“…treat people with understanding when you can, and fake it when you can’t
until you do understand.”
― Kim Harrison
Before you read this article, I want you to know that it isn’t meant to feel like a rant. Quite to the contrary, I’m opening up a personal subject to try to help you understand something that can be sensitive for a person with a disability.
I’ve used a wheelchair my whole life, and ironically, I’ve been told over and over again by able bodied people, “You’re so lucky.”
When someone says that, it’s usually in relation to something specific: “That wheelchair is so cool! I want one!” Or another one – “You’re so lucky that you can bring your dog everywhere with you. I wish I could do that.”
Twenty-five years into a life with a visible physical disability, I still don’t know how to respond to such statements. The friendly, understanding side of me knows what was actually meant, and I almost always respond with something detached like, “Yeah, it’s a pretty nice chair,” or, “She’s a great dog.” The feisty side wants me to say something like, “Oh yeah? You like my wheelchair? Want to try out a spinal cord injury and see if you still like it?” or, “Sure, it’s completely awesome to need a dog to pick things up when I drop them. If you ever put your back out, you can let me know if you’d rather have your mobility back or a dog to do things for you.”
The fact that might come as a surprise is that people of all ages share the sentiment that these things make me lucky; I’ve heard the same lines from kids as small as seven or eight years old to full grown adults. When it comes from a kid, I get it. Kids are just responding to something they find interesting or cool. Of course Billy wants to bring his dog everywhere – he loves his dog! He’s not aware of what my need for a Service Dog means to the rest of my life. I have a little less grace for grown-ups, though. Those comments really aren’t appropriate anymore once a person can understand the implications of another’s situation beyond what’s visible on the surface.
My goal here isn’t to complain and leave you feeling bad, though. My life is full and rich, and in many ways, I am lucky. I have access to the equipment I need to get around, like my wheelchair and hand controls for my car. I have been given the gift of a beautiful, sweet dog who takes some of the difficulty and struggle out of life with a disability, and she’s comforting when I’m frustrated and don’t know how to articulate my feelings so another human can understand. I also have parents and a husband who do everything they can to empower me to be independent.
Do you see the difference, though, between the kind of lucky I’m often told I am and the kind of lucky I actually am? I don’t get to have a service dog – I need the help and am fortunate that it’s available.
Sensitivity and understanding don’t come overnight. I’ve found, though, that when I take a second to consider the world through the eyes of another person, I’m more apt to admire what they have without envying it (“I wish I could have that”). It’s never a mistake to make a positive observation; I’m proud of my awesome wheelchair and my beautiful dog. But I challenge you to find a way to express your enthusiasm without minimizing the experience that goes along with what you’re admiring.
This is a topic that we could discuss all day long, and I’m more than happy to. Please share your thoughts!