(Tuesday, July 2nd, 2013)

Wheelchair People Are Scary


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wheelchair-in-elevatorWheelchair people can be scary. I know this because I am one. I’ve experienced the leers, the double-takes, the awkward hesitation from others of whether or not to help—it’s a daily occurrence. And I am no exception to the rule. I size up other wheelchairs. I check out the rims. I wonder about the person’s life story. Then—like some of you—I try to avoid the handicapped as much as possible. That’s because sharing disabilities does not necessarily guarantee friendship (unlike most assume). What using a wheelchair guarantees is that you take up a lot of space, public events are a hinderence and people will often take the liberty to invade your personal space.

Have you ever had the inconvenience of sharing a curb or an elevator with a wheelchair person? It’s frustrating. There is little space to move, and it’s hard to know where to step without worrying about a foot being ran over. Admit it. But don’t feel bad for feeling this way because the feeling is mutual. You able-bodied people walk around aimlessly and without any care or respect to how much sidewalk space you are using. And as for the curbs, even though they are specifically made to aid disabled people at cross walks, for some reason many normies (you able-bodied folks) think you also need the provided ramp to safely exit a curb. More than not, I have to wait while you stand there on the edge oblivious, waiting for the white man to flash in order to cross the street, all the while making it difficult to maneuver around you and make the cross in time. It’s just as frustrating.

It doesn’t help that all wheelchair people must be grouped together at public events. The disabled are the only minority required to sit in a designated area of event spaces. Has anyone else noticed this? It doesn’t matter if one has Muscular Dystrophy, Leu Gerhings, Spinal Cord Injury, Austism, or mental retardation—according to our social standards all wheelchair users are created equal when it comes to placement in arenas, stadiums, concert halls or any other public event. We are like scary criminals on safety watch, corralled into a corner, often shoved out of the way and literally pushed out sight. Although instead of conjugal visits we are allowed one friend to sit with us, or ‘companion’ as corporate America puts it. But what if I wanted to attend a show with more than one friend? Sorry, I’m told. The party must be separated and sat independently in different spaces. Because after all, rules are rules and losing a job is not worth someone’s happiness, even if they are disabled and participating in one of the few events his or her body will allow. But then again this is assuming the wheelchair person was able to purchase disabled seating at all. Contrary to what you might think, achieving tickets for our special “handicapped” section is quite difficult.

Thanks to ADA laws every wheelchair person must have a place to be seated at any event or event venue. Sounds socially agreeable, right? Not so fast. To assure an event producer or venue abides the law and/or is not sued, most places refuse to sell handicapped tickets at all and then call it “sold out.” So thus we are forced to buy normie seats and then spend hours in customer service exchanging tickets and demanding our rights. In order to see the Clippers play at the Staple center last year, my husband and I were encouraged to partial season tickets to make the exchange easier. What actually happened was that we were directed to customer service and then asked to wait for periods up to an hour for someone to physically exchange and provide the lawful disabled seating, which often led to missing the tip-off and mediocre seating. I offered to pay extra for the lower bowl seating that was marked for disabled, but then was quickly denied because those were reserved for full season ticket holders and somehow their large financial commitment grandfathered them into those designated seats. So much for the ADA law doing any good. It actually wastes time and prevents me from attending events.

Outside of arena events I’ve witnessed moms shush (and sometimes punish) their children after they have asked about my wheelchair or van. I’ve seen people in attempt to not acknowledge my wheelchair make fools of themselves in public, ie. “Oh, I didn’t even see your wheelchair.” I’ve had strangers come up to me in a grocery store and immediately dive into conversations about a cousin of a cousin who is also in a wheelchair and so said person claims to know EXACTLY what I’m going through (to which I always reply, “That’s great. I’m just here trying to buy groceries”). There are those who claim I am too “happy” or look too “pretty” to be disabled, which is completely flattering. But really? If crime has no zip code than neither does disability.

And then there are the prayers.

Over the years I’ve lost count of the number of people who have offered to pray for me, but I can assure you it’s a number so large that even Jesus is beginning to become sick of me. While some strangers prefer to shout out their well wished from afar, like “I’ll pray for you!” Others have actually stopped me, violated my personal space by putting their hand on my forehead and began praying without even asking my name, never mind asking if I am religious or even if I need a prayer. I usually don’t pray. I send good vibes. And yet naturally, I am a happy, giving and loving person. This mind-fucks everyone. Apparently it’s assumed that wheelchairs cause depression and a life of loneliness, at least that’s what the depressed, lonely person thinks.

There was this one time while crossing a street in downtown Los Angeles that a homeless woman reached out her hand, grabbed my shoulder, said a quick prayer, than released me while I ignored her and continued the conversation with my friend without interruption  Upon reaching the opposite sidewalk, my friend appeared frightened and inquired about what happened.

“That homeless lady just prayed for me. Isn’t that nice?” I answered. I watched my friend’s jaw drop wide open and then continued, “Although, I don’t know. My life must appear pretty terrible if she thinks my life is worse than hers. I mean… she doesn’t even have teeth.”

The impromptu event had stunned my friend into silence. But not me. I didn’t even flinch. This is what has become a normal occurrence in my apparently very un-normal life. Sometimes I have to remind myself that while I’m well adjusted, my injury was nearly 15-years ago, others are experiencing my injury for the first time. So it’s important I present myself in the best manner in the case my reactions forever shape a person’s perspective of disabilities. And yet as the years continue to pass my life story becomes shorter and more like an elevator-pitch, like so:

“No, I’m not mentally handicapped. I was injured doing a stunt show at Sea World. No I wasn’t riding Shamu. Yes, I’m confined to a wheelchair. Yes, for the rest of my life. Yes, I’m sure. Yes, I did therapy. No there’s not a cure… yet. Yes, I am married. Yeah, totally happy. My husband is even handsome, isn’t he? No really, you don’t have to be sorry. I’m not.”

So the next time you see a wheelchair person in public, ask yourself what is scarier: the fact that happy wheelchair users exist or the idea that this is so unfathomable?


3 Responses to “Wheelchair People Are Scary”

  1. kathy kiely says:

    jana — another good one, and an eye-opener. sheesh, it’s like being a celebrity who has no bodyguards. if i were you i wouldn’t want to go anywhere without cory!

  2. stephen says:

    yeah, what you said. i never thought about the fact that we wheelers are segregated together in “special” areas. Although, i have to say, often we get the best seats in the house. and sometimes at reduced prices, and/or the “companion,” (keeper?) might get in free.

  3. Excellent way of describing, and nice piece of writing to get data concerning my presentation focus, which i am going to convey in university.

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