After 18 years in a wheelchair, I know what to expect when I’m leaving the house.
I was born with cerebral palsy, a neurological condition caused by a lack of oxygen to the brain in childbirth. It left me with an inability to walk and a low tolerance for stupidity. This is put to the test as soon as I leave my house. People stare at me like a hanging head in a butcher’s window (and then smile. Like I’m some sort of ‘cute’ hanging head.) People ask me if my arms hurt. But the best of them all is when people offer help and then say ‘I’ve done a good deed today’.
I know what you’re thinking.
‘Maybe they think you’re deaf’. That would surely be the only explanation for such stupid behaviour.
You’re wrong. They don’t. This is a common occurrence. And it’s only the tip of the fully accessible disability iceberg.
Imagine if someone came and picked you up and carried you away. Naturally, you’d be incredibly alarmed. So why do I have to smile and nod and politely decline a potential kidnapping every day? I’m ‘rude’ if I refuse the offer of being treated like cargo by a complete stranger, but I’d much rather be rude than dead. And then there’s those people who don’t help at all. I could be sliding backwards down a ramp into a pit of hell and they would focus all of their attention on a passing cloud to avoid – God forbid - eye contact, let alone actually trying to help me. Maybe disability is catching. The awkwardness is palatable when I finally make it onto the bus and have to sit facing all of the people that somehow could not see me when I was wedged between the side of the bus and the edge of the pavement. I can’t decide whether they’re as bad as the people who ask me ‘What is your…er…problem?’ and then pat their legs for emphasis as if I think they’re talking about my glasses.
The bus is truly a disabled person’s paradise. It’s like some sort of government regulated punishment for being disabled, in which you have to battle with a person with a small child for transport. Have you ever seen a showdown between a person with a pram and a person in a wheelchair at a bus stop? Neither have I, because the person with the pram always gets on without a second thought. THAT IS AGAINST THE RULES OF TFL. I don’t say anything, and neither does anyone else. At least I have an excuse. What if they wanted to fight over it? I can’t exactly make a quick escape. As for all the other people, please refer to the ‘don’t help at all’ section above.
I was going out (to the gym, can you imagine) and I got on the bus. The woman who had a pram in the wheelchair space moved it out of the way to make space and I went in and continued minding my business, my default state when wanting to avoid pity talk. Pity talk, for those who don’t know, is what happens when the person sitting facing you in the wheelchair area feels so uncomfortable seeing you alone that they talk to you out of sheer sorrow. Sometimes, they even invite you to their church for a healing seminar. As I get off the bus, the woman moves her pram again to let me out. The man behind her must have assumed she was getting off, and the woman said ‘I’m not getting off, just moving to let the wheelchair off’. I wasn’t aware that I had gone out dressed as an empty chair, but you never know.
People interpret me as either being constantly lost, or as having a learning disability. I hear the words ‘Are you okay? Are you lost? Do you need help?’ at least thrice a day if I leave my house. The answer is always no, as these people seem to only appear when I’m perfectly fine, and disappear as soon as I’m about to push myself uphill. It gets tiresome after nearly 2 decades. A woman came up to me and screamed ‘I SAW YOU LOOKING AT THE MENU EARLIER, DID YOU GET SOMETHING TO EAT?’ Turns out she had been watching me in the restaurant and didn’t say anything, kind of like an inept guardian angel. I still don’t know why she shouted. I’m physically impaired, not hearing impaired. But I’ve learned that most people seem to be tact impaired.
Despite the comical tone of this article, being patronised, pitied, dehumanised and made fun of every day is horrible. Particularly for a young person struggling to find their own identity and be acknowledged as an equal by their peers. This is the reality of life for many disabled people, and it shouldn’t be this way. Next time you come into contact with a disabled person, treat them with respect and consideration. Don’t hound them with your questions comments and concerns, and try not to stare so openly.