People often confide in me: deeply personal stories about bad accidents and tragedy averted, extensive outpourings about aunts with Multiple Sclerosis or fathers with Parkinson’s. I hear them in the security line at the airport from the agent tasked with checking me, or in a taxi after breaking down and storing my wheelchair with the driver, or, sometimes, simply waiting to cross the street. I have become a lightning rod, a rolling forum for discussions about the fragility of the human condition. The conversation starts with disclosure, “my grandfather had polio,” then moves to a litany of lessons learned or adventures recounted. I nod and then add my perspective, though not everyone is looking for a response. Sometimes strangers query my condition, and I’m no longer offended by direct probes. How did it happen? Will you get better? I keep my answers short and straightforward. And then I wonder why they wonder. The frequency and persistence of these questions points to the paucity of coverage about disability and impairment and the lack of opportunities for people to talk about how they coped or helped with illness and accidents. Enter the wounded stranger with an empathetic ear.
Living in a compact urban area accompanied by an appealing dog has made me a bit of a public figure on my small patch of the planet. To be out and about using a wheelchair is to be a spectacle, an anomaly, a source of fascination. I don’t kid myself. I am representing. So I remind myself that people may be repelled by me or attracted to me. I tend to be the token wheelchair user in the restaurant, the bank, the gallery. I am cool with that, or I’ve become cool with that. One terrible, horrible, no-good, really bad day, I snapped at a young woman giving me the once over as I struggled up a tough curb cut. Her surprised response gutted me. “Oh! Sorry! I was trying to figure out how to ask if you needed help.” There is something to be said about good intentions. Something good. So we talked about etiquette the way I see it. Always ask what might be needed. Never assume you know. Don’t anticipate a request. Be careful with your help.
Traveling through small towns in Italy further changed my perspective. Italians seem to stare. At everyone. Especially foreigners. And definitely Americans in wheelchairs trying to negotiate cobbled streets or Tuscan hill towns. Older men caught my eye and signaled something like approval, or so I imagined. Restaurant owners would send out their strongest waiters to lift me over front steps. Bartenders offered glasses of grappa on the house. Farmers insisted on a few extra tomatoes at the weekly community market. I felt recognized for the effort I was making. No one said, “I share a bond with you because pain and sorrow touched my life, too,” but that’s my read.
It’s naive for me to think I can stealthily go about my business unnoticed. Why would I want to when there is so much to share and so few occasions for sharing? I’m a reminder. A memory jolt. So bring on the memories and the awkward questions. I’ve had practice answering children who want to know whether or not my legs work. I am open to showing anyone how my wheelchair functions. They can even take it for a short spin, if they seem trustworthy. It’s my small attempt to normalize who I am. So I leave some extra time for exploration. I am more patient getting from place to place these days. I don’t do this out of charity but inclination. What might I learn? Who could I teach?