When People Glare at the Wheelchair

Monday, February 17, 2014

My husband and I talk about disability a lot. As a psychotherapist, I was trained to be cognizant of the the impacts of various disabilities on a person, but I will shamefully admit I was hardly aware of the barriers that exist in the world prior to the fall.

It is truly like having a bucket of ice cold water thrown in your face when you realize where wheelchairs can't go, how many eyes slides past my husband as if he doesn't exist because he ambulates with wheels, how gosh darn heavy the frigging contraption really is.

Whoo! I've been needing to get that out for a while. I have many posts formulated in my mind, and have for some time, because I am working on writing an article. Or a book. Who knows; certainly not me. But I needed to get it out before then, and it feels excellent.

This particular rant - because that is what it will certainly be - has to do with the glaring. It has probably happened more times than we can count, but there is a certain hostility in the world for people in wheelchairs that I never realized existed. Now that I have experienced it, I see it happen with others, as well.

The first time it happened was at a social event in our housing complex. Mind you, we live in the same housing complex where the accident occurred, and the staff here remain a little zealous in their focus on ensuring my husband's happiness. Maybe it rubbed this person the wrong way. When we could pry ourselves away, we helped ourselves to the delicious buffet of appetizers. I just happened to glance to my right, and sitting on the couch was a young couple, not much older than ourselves, and the red - hot glare of the male member of the duo would have put even X - men hero Cyclops to shame. It stopped me in my tracks. Eventually, he gaze shifted to me,  and that glare intensified. They actually excused themselves from the lounge area and went to sit outside while we served ourselves. My husband and I were both shaken, and as natural introverts, we kind of struggled with whether or not to leave or pull through and pig out.

Our hunger and desire to attempt normalcy won out, as this was my husband's first foray into the social world outside of his hospital bed. We realized pretty quickly, though, that the constant shuffle toward the buffet was putting my husband's feet into danger of being bumped, so we wheeled outside. The couple was there, and almost immediately, the glare slid right back onto that young man's face. He and his partner threw daggers at us, sitting far away and secluded in the outdoor lounge area, for the rest of the night. It made us so uncomfortable that we remained outside of the perimeter of the heat lamps, and it was about 30 degrees that night, simply because we felt as though we were inconveniencing them with our very being.

Eventually, the discomfort won out and we returned to our carpeted bat cave without saying goodbye to the other party-goers.

The second time this happened was yesterday. We went to see Spamalot in downtown Seattle, and while fun, we pushed the limits of Jeff's tolerance for having his feet unelevated, we were hungry, and Jeff didn't want to take his pain pills on an empty stomach. So we were hitching an elevator ride up to the Rock Bottom Brewery. While we waited, an older and rather portly gentlemen walked up with a cane, severely out of breath. He inquired if we were really going up, and then glared at us when we said we were heading to the restaurant. He snapped at his granddaughter to press the down button, and then snarled that he would have to wait for the elevator to come back from dropping us off before he could go down.

It was so awkward. We felt we were being berated. We didn't know whether to apologize or keep quiet, though we did the latter. He glared at Jeff's wheelchair the entire time we waited. We laughed uncomfortably about it on the ride up to the next floor, but it sticks with me. I know it sticks with Jeff,  too, because he still grumbles about it. We don't take elevator rides for granted now, and Jeff's anger makes an appearance when he sees people look at him as if he should somehow be taking the stairs or sitting outside because the chair necessitates more space.

I think this has been one of the more difficult things about Jeff's injury, because it ignites something primal in me, something that wishes to engage in verbal combat. Pain management is deterrent enough, but with the additional hostility that some people seem to harbor when my husband rolls by, we just simply cannot find enough reasons to venture out anymore, and that too takes it's toll on our mutual psyches.

So if you are out there, giving us the stink face because you feel inconvenienced, just imagine for a moment what our lives are like every single day and then work through your prejudice. My own biases, prejudices, misjudgements, etc have slapped me in the face a few times since the fall. This experience has made us more thoughtful and aware of our environment and how different types of people are forced or free to navigate it. Maybe it's time you consider it too.

And for those of you in the same boat, stay strong. None of us are truly alone. You can and will get through this, and though it may make you as angry as I feel or worse, it will make you stronger in spirit and it will force you to grow as a person. Embrace the transformation in those tiny moments when you can, and do your best to keep on keeping on.

P.S. It was really hard today not to revert to cursing and name calling in my writing this morning, but I feel like it is a small accomplishment and I am rather proud of myself. What's your accomplishment for today?

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