I walked into the house of worship. Meredith was parking the car. The place was crowded, the service underway. I was a little unsteady, leaning heavily on my cane. An usher stood a short distance from me and kept looking my way. I looked back at her, thinking perhaps she would locate two seats and guide me there. Meredith seemed to be having trouble finding a space. My knees were shaking slightly by the time she walked in.
The usher hurried over, asking, where would he like to sit? Our eyes did not meet nor did we. She just looked away as she found us two seats together. I held my tongue. This was a house of God, after all, though a silent voice suggested this was an appropriate place for raising questions about how we treat each other.
Situations such as this have been raised in Journey Man recently. From Amy: “When I’m out in the world, people talk to the person I’m with, not me. At any time, something could happen that means I need a stranger’s help. I could go on. I’m still learning how not to let it all mangle my ego. I’m also still learning how to laugh at myself. A red wheelchair helps.”
I wonder if Amy is serious about the color of her chair. That would be pretty cool. What is very uncool is the way people in wheelchairs are treated by the chronically healthy. They are not sitting by choice. I use a wheelchair at airports or other venues that require traveling a distance. Something happens to my psyche as I ease myself into that chair. I want to be invisible, which is exactly what happens. People do not see us. They just see the wheelchair. We are extensions of those devices.
I never get used to Skycaps letting me sit, pointed away from everyone else in our party. I am isolated, unable to hear what is being said. Once, a Skycap at JFK kept us waiting at an arriving plane, emptying fast. When he arrived he said nothing, pushing the chair up the jet way We merged into the passenger flow and abruptly stopped. The guy simply walked away, leaving us stranded. We stole his chair and went on our way.
We are only baggage, after all.
I learned that at Disney World, as attendants looked through me, only addressing Meredith. I had become, he. Even those of us who must lean on canes are objectified. “I have three canes here, the Amtrak agent yelled into his walkie-talkie, as a crowd lined up at the gate. I went to hand her my cane. I told that story on Imus in the Morning. An Amtrak executive freaked out and tracked me down, falling all over himself with apologies. After the fact doesn’t cut it.
We are not going to change American discomfort with us. Put Indiana Jones in a wheelchair and let’s see what happens at the box office. Illness and disability in a culture that celebrates physical perfection are not in fashion. Surprise. Just do not ever, ever, make the mistake of believing this is about you. It is not. It is all about others who have not figured out they may fill your shoes someday, sitting or standing.