Posted on October 8, 2012


Preface:  This is a paper I ghost wrote for a friend who was having difficulty with the subject matter.  Obviously, I don’t wear heels or carry anything resembling a purse.

When I was informed of our task to spend some time in a wheelchair, I thought it would be simple.  I thought it was one of those rare, easy assignments you pray for, where you’re handed an A just for showing up.  How hard could it be I wondered?  I’ll just sit around, have some overpriced, greasy pizza and be done in less time than it takes my husband to watch a football game and pretend to clean the house.  In hindsight, I realize now I couldn’t have been more wrong.

There’s an overused saying of “Don’t judge a person until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes”.  I guess the same holds true for wheeling a mile in their chair.  Being in the public education system, I see people with disabilities on a daily basis.  I’ve often seen them struggling and thought just how hard it must be to accomplish a mundane task that I take for granted.  But thinking about something and actually experiencing it are two different things entirely.  What follows are my experiences in a wheelchair while at a local shopping mall.

I arrived on Saturday afternoon when it was quite busy.  This wasn’t by choice, but it worked out for the best, as it would prove to be more realistic than showing up on say, a quiet Monday morning.  The first challenge I faced was to figure out exactly how to go about renting a wheelchair.  There weren’t any signs or symbols stating “wheelchairs here” or anything to that effect, so I figured I would wander aimlessly until I came upon the kiosk.  After walking around for 15 minutes or so, I gave up and asked a security guard where the wheelchairs could be found.  He informed me that they were upstairs in the middle of the mall by the food court.  Upstairs and in the middle I thought, shouldn’t they be downstairs and near the entrance?  Shouldn’t there be some type of directional system other than the scattered, defaced and confusing map stands, which are almost always missing the red “you are here dot”?

Needless to say, I finally found the kiosk and proceeded to rent what would be my primary mode of transportation for the immediate future.  I then began to attempt to make my way, but not first without receiving a really strange glance from the clerk as I fumbled to adjust the device and situated myself in it.  It was as if he was starring at a fat man in a bra.  I think in his own mind, he wanted it to make sense, but things just seemed a little too out of place.  This is probably because just moments before, he saw me wrestle the chair from its stand with one hand while slinging a 10 lb purse over the arm rail with the other.  Both of course done while standing.  Solid and stable.  In 4 inch stiletto heels.  Little did I know this would be the first of many looks I would receive that day.

One of the first things I noticed was that the chair wasn’t that easy to get into, and this is given the fact that I have a fine pair of legs in perfect working order.  The chair I selected to accompany me looked quite worn, almost ramshackle.  The chrome finish was tarnished and like and old rusting sports car, had long since lost its luster.  Then there was the duct tape; possessing no subtleties while attempting to cover up a few minor rips in the fake leather upholstery.  No doubt this was the unmistakable shoddy craftsmanship of the kid who works the counter but would, “rather be texting”.  The coup de grace that really made this chair the fine little gem that it was, was the dead-centered brown stain in the seat from only god knows what.  I was hoping Coke.  I would’ve even settled for Big K.  Nevertheless, the chair felt comfortable and seemed somewhat sturdy.  Overall, it was quite the bargain considering it was free as long as I didn’t steal this little treasure (lest they hunt me down as they copied my I.D.).

Now I apologize for sounding facetious, but I guess I was just expecting better.  I guess I just assumed that if one should suffer the fate of being forced to parade themselves around on one of these homely contraptions, they could at least do so by means a little more well kept and presentable.  That being said, I decided the first place on my itinerary to peruse would be the food court.  So after a few moments practicing braking and turning, I began to make my way.  I guess the chair itself was simple enough to operate, at least at first.  It was a little wobbly one the right side though.

One of the first things I noticed was that with the exception of children or the vertically challenged, I had to look up at everyone almost I saw.  In one fell swoop, my point of view had been reduced to that of a 9 year old.  I arrived at the food court and decided to order some kebob from the Greek place.  Problem was, the counters were so high, (at my new reference point) most of the food was difficult to see.  My head was tray level.  I couldn’t help but notice all the globs of sticky gum stuck under the counter.  Very appetizing.

