In My Shoes: Block(ed) Island

The entire week leading up to my trip to Block Island was filled with anticipation and excitement. I told everyone that crossed my path about my plans, and more than anything, I couldn't wait to be on the deck of the ferry checking out the amazing ocean view.  Little did I know what I was in for...

We headed out from my home in Johnston on a beautiful Friday morning, and it took about an hour to get to the Block Island Ferry in Narragansett. As soon as I handed over my ticket and boarded the boat, two crew members greeted us. My staff and I asked where we could sit, wondering if it was possible to get upstairs using the lift, like I had on past trips to Block Island. They apologized and said that neither of them knew how to operate it. I’ve never had this issue before, so I assumed it wouldn't be a problem this time either — unfortunately, I was wrong. In that moment, I thought about trying to track down another boat staff that might know how to work the lift, but I didn’t think it was worth it to make a big deal. However, shortly thereafter, when I realized that they were parking two 18-wheeler semi-trucks directly in front of me, I regretted not pushing harder to find a solution to the chair lift dilemma. Instead of a beautiful ocean view, I spent the entire ride looking at a steel wall on one side of me and a tractor trailer on the other. Worse still, the voyage took twice as long as it normally would have, because someone got sick and the ferry had to stop halfway through to return them to the mainland. Everyone on the boat had to endure this inconvenience — not just me — but I imagine it was easier for those who were able to move freely around the deck, talk to their friends, visit the snack bar, or even use the bathroom. I’m really lucky I didn’t have to use the facilities over the course of that two hour trip, because there was absolutely no access from the cargo bay they had me cooped up in. Thankfully, I was traveling with a staff person that could go and buy some food or drink for me if necessary, but if I had been on my own, I would have had to wait two hours to eat. 

The first thing we did upon arrival was look for a place where we could eat and use the bathroom, and the obvious first step was paying a visit to the welcome center. The people working there were nice enough but sadly uninformed. They told us there was no handicap bathroom nearby or possibly anywhere on the island, but we ended up finding a lone handicap stall inside the the bathroom in their own building. I shouldn’t have been surprised they were unaware of this, because there was nothing on their official Block Island maps indicating where to find accessible areas or facilities. It sort of annoys me to point this out, but accessible facilities are only helpful if those who need them actually know where to find them! After we left there, we asked at least 4 or 5 people (employees, residents, and visitors) if they knew where to find other accessible bathrooms elsewhere on the island, and each of them responded by looking at us like we had two heads. Some of them just weren’t sure, while several others informed us (mistakenly) there were no accessible bathrooms at all. Sometimes the struggle isn't just about having accessible spaces, but knowing where to find them. 

Next up we started walking around looking for restaurants that could provide access for my power chair, since the map didn’t give us any information about it. We walked for 10 minutes, passing several restaurants before we found one with a ramp. From our perspective, this looked like the only accessible place to eat nearby, and to my dismay is was only partially accessible. The ramp lead to an outdoor dining area, not the inside of the building, and if I had wanted to use their bathroom or get some cool air inside, for example, I couldn’t.

Later on, my staff and I were driving along the sidewalk in a nearby neighborhood. It was very narrow, so when our path intersected with a man walking towards us, he graciously moved off the sidewalk and into someone's yard in order to make room for me pass. But as soon as he did so, a large group of tourists behind him walked right past him and then past me without stopping or bothering to share the sidewalk. It's annoying, and unfortunately not that uncommon. Sometimes I wish people would be more aware of their surroundings and considerate of those with with different mobility needs like myself. 

At the end of the day, I decided I wanted to buy a block island hoodie before departing. Unfortunately, none of the buildings we encountered could allow me access, so I had to ask my staff person to buy one for me without even getting the chance to see it or try it on first. In our rush to catch the ferry, we didn't have time to walk past every store on the island to personally see if they were accessible. Even if we did have time to make those assessments ourselves, who wants to spend all day doing that?? 

The ride home on the ferry also wasn't any better than my trip up. I was situated between another semi truck and the wall again, but this time I had a viewpoint that allowed me see people on the top deck of the boat. I felt like they were staring at me, wondering what I was doing down there cordoned away from everyone else. It was an awkward, strange, and uncomfortable feeling. At least on the way there I wasn't continuously reminded of what I was missing. 

When you think of an island, you think of beaches and water. But for me, those were the only two things I couldn't see or visit at all, because of limited access in my power chair. The first time I went to Block Island I was ten years old. Back then I wasn't thinking about accessibility, I was just enjoying myself, and I didn't know any different. I was also small enough that my mom could physically lift me out of my chair and bring me right onto the beach. This time, my visit was a little more underwhelming. Being there made me realize all of the things I can't do there, which made me wonder if I even wanted to come back again. 

However, because of the success I've had with Equal Access, I know it's possible for me to make meaningful change. I don't have to just feel powerless. I can use those feelings and experiences as motivation, and that's what I hope to do. There are probably lots of other people who've had similar struggles, and hopefully sharing our stories will help raise awareness. I think Block Island can and should be a more accessible destination, and I'd like to do my best to help make that a reality. That's part of my mission at Equal Access, and I'm proud of that.