On our last visit to my son, Sam, and his fiancé, Laura, in New Jersey, we went out on a Sunday afternoon looking for a farmer’s market and a bite to eat. Bundled up with hats and winter coats, we wheeled my son’s sweetheart in her wheelchair for several blocks along wide, open sidewalks and across well marked curb cuts with flashing lights to help pedestrians safely and easily cross the broad streets until we arrived at the restaurant, a spot Sam had scoped out earlier.

Nine months ago, Sam and Laura were in a car accident outside of Ronda, Spain, just a few days after their engagement. Sam walked away with minor injuries, but Laura was not so lucky. Her spinal cord was severely injured and after several surgeries and three months of in-patient rehabilitation, Laura is learning how to navigate her new life in a wheelchair.

I have grown used to seeing passing pedestrians take a second glance at this beautiful young woman being guided in her chair by her handsome young partner. I see young children turning their heads to take a second look, wanting to know more. Adults are quiet; children ask the best questions.

When we finally arrived at the restaurant, we found we were the first customers of the afternoon. Once inside, we all suddenly noticed that, despite the easily accessible, airy floor plan, all the tables were high-tops with tall chairs and the bar, of course, was totally inaccessible for one in a wheelchair. There were no regular height tables where we could all eat together side by side.

We asked if they had a lower table for four somewhere in the restaurant, and the hostess and two waiters looked at us blankly, totally bewildered. “No,” they all said, “we don’t,” and that was the end of the discussion; we had no choice but to turn around to reconsider another option.

As Sam wheeled Laura to the entryway of the restaurant to stay warm inside, he began a quick search on his phone to find another nearby lunch spot. I looked down at Laura. A deep silence had fallen over her, and I sensed a frustration that must hit Laura in some small way every day. Despite her ongoing efforts, she remains dependent on others for her day to day needs, her mobility, her freedom. She and Sam have been exploring more throughout the winter months, wanting to become a part of the real world again, outside of their accessible apartment and the rehabilitation center, where Laura continues therapy sessions to regain strength in her upper body and to improve the dexterity in her hands.


I turned to the three restaurant employees and said without malice, “You may want to think about this for the future. Everyone deserves to be able to eat here.”

Finally, Sam found an alternative spot, and we opened the door to leave. Suddenly one of the young waiters hustled up to us. “We found a regular table upstairs in the back room. If you want to wait and join us here, we can bring it down and set it up for you right away.” Sam’s face changed to lightness and Laura broke into her bright smile, “Yes, we’d like to eat lunch here.” It was a small moment, but one in which we all grew, especially the restaurant employees who decided to reconsider their approach.

Now, as I walk around my own neighborhood in South Portland and the streets of downtown Portland, I notice all the rugged curbs lines, the narrow, bumpy brick sidewalks, and the tall granite steps into storefronts and restaurants. The barriers to those with disabilities are many.

We hope that Sam and Laura will travel this summer to return to share time with us on the Maine coast as they have so many times in the past. With their determination and a bit of enlightenment on the part of restaurants and stores, perhaps we can all help our communities become more accessible and welcoming to all.

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