It was fairly busy there and the line was quite long, so I decided to bide my time spending the next few minutes reading the labels off of baggy jeans and cargo shorts.  When I was finally rung up, I had to reach up.  Way up.  To make matters worse, the food server had to compensate by stooping and reaching over the counter to complete the uncomfortable handoff.  At which point, I almost dropped my tray.  The easy had become the laborious.  And as long as I remained in this wheelchair, it would remain so.

I made my way to an empty table near edge of the food court.  However there were chairs at the table impeding my progress.  Knowing I wouldn’t be able to sit with the chairs in the way, I rolled up to the edge to table and grabbed one with one hand and tried to back up with the other.  It didn’t work out as well as I had hoped.  Even though the chairs were light enough, I had no leverage to move them.  With the shaky handoff fresh on my mind, I was starting to realize how embarrassing and difficult this must be.

And it did get more embarrassing as this really good-looking guy came up and offered me assistance.  My face must’ve turned 3 shades of red, but I gathered what little composure I had left and thanked him.  I told him I was doing a project for school and asked if we could chat for a few minutes.  “Thanks, but I can’t stay.” was all he said.  I think maybe he was too embarrassed to be seen with me, or something to that effect.  But what did he have to be embarrassed about?  I was the one in the wheelchair struggling just to sit at a table.

Regardless, I tired to put it out of my mind.  I sat for quite a while after I finished my lunch plotting my next course of action.  Determined to go against tradition and not to make another stain on this poor excuse for a wheelchair, I made my way to the bathroom.  Now it was hard enough running the man made obstacle course better known as the food court, but you can forget about trying to maneuver a wheelchair in the rest rooms, let alone getting in them.

The bathroom door had to be pushed open.  Not too easy a task while sitting.  I tried to use my arms, and while I could move the door, I couldn’t move the chair forward.  Self admittedly, I got frustrated, so I cheated and stuck my right foot out to push the door open while finagling my left foot propped in the crack to keep it there.  At least I didn’t stand.  Once inside I was greeted with an almost immediate 90-degree left turn followed by another immediate 90-degree turn, this time to the right towards the stalls.

At the end, four stalls down there was handicapped stall with a sign on the door.  Using my iron horse as a makeshift battering ram, I opened the door without much trouble.  Inside there were the standard issue bars clinging to walls of a slightly larger stall.  I got my chair in ok, but couldn’t manage to turn it parallel to the toilet.  Even with use of the bars, it was near impossible to get on to.  Even though the stall was larger than the standard issue, it was still like trying to park a car in a shoebox.

Anyways, I went back towards the sink and managed to wash my hands without the now expected hassle.  Drying them was another story however, as the air blower was mounted high and just managed to blow water down my forearms and soak my sleeves.  It was truly an exercise in futility.  Severely irritated, I attempted to leave the restroom only to be confronted with the same poorly designed door I had encountered on my way in.  Without practice, there was no way I would be able to pull this open and wheel out at the same time.  So, like a fool with too much time on her hands, I just waited for someone to walk in and open the door for me.  It wasn’t a long wait as our restrooms are always busy anyways.

I was greeted, and none too pleasantly at that, by a teenager with a haughty attitude.  She rolled her eyes at me as if to acknowledge that holding the door open for 10 seconds would take far too much effort and might blow her coolness factor.  I rolled past her and she muttered something under her breath that rhymed with cupid rich.

I was at once pissed and at the same time upset.  It was all I could stomach not to throw the cursed chair at her snotty head.  I started shaking.  I was now walking (or wheeling as it were) the proverbial tightrope between a deeper understanding and an acute loathing of being disabled.  A relationship was forming and I was beginning to hate this rickety metal demon.  To make matters worse, my foot was falling asleep.

I took a few deep breaths, regained my composure, and decided to wrap this up.  As there was less than an hour left for the requirement I relegated myself to the fact that if this was going to be an awful day, what was left of it could be spent in the comforts of home.  Determined to conclude this assignment, I decided not to be choosy on whom I spoke with.  I wheeled back to the food court and tried making eye contact with a number of strangers.

