When I first started to venture out into the world after my injury I felt like the most obvious human on the face of the earth. This was probably giving myself far too much credit as I am actually quite difficult to spot in a crowd. But justified or not, I always felt like everyone was looking at the woman in the wheelchair. Fast forward to today and I find that I don’t feel quite as obvious. I understand that people have more things to be concerned with than the woman in the wheelchair and that, generally speaking, if I carry on like there is nothing to look at, people don’t look (at least not usually for long awkward periods of time).
I suppose it is because I have convinced myself that I blend in to some degree that I was caught off guard a couple of weeks ago. I was in a professional building and I needed the elevator but I was waiting and checking my phone before I ventured down into the no-cell-reception parking garage. A man who was delivering boxes walked over singing and I looked up briefly and smiled at him. He looked at me and said, “oh are you having a problem there dear?”. I honestly didn’t have a clue what he meant at first but quickly thought he was referring to me waiting for the elevator – as in maybe he thought it wasn’t coming. I told him that there wasn’t a problem and I was just checking my phone. I assumed at this point that our conversation was over but I was clearly mistaken because he gestured awkwardly with his hand and said “no, no you uh are in a wheelchair there”
“Son of a gun is that what this is!?” is what I wanted to say.
Instead I just smiled and said “Oh! Yes, I’m fine. Just paralyzed” (If you haven’t realized it yet, I like to ease tension by making jokes about my disability. It’s a solid technique). He stumbled over his words a bit but then asked what happened to me and if there was any hope for me. I could have easily been insulted by that question. I could have expressed my annoyance at the things he just insinuated about my life. I could have even played every sarcastic card I had in my repertoire (and there are A LOT). However, it took me less than a second to decide that I didn’t want this man to walk away from me with a feeling of pity. So I smiled as big as I could possibly smile and I told him in pretty plain terms that I fell in a hole and that, while my condition was permanent, I thought that I was doing pretty well. Through every sympathetic nod and sigh, I smiled. I did not let him take pity on me and as he walked away from me he said “well you just keep taking care of yourself”. And then he was gone into the elevator (I decided I didn’t want to join him). But I was still smiling. I was smiling because he didn’t tell me he would pray for me or suggest any longer that I needed ‘hope’. I was smiling because it was possible that he actually heard me; it was possible that in our brief exchange he lost sight of the wheelchair and realized that I was just like any other 30-year-old woman he might encounter that day.
As I continued on with my day and week, I kept this interaction in my mind. I feel like I left this stranger with something to think about and possibly a reason for him to reconsider what paralysis is all about. I’m proud of myself for moving past any sort of annoyance or embarrassment and choosing to spend those moments showing him that I was in a wheelchair and I was not a lost cause. Maybe that will be his only conversation with someone who is paralyzed for his entire life. Maybe that will be his only experience with a wheelchair user. I mean, maybe not…but maybe! And if it is, then it’s possible I gave him a story to pass on to someone else; like a chain reaction. Or maybe one day he will come across someone else dealing with a spinal cord injury and he will be less concerned and more encouraging – maybe he won’t even mention the wheelchair at all.
Clearly, there is a possibility that our little conversation had no impact on him whatsoever. But I can only control what I put out into the world – not how the world receives it. And if I treat every interaction with every uninformed person like I did the one with that man while I waited for an elevator, I’m bound to get through to someone eventually. I have to believe that.
Public Service Announcement – If you are of the able-bodied variety, please stop wasting your time waiting for elevators. I promise you it takes longer. Your butt will thank me.