January 1, 2012
Our journey to the Magic Kingdom began at an airline ticket counter in New York, where picture IDs and airline tickets were the currency of the realm rather than fairy dust and a happy tune. I was nestled comfortably enough into my wheelchair. Airports are large, and gates too far away for me to make it on foot. The woman pushing the chair said little as she maneuvered the chair through the gauntlet of humanity on the move.
I could see the situation coming. “I can stand and walk through security,” I told her in plenty of time for her to move to the proper line. She said nothing, as if she did not hear. Ropes were moved as the chair headed for a line off to the side. I turned in the chair. “I can get out of this chair and walk through security without the cane,” I said forcefully. Again she did not respond, as if deafness had suddenly set in.
An electronic gate opened, and I was pushed into a private space. “Please stand and place your feet inside the footprints on the mat.” The man was soft-spoken and pleasant. I was furious. “If I can do that,” I said, “I can walk three feet through an electronic screen.” The man simply asked me to spread my legs apart and lean forward.
Screw the charity event, I thought. I just want to go home. The pat-down that ensued was invasive, humiliating, and most of all, avoidable. When the chair showed up, I screamed at the woman, “Why did you do this to me?” Again, she said nothing. “Do you know how to talk?” I asked her. Silence. I knew what this was about. We are our wheelchairs. “Don’t let this ruin the trip,” Meredith pleaded. Now was my turn to say nothing.
“Have a magic day,” the Disney minder said with a smile. Still I could not shake my anger, though I knew I should. The nicer people were, the grumpier I felt. We had a few hours to kill. “Let’s go to the simulated space launch,” I said to Michael, Meredith’s agent, a neighbor and friend. We had a nice young man assigned to us, a guy with a van and map of side entrances in his head, the fast track to the front of lines for all the rides and attractions.
Again I was in a wheelchair. The Disney properties are spread out, with endless walking to get anywhere. The Magic Kingdom was getting old fast, but I was determined to play the good soldier. Michael had his kids with him. This was not all about me, I lectured myself. By now I was over the airport drama and was ready to have a decent time.
One of Michael’s kids wheeled me through the side door to the space launch. We could have gone to any of three attractions. An attendant stared at us and said nothing. Meredith and Michael arrived, and the attendant asked them what I wanted to do. “I just learned to talk,” I said with dripping sarcasm. All I wanted to do was leave. It reminded me of a weekend when I walked into a house of worship. An usher stared silently at me. Meredith had been parking the car. As she entered the sanctuary, the usher asked, “Where does he want to sit?”
The chronically healthy have a big problem. Many seem unable to relate in any way to anyone who has obvious physical problems. Half the population in this country has a chronic illness. Many are disabled. I live with both. And we are treated poorly because others cannot handle our disabilities. The truth is that many of them will join forces with us eventually. Demographics work against those who think they have gone free.
My less-generous side thinks they do not know what they are in for and deserve what they get. My softer side wishes for them a soft landing and a more open mind.