One of the more enlightening aspects of being in a wheelchair for any amount of time is handling the lack of situational awareness by a vast portion of the legged populace, as I was reminded yesterday when I narrowly avoided becoming roadkill. What I am saying, though, also applies to anyone with any sort of handicap in public, whatever the nature, especially when there is any sort of physical reminder that they are different, whether it is a wheelchair, an amputation, a limp, a machine, or a service dog.
I know you’ve all seen those miraculous people that have managed to survive into adulthood believing themselves to be the center of the universe and who never notice the people or things around them unless they are impacted personally.
These are the people that trip over people in wheelchairs, sometimes even knocking them over, and looking horrified that the wheelchair was in their way. I learned very quickly that being in a wheelchair with my face at hip height for the general populace means that many people will look over the top of me, never seeing me, while others will see me and will be staring so hard they walk right into me (or a pole or shelf) like kids do when they first ride a bike and manage to hit the one tree in the park spot on. The number of times I’ve been bumped into is more than I care to count. Keep in mind when people back into you when you’re in a wheelchair, it’s their ass that backs into your face, and when they walk into you, its their groin. Yeah. Being in a wheelchair has the ability to make one acutely aware of the personal hygiene habits of those in the world around one but sadly not in a good way.
These egocentrics are the people that get abusive and belligerent when they see people they don’t think belong in public places. I’ll never forget the parents who walked into my 4th grade classroom yelling at me because my husband the amputee brought me a latte one morning as a treat:
How dare you let your fucking monster, cripple husband out in public? He is fucking terrifying and my kid shouldn’t have to see THAT! I shouldn’t have to see that! You fucking bitch, I can’t believe you’d let him out in public!
This happened during the day and in front of my students, and then was repeated with several different parents, at a school on base where all the families are military, like mine, and therefore have someone who also deploys and could come back from deployment looking just like my husband.
This superiority and desire to keep the unworthy out of sight and mind also applies to those of us who have ever had need of a service dog. I’ve been yelled at and harassed so many times about service dogs that I don’t err on the side of polite sharing of the law anymore but instead err on the side of sassy and absurd remarks:
- I was in Walmart looking for something in the holiday section a few years ago when an employee on a ladder yelled down at me, in front of about 30 other holiday shoppers, that if my service dog was real I needed to show her the paperwork proving I need it. I yelled back that I’d be happy to comply as soon as she showed me the results of her last Pap smear. Everyone froze and did the awkward-look-back-and-forth as the associate’s mouth hung open. I looked at her for about 30 seconds with a face that said I was waiting before continuing: “Oh?! I’m sorry. Do you find it offensive that a complete stranger would demand to see your medical record?! So do I.”
- In a supermarket in New York I was once yelled at by a store manager who didn’t even bother to walk down the aisle to where I was standing saying that the service dog needed to have a red or blue service dog vest. I asked him if he expected AIDS patients to walk around with a placard informing the world that they’re carriers of one of the most feared diseases of the modern age. “Of course not!” he said, clearly appalled that anyone would ever suggest such a thing. I pointed out that the law states the dogs don’t even have to wear a vest because, interestingly, lawmakers don’t think people who need service dogs should have to advertise their handicaps. “Maybe you should go reread the business owner guide to the ADA concerning service dogs.”
- I once told a man at Costco, “we are not a fucking circus act here for your entertainment,” when I asked to make the dog perform so he could see what the dog does and therefore he could know this was legitimately a service dog.
- I’ve told more than one restaurant employee to call the police if they want to remove me for having a service dog. It’s always amusing to see the looks on their faces when the do call the police and are told I have the right to be there.
- I once had a hotel manager call the police to have me removed from the premises and the dog impounded because she claimed the dog was aggressive and I was threatening other patrons. I had also called the police and her corporate office so imagine her surprise when the police showed up with dog treats and a new tennis ball only to wrestle and play fetch with my dog in the hallway.
I have met families that had similar reactions about the presence of their disabled family members with autism, cerebral palsy, amputations, survivors of stroke, and more saying they (the disabled) shouldn’t be allowed in the same places as the general public.
These mystical centers of the universe are the people that have no problem parking in handicap spots because they’re “just going to be a minute” or they’re “in a hurry” so I have to crutch from the back of the parking lot. They use the electric cart in the supermarket because they think it will be fun or they’re tired. They are so obtuse, they trap the wheelchair bound in awkward positions in the store by shoving their cart someplace next to or behind the chair and wandering off, mumbling insincere apologies when they return, “Oh, sorry, but I forgot milk and I was only gone a minute!” They sit in the handicap seats at the theater because they want to and they act like it’s a terrible thing when someone who really is handicap and needs those seats gets management to move their sorry asses. They use the handicap restroom stall so they don’t have to sit so close to someone on the other side of a wall. They use the counter designed for people in wheelchairs to be able to see and interact with them as a storage or display space in their offices.
They’re the ones that when they notice those with handicaps think it’s perfectly acceptable to ask intrusive and personal questions ad nauseam or give unsought-after medical advice. Strangely, I’m not about to tell a stranger on the street about amputee sex. Ever. I’m not going to discuss my diseases and treatments with you, creepy man who won’t stop staring at my stump. No, you can’t touch it. I don’t care what you heard about what stumps feel like or what it’s like to be an amputee. Although I appreciate that your best friend’s cousin’s father’s uncle also lost his foot, even though it was to diabetes, I’m not interested in comparing symptoms so that you can try to tell me that I have diabetes too. I don’t care how convinced you are that all my problems will magically be solved if I start juicing, or go vegan, or go keto, or go Atkins, or do yoga, or practice earthing, or begin the ancient Japanese art of forest breathing. I don’t care what you think, strange lady at Walgreens, please leave me alone! No, you may not cleanse my aura, I don’t care how easy you thing it will be to just pluck a few spots out, nor may you massage my chakras, touch my third eye, or try to psychically heal me.
But I digress.
Yesterday I had to go to the hospital to argue with the pharmacist about my medications *cough cough* …I mean, I had to go to the hospital to pick up some medications. As I was leaving with a bag full of meds carefully balanced in my lap, I wheeled though the traffic circle and across the crosswalk toward the handicap parking area. Having a decent amount of paranoia about becoming mincemeat or being knocked out of my chair again, I’m absurdly aware of my surroundings. So when some asshat came speeding around the end of the row playing on his cellphone I was able to avoid being hit despite his complete lack of situational awareness. He was paying so little attention to what he was doing that it was only after my back wheels were against another car and I kicked his door with my only foot that he realized I was there, and that he was about to hit another car.
I’m fine, but I’m pretty sure his upholstery has a new stain to match the dent I left in his door.
For the record, every outrageous example in this piece has actually been said or done to me. Even the aura plucking and earthing advice. Seriously, like I could make this shit up!