Now I’ve been told I am good looking, (at least by my husband when he’s in the doghouse) and yet it was all people could do to give a quick glance in my direction.  I guess even though the chair didn’t change my appearance, it changed the perception others had of me.  It was then that I noticed a distinct pattern in which most people handled this situation.  The hesitance was gnawing at my subconscious before, but now it had come to light.  For the most part, I discerned it to be a planned avoidance of sorts.  This ritual consisted of quickly turning one’s head and pretending I didn’t exist, or scurrying away as if to feign being too busy to talk.  It was those same empty stares with eyes forward and not looking down I noticed back at the food court.  It was the kind of stare that attempted to challenge my existence.

Conversely, there was another kind of stare, which mostly came from curious children or saddened adults.  The befuddled, sometimes shocked stare undoubtedly paired with the thoughts “you’re not like me”.  It really didn’t matter to me.  Whether people turned a blind eye, or gave way to an uneasy and constant stare; both were equally uncomfortable for all parties involved.  But what did they have to feel uncomfortable about?  They had what I, (at least for the present time) and others like myself so desperately sought after, a chance to be normal.

Eventually I managed to harvest a few brave souls for conversing.  The conversations themselves weren’t especially memorable or deep.  They held my interest about as much as a rock collection.  Furthermore, they all had the same subtle undertones; they were laced with this intangible insincerity.  Or maybe I had just grown skeptical, almost to the point of jaded.

The first two people, incidentally both women, were polite albeit fake.  Then there was the man who overcompensated.  The one who used his almost uncontrollable sympathy as a smoke screen to hide the false pretenses of discomfort.  I saw right through him and we both knew it.  To his credit though, he mustered up a weak attempt to conceal the awkwardness and continued the conversation.

With my assignment now complete, except for the time requirements, I figured, as any lady would, as long as I’m here why not multitask and do some shopping?  I had been sitting for two and half hours and my foot was starting to fall asleep.  I went into a few of the stores, but didn’t purchase anything, as I wouldn’t be able to try it on.  I then hit the bookstore, but as you may have already guessed, most of the books were out of reach.  The staff was less than accommodating.  And with that, I decided I had had enough for the day.

I headed back to the kiosk where my odyssey had first begun.  The slight discomfort I had experienced earlier had now come to manifest as a major unshakeable irritation.  What started as the smallest tingle in my foot began to work its way up through my knees and thighs until it finally came to rest in the small of my back with a full blown aching sensation.

Even though it was only for a few hours, this device became an extension of my body.  It was a strained relationship where I knew I needed the wheelchair to get around, but at the same time, a burning hate was growing inside me just for having to need it.  I couldn’t even begin to fathom what it must be like to be confined to this solemn restraint for a lifetime.

I stopped and I reflected for a few moments.  “”What if something happened and I became paralyzed for real?” I wondered.  After the initial trauma, I suppose I might adjust and find some solace in friendship and companionship.  But would anyone really be able to identify with me?  It seems there would remain this unseen, internal solitude always lurking in the back of my mind.  Always hiding under a mask of content, yet never really assuaged.  With this newfound insight, I found myself beset with emotion and succumbed to the tears I had been holding back.  In the end it turned out to be cathartic.  I guess because I knew I had an escape route.

I think it’s rather strange how you don’t realize the everyday inequities people are faced with until you’ve lived them for yourself.  You can imagine a given situation and really ponder upon that situation wholeheartedly.  But until you’ve lived it do you really have a right to comment or judge?  Have you earned the right to make policy and procedure?

I realize now that most people with disabilities are not always dis abled per se.  They are abled but hindered.  Hindered at least in part by the social constraints and invisible limits society imposes upon them.  In many cases these individuals are kind, well-meaning persons to whom life has thrown a curve ball.  We’ve all seen them.  Maybe it’s the guy in the wheelchair we pass at work, or the hearing impaired woman in our neighborhood.  But have any of us really taken the time to get to know these people?  Maybe the real tragedy isn’t in being disabled, but in the cold ostracise that so often couples it.

Webster’s Dictionary defines disabled as “physically or mentally impaired”.  I think that’s accurate enough in and of itself, but after this experience, I feel there needs to be another category of so-called “disabled” individuals.  Perhaps the real people with disabilities are those that are plagued by the fears and prejudices that prevent them from knowing our challenged brethren.  Perhaps those who lack empathy and don’t in earnest, harbor compassion and humanity; perhaps these are the true disabled of our world.

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