe that is already known to be accessible, but also has good coffee! The seating is open to allow for a wheelchair to easily get around. There is a new cafe nearby, but we don’t go there because we do know how accessible it is.
After a short time of coffee, we head towards the restaurant to meet other friends. We are running a little late so decide to take the bus for a faster trip. Leaving the cafe, we need to use the wheelchair lift to access the underground tunnels to cut across quickly to get to our next bus. Unfortunately, the lift is broken. This means we will need to take the long route to the bus stop, adding about 15 minutes to our journey. We finally arrive to the restaurant and meet up with our friends.
At the entrance is a set of steps that keeps us from entering with a wheelchair easily. We stay outside debating what our next plan will be; struggle to get in the door or go to another restaurant. To our surprise, a waitress brings out a portable ramp, which allows us to easily enter into the restaurant! After a wonderful lunch we prepare to leave and the waitress again deploys the ramp and helps us leave. The weather is nice so we take the long route to the church for the upcoming event. When we arrive to the church, we must wait outside until others can come help lift the wheelchair up the steep stairs at the entrance. We have a wonderful time at the event and meeting with friends.
I have observed that living life dependent on a wheelchair requires a lot of preparation, considerations and determination. Many things must be considered before leaving the house; will the bus have a lift or ramp? What is the weather? Is where I am going accessible by bus or will a taxi need to be used instead? Will the taxi driver help? Is there a ramp at the store? Does the building have an elevator? Will someone be there to help me if I need it?
The lack of accessibility has wider effects than just not being able to get inside a store easily. It can result in someone staying inside their home for weeks at a time, only being able to leave if a few people can physically lift them down stairs. Lack of accessibility limits activity in society, relationships and personal growth. Having accessibility promotes independence, healthy living, confidence and much more!
Designed to Live is preparing to launch a new initiative; Project Access. The aim is to provide resources for Latvian churches to adapt their building to be more physically accessible for people with physical disabilities. We hope to help eliminate a physical barrier of entering the church building so that all can come into God’s house and know Him.
More information to come!!
Originally from Athens, Texas, Katie has lived in Riga since June 2015. A specialist in prosthetics and orthotics, she is Director of Designed to Live.