I totally forgot about this day until I went through some of my old blog posts from last year. It was just too funny not to repost.
Given the warming weather and the arrival of my brand new wheelchair, my friend Dan (a fellow “crip”) and I decided to take our chairs out for a spin along the paths following the Thames River and check out Springbank Park. Driving along the path and taking in the sights, everything seemed to be going perfectly until we began running into people on the path.
Having spent my entire life in a chair, I don’t even notice the sidelong glances anymore and occasionally the seemingly obligatory “You’re going to get a speeding ticket” jest, but never in my life have I ever elicited such a response from such a broad number of people. Literally everyone we passed had something to say, whether it was a simple hello or perhaps some deeper commentary on the apparent hilariousness of two guys in wheelchairs out for a walk. One wheelchair is enough to elicit a stare, but apparently two chairs were just too tempting! I think it’s something like kryptonite to walkies. We even had one child question “Hey, are you old?” as we passed and a little later two children accosted us, bellowing “Hey, you don’t need wheelchairs, get out of there!” It was hands down one of the strangest occurrences of my life.
Generally speaking, people in wheelchairs are far from the norm in our society and while I see more and more people out and about in their chairs, it is still within the realm of possibility that someone could go their entire life without ever really interacting with someone in a wheelchair. It’s safe to assume that, at least in part, this limited contact tends to bring on the stares and the comments, as everyone loves to gawk at things that are strange and foreign to us.
Growing up I used to always get mad at parents who would chastise their children for staring at me, especially for berating the ones bold enough to ask me a question about the chair. While I can appreciate that the parents are simply trying to be polite, I think it’s important to open up a discourse and educate these children on disability so perhaps they won’t discourage their children for being intrigued and friendly in the future. By talking to people directly and openly about disability, we can help demystify the entire process, which will do more to normalize disability than any blog post ever could.
Rewind to December 2009. Like most of North America, Clara and I decided to go to a local movie theatre and check out that little art-house picture, Avatar. After the movie, as we were about to brave the cold Canadian winter, I realized I had forgotten my gloves and scarf in the theatre. Being the wonderful girlfriend that she is, Clara headed upstairs to the box office to gather my things. As she returned with my acutrama, a distraught older man and his wife approached, very concerned that I had left my things behind. Apparently they noticed I had left my things on their way out and the gentleman seemed very concerned about my ability to survive without them. After assuring him that we had the glove and scarf and everything would be fine, he then proceeded to point at Clara and in a half-joking manner started saying it was her responsibility to remember these things, seeing as though she was my “aid” and all. I can’t begin to explain how angry this made me, as insignificant as it might seem. If a guy in a wheelchair is out with a girl, must she be his aid? Is it so unbelievable that I would have a girlfriend? There were a million angry things I wanted to say to the man, but in the ended I didn’t say anything (which, hindsight made me even angrier afterwards) because I knew I wasn’t justified to be as upset as I was about the whole thing and there was no value in yelling and screaming. Perhaps what really got my goat was that this wasn’t the first time someone has assumed Clara was my aid…and probably won’t be the last. Having said that, this particular “blame” experience was a bit unique: normally, people who presume Clara is my aid attempt to use her as a means of communicating to me.
This is an experience anyone with an attendant or translator can probably relate to–people often assume that because I have a personal support worker, I must not be able to speak for myself. The problem of dealing with people with disabilities and their aids is dealt with in a recent blog posted by Choose Ability Accomodation’s Blog, where someone who works within the disabled industry even had a tough time comprehending the dynamic of individual with disability and support worker communication. As you can see, even those “in the know” don’t always know how to navigate these situations.
Without overly simplifying or banging the logic drum a bit too hard, the obvious solution to these situations is to always, always, always speak to the person and not to the support worker/translator. It may not seem like a big deal, but I can say from first-hand experience there is nothing more humiliating then having a waiter ask your support worker what you want to eat.