A disability advocate explains the joys—and challenges—of navigating Atlanta

Carden Wyckoff used to play soccer until running became impossible. Now she's helping Atlanta become more accessible, one sidewalk at a time.

Carden Wyckoff, disability advocate

Photograph by Johnathon Kelso

Atlantans is a first-person account of the familiar strangers who make the city tick. This month’s is Carden Wyckoff, as told to Jennifer Rainey Marquez.

When I was nine years old, I was diagnosed with facioscapulohumeral muscular dystrophy, a disorder that causes progressive muscle weakness. My body breaks down my own skeletal muscle. Typically, it’s hereditary, but mine was caused by a spontaneous genetic mutation. I’m a special snowflake in that way.

When someone tells you at nine years old that you’ll eventually need a wheelchair, it doesn’t compute. You look at yourself and you think, “I play soccer, I play basketball, I run. Is there really anything wrong with me?” The symptoms weren’t noticeable until I was a teenager; one day, I went for a run, and I couldn’t propel my legs forward. I sat down in the middle of my neighborhood cul-de-sac and just cried my eyes out.

Since then, the disease has progressed pretty significantly. First, running got really difficult, then climbing stairs, then walking long distances. In high school, I would tell the teacher that I had to go to the bathroom five minutes before class ended. That would give me extra time to walk across campus. At the University of Georgia, I started using leg braces because I kept tripping and falling—one time, I fractured my skull.

After graduation, I moved back to Atlanta and got a scooter, but I refused to admit I needed it. It sat unused for six months before I told myself, just try it out. The moment I got in, I felt like I had my freedom again. Now I roam the city in my power wheelchair. I think that’s why I always loved running: I love wandering. It’s my “me time,” when I clear my head.

Carden Wyckoff, disability advocate

Photograph by Johnathon Kelso

For me, accessibility means something different every year as the disease progresses. Before I got my wheelchair, it was, Are there stairs? What’s the distance? Now, it’s, Is the sidewalk paved? Is there a ramp? When I visit a new bar or restaurant, the first thing I do is scope out the restroom. Can I stay here long? Can I drink anything?

In Atlanta, the sidewalks are really good in some places and really bad in others. There are sidewalk closures, missing curb cuts, and crumbling concrete. I push e-scooters out of the way or pick them up when they’re blocking sidewalks or curb ramps.

I’ve probably uploaded a few hundred pictures of inaccessible sidewalks to Atlanta’s 311 app. Some don’t get resolved quickly, but the city is typically good about responding. Still, we need to be more proactive than reactive.

I take MARTA everywhere. Every station has an elevator (though they’re not always working), the train is level with the platform, and I can board any car. The buses all have ramps, so I don’t have to limit myself to a specific route or a specific stop. In a lot of cities, the trains are older, the platforms are older, there’s no elevator.

In 2018, I booked a solo trip to Europe. It was exhilarating—and really scary. Every city is different in terms of accessibility. It got easier every day. Everywhere I went, I encountered such lovely people who were willing to help me. Sometimes you just can’t do it alone.

This article appears in our January 2020 issue.