The scene is a downtown sidewalk. It is noon, and the streets are bustling with liberated workers. You are in the midst of this, with a lunchtime errand like everyone else, trying to make your way toward a department store. You are in a wheelchair. At the entrance to the store are two heavy glass doors that seem to say physically disabled people not allowed.
The second scene is an employment office in a nearby building. A mildly retarded young man is filling out an application for after-hours cleaning work. His handwriting is twisted, his speech is slightly labored. By society's standards, these traits won't work in this office. The young man is sent on his way.
Clearly, we can picture the first scene more easily. For many, the image is sharpened by an American vocabulary that now includes "wheelchair athletics," "handicapped parking" and "Jerry's kids." For others, it's made even more real by memories of six or so weeks with crutches. There's also the simple fact that a wheelchair can be touched, that a set of solid doors can be seen --that these barriers are so plainly physical.
Picturing the second scene is more difficult. Yet the mentally disabled person also faces a world of barriers, routinely confronting misconceptions, stigmas and archaic attitudes. These are intangible barriers--they lack the concrete form that lends itself to easy understanding. They seem to be insurmountable, though, especially in a society of would-be superachievers.