Ever since I can remember, people have stared at me. It’s no wonder: I’m quite cute really, with hair curly enough to open a wine bottle, and I’m small enough to fit into people’s pockets. Oh, and I’m in a wheelchair. So there’s that.
Sometimes little kids point. This warms my heart. A small boy takes his finger out of the treasure hunt happening in his nose to inquire about my machinery. How cute.
What’s not-so-cute is when adults think being in a wheelchair is a green light for chatting up a storm. Eons ago, when I was employed, there was a woman on my bus that put the seat up for me, so that I could back into the wheelchair space. She smiled gleefully, and I nodded, thanking her.
“Oh you’re certainly welcome,” She added, “I love helping disabled people. Everyone should have equal rights.” She smiled again and raised her voice just enough so that the teenagers blaring their headphones at the back of the bus could hear.
She seemed to mean well,even if a little too well, so I nodded again in agreement and deviated my eyes, sipping my coffee mindlessly.
“Some people just don’t understand,” she continued. “They don’t know how hard it is to be disabled”
“Oh, it’s not--” I stopped short. I wasn’t going to change her mind on this 5 minute bus ride.
I guess, in other people’s minds, being in a wheelchair automatically means I’m all-ears for disability. Just like how all gay people are out and proud and waiting to talk about it 24/7. Oh wait.
Last summer, a friend and I were going to meet up with some mutual friends downtown. We both use wheelchairs, and were waiting to cross the street when a guy about 20 interrupted our conversation. “Excuse me, Ladies” he said, “You seem to be having a lot of fun tonight,” I gave my friend a confused he’s-a-creep look and didn’t respond. “I’m not trying to be rude, but I just find it amazing that neither of you are angry considering your situation” My friend and I laughed. I wish more people knew that when you preface a sentence with “I’m not trying to be rude” to a visible minority, with intent of asking them--a perfect stranger--about their "point of difference", you are being rude.
Don’t get me wrong, I have no problem talking about my disability or disability issues (I have a blog about it, for godsake). What’s problematic is the mistaken assumption that visible disability is an invitation for discussion with any joe blow. It’s not. If you want to know what its like to be disabled, and you don’t have any friends with physical disabilities to ask, use your imagination. Or Google it. Or better yet, try a wheelchair challenge.