|(Photo credit: Wikipedia)|
Okay, maybe that’s a bit melodramatic. These mothers may be, after all, protecting me from their snotty nosed little brats. Or they may not be scared of my appearance, but simply want to ensure that their children’s toes don’t get run over. But no matter the reason, I’m never able to pass by their watchful eyes unnoticed.
For most of the day I don’t think about my wheelchair, much like you don’t think about your legs. I usually don’t feel conspicuous when I am out in public. I carry on as if I blend into the landscape like every other person. But I don’t. I am reminded of this when I pass by a mirror or when I look at a photograph of myself in a wheelchair (or I approach a mother with children).
It’s not only from an aesthetic point of view that I temporarily forget I’m in a wheelchair; it’s also from a functional point of view. As I zoom down the aisle in a grocery store, for example, I am not riding in my chair. It is more like I am one with my chair. In fact, I would argue that in situations like this, my method of mobility is superior to yours. I glide as smoothly as a skater on ice, while you plod along in your awkward and primitive bipedal fashion.
Now, back to the issue of appearances…
I expect that when people see me coming, unless they are my close acquaintances, they either consciously or subconsciously take note of something unusual. Given that my wheelchairs are rather large and elaborate power chairs, not sleek manual ones, I stand out even more. Depending on someone’s ease and comfort with people in wheelchairs, they may experience any of a number of emotions ranging from pity to compassion to discomfort to indifference. But no matter how they feel, they almost certainly see a metal and plastic contraption coming towards them. If we don’t interact with one another, then that’s largely all they see.
I like to think, however, that if we make eye contact or especially if we speak to one another, then my leviathan transportation device fades to the background, and the essential person who I am emerges in the foreground. This remains the case for as long as we interact. As they watch me pull away, I wonder how long it takes them to be reminded of my differentness.
Of course, the iBot is a whole ‘nother thing. Typically I am in balance mode when I’m out in public. I’m asking for attention; I’m pretty much begging for it. You can’t help but notice me. In fact, it’s amusing to see how hard people try not to stare. But Kim confirms for me that they gawk shamelessly after I pass by. My attitude when I’m in the iBot is that, yes, it’s a big scary contraption, but it’s almost certainly the most interesting thing you’ll see that day. The mothers hold their children (or cubs) especially close when I pass by in balance mode, but who can blame them.
I’m not finding fault with healthy people. I’m the same way. If I see someone who appears unusual for any number of reasons, I can’t help but take note of them, and I can’t help but at least entertain my various biases about their particular appearance.
It’s an extra burden that handicapped people must carry. We don’t blend in, and we can’t hide in the crowd. That’s all the more reason we should try to smile as much as possible and interact in a positive manner with the people around us – it facilitates the lowering of these artificial barriers.