I’m Not Here for Your Pity or Your Punch Lines
Rolling in a machine on wheels to get around has never seemed like a big deal to me. To most other people, though, I’m a spectacle. I’m almost always the big pink elephant in the room. Unfortunately, this means I’m a target for remarks or uncomfortable behaviors regarding my wheelchair on a fairly regular basis. Usually, I let it roll off my shoulders, but lately, it’s been wearing me down. In fact, if I had a dollar for every time someone made a joke or comment about my wheelchair, I’d have enough money to send all of the offenders to disability etiquette training, because they all seriously need it.
Last week, I took a business trip down to Maryland/Washington, D.C. and the wheelchair-related encounters just kept flowing. The first one took place on a metro elevator. I had made it almost all the way to my hotel without incident and was about to go up to street level. A woman getting off the elevator stared intently at me, and then reached over to hold the elevator doors open. Normally, this is a gesture I really appreciate, but the woman ruined the moment of kindness by speaking to me in an incredibly condescending tone, saying “I’m holding the elevator door for you. You can turn yourself around and push the button to go up. Okay?” While this wasn’t a direct comment about my wheelchair, the way the woman spoke was clearly influenced by my visible disability. To me, it sounded as though the woman had made an assumption upon seeing my wheelchair that my disability is cognitive as well as physical. I wonder, would it have been so difficult for her just to hold the elevator and make some friendly small talk rather than talking to me like I had never used an elevator before?
The next day, I was minding my own business and having breakfast when a little girl approached me and tried to strike up a conversation. I love kids, so I was happy to chat with her over a bowl of Cheerios, but things got weird very quickly when she came up beside me and shouted “Mom, can I pray for her?” She then grabbed my hands and proceeded to say a prayer for about a full minute while I sat there feeling hopelessly awkward, willing my mouth to open and stop what was happening. Sadly, I didn’t have the heart to ask the girl to leave me alone, so I put up with the situation. But I was frustrated, because I felt that this prayer came from the wrong place. Perhaps the girl assumed it was an act of good will, but more likely, she had been taught to see people like me as less fortunate, in need of healing. It seemed she had learned that the existence of someone disabled was a mistake.
After having already been treated like a five-year-old and a broken woman, I figured I’d met some sort of wheelchair-comment quota for the week. I was wrong. The following night, while leaving a restaurant, the hostess held the door open for me and said, “You have a good night.” As I was about to wish her the same, she looked at my wheelchair and went on to say, “Don’t go hurting anyone out there.” I know she meant it as a joke, but it was neither funny nor original, so I rolled my eyes and left. I suppose if I had better manners, I’d have giggled politely, but the hostess was actually the one who needed better manners. My wheelchair is not an open invitation for comments, and I wish people would think about that. Would you say goodnight and follow it up with a joke about a person’s skin color or another noticeable characteristic? I hope not.
I’m all for having a good laugh and cracking jokes at my own expense, but when strangers on the street or people who don’t know me well ask if I’ve “got a license for that thing” or if I’m “going to win the race” or tell me I should get a “speeding ticket,” it gets tiresome. And when people take it far beyond stale jokes, saying or doing things that imply I’m somehow inferior to them, it stings. Quite simply, we’d all be better off if people treated people kindly without turning them into a punch line of a joke or an object of pity.
Emily Ladau is a writer and disability rights activist whose passion is to harness the powers of language and social media as tools for people to become informed and engaged social justice advocates. She is the owner of Social Justice Media Services, which provides communications, outreach, and social media management services for disability-related organizations. Emily also maintains a blog, Words I Wheel By, as a platform to address discrimination and to encourage people to understand the experience of having a disability in more positive, accepting, and supportive ways. You’re welcome to connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.