Having been born with a visible disability, I learned at a young age that just the sight of me raises questions for lots of people. Society has a pretty specific idea of what a person in a wheelchair looks like, does (or doesn’t do), and how he or she thinks.
Something about seeing a person with a disability disarms some people to the point that they forget everything they’ve ever learned about manners, etiquette, and common courtesy. When you add a dog, all kinds of crazy happens. Let’s call this article Part One of that story, though, and focus on the kinds of things my friends and I hear just for being in wheelchairs. Part Two will be full of stories specifically about the kinds of questions, comments, and suggestions our furry friends elicit.
Crazy comes in all shapes and sizes.
Having any kind of visible disability is like strapping a Crazy Magnet to your forehead and wearing a sign around your neck that says “Open for Business.” I’m going to tell you a bunch of stories that illustrate different kinds of crazy, and I want you to know that they’ve all actually happened to me or someone I know. This article is not meant as a complaint, but merely a window into a kind of life many of you will never know. Plus, these stories are funny.
The Blue-Haired Church Lady
“Oh, welcome! Beautiful Sunday morning! Is this your first time here? Let me introduce you to some of the elders – I’m sure they’d love to pray for your healing.”
Or “You must not believe in healing. You wouldn’t be wheelchair bound if you did.”
Seriously. Enough with the fixation on healing.
Or “Your parents must have done something pretty bad for you to have been born like that. Poor dear.”
[Long, uncomfortable, patronizing smile – I sometimes wonder if these people are constipated at first.] “Oh, you’re SUCH a sweetie. What a BEAUTIFUL smile you have! You poor thing – I feel so bad for you! And you,” with a nod at Bryan, “How good of you. You’re such a nice person!”
This is usually when Bryan leans over and gives me a big long gross kiss in front of everyone. I have the best husband ever.
The Little Engine that Could
You can do anything you put your mind to, didn’t you know that? People who use wheelchairs are just lazy – if they just tried harder, they wouldn’t be such a drain on society, and we wouldn’t have to worry about accessibility.
Yeah, digest that for a second.
My good friend, Luticha, is one of the most brilliant and hilarious people I’ve ever met, and I can always count on her for a crazy-stuff-people-say story:
A classmate of Luticha used to follow her around campus and make ugly remarks whenever she gave him the time of day. In his opinion, she was crazy not to be in rehab; if he was in a wheelchair, he’d be in rehab all day every day until he could walk again. If he just couldn’t make it happen, he told her he’d commit suicide.
“Oh, you’re in a wheelchair. I totally know how you feel. I twisted my ankle when I was in college – I was so wasted – and I had to use a wheelchair for a week because I hated the crutches. It totally sucks. Hang in there.” [Fist bump.]
“So…that’s not permanent, right?”
Sensing the hesitance to say disability or wheelchair, I usually force them to by playing stupid: “Is what permanent?”
[Awkward pause followed by a gesture toward my wheels or a Charades-like imitation of a wheeling motion.] “Your…uh, situation. The wheelchair. It isn’t permanent, right?”
“Yes it is.”
“…Oh. Well, I just didn’t think so cause my cousin’s friend’s boyfriend’s sister used one just like yours for awhile and then she didn’t need it anymore. You look just like her, except she’s tall with red hair and glasses, and so I figured you have what she did. You don’t look like you belong in one of those anyway.”
The Interested but Unsure Co-ed
This has actually happened to my friend Jake on more than one occasion:
[Stranger of the opposite sex approaches.] “Hey, you’re pretty cute for a guy in a wheelchair…Does it, like, you know…work?”
And I’ve heard this one many times:
“You’re really pretty for a girl in a wheelchair.” (Variation: “You’re too pretty to be in a wheelchair.”)
For anyone who’s wondering, the qualifier “for a person in a wheelchair” is not flattering. Never use it.
The lesson is simple. Think before you speak.
Some of those are hard to believe, right? You’re thinking, “I can’t believe someone ACTUALLY SAID THAT!” It’s funny – I think that for every one of you that feels that way, there’s another one that’s guilty.
If you’re embarrassed at something you’re thinking before you even say it, you probably shouldn’t say it; I always wonder what drives people to say things to me that make them stutter and their faces turn red. My philosophy is simple, and I think it’s pretty reflective of the feelings of many people with disabilities:
I’m happy to answer questions that will help other people understand the world around them more fully. I am not happy to answer personal, prying questions, and I will not show gratitude for pity. My best advice is to remember that people with disabilities are not on display. We’re going about our daily lives, just like everyone else, and it’s nice to go a significant amount of time without a stranger reminding us that we’re different.
What’s the craziest thing you’ve heard someone say to a person with a disability? What’s the craziest thing someone has said to you personally?