Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Why can't you just forget 'that thing?'

This is an excerpt from Lisa Bendall's latest book Magic Moments: Twelve Little Stories About Disability, Family and Fairly Normal Life. Lisa is a Toronto writer who lives with her husband Ian, who has quadriplegia, and their daughter Emily. Her blog shares inspiring ways to make the planet a better place. Thanks Lisa!

By Lisa Bendall

“Do you have a driver’s licence for that thing?”

If my husband and I had a dollar for every time we’ve heard that, we would have our mortgage paid off. Paid off? Heck, we wouldn’t even have had to take out a mortgage in the first place.

“You’re a pretty good driver in that thing!”

My husband uses “that thing”—namely, a power wheelchair—for his mobility. So of course his manoeuvring skills are not too shabby. After all, he’s had a couple of decades of practice at it. Usually, that’s the kind of response he will muster, accompanied by a weak, patient smile.

“I know what it’s like—my father’s in one of those things.”

Oh? And his lessons in wheelchair etiquette went right over your head?

“That’s a pretty nifty way to get around, eh? I wish I had one of those things!”

You’re looking for a shortcut? Allow me to give you the starting push.

Anyone with a wheelchair user in the family is familiar with openers like these. We hear them so often we could write a top-10 list for David Letterman. And we probably all have a ready store of sarcastic retorts—although, admittedly, we usually put them to use only in our imaginations. At least, I do. Thus far, I have not been able to summon the nerve to reply to a “So, what happened to you?” with a “Nothing—but hey, what happened to you?”

Deep down, we know they mean no harm. They’re just looking for a way to make conversation, and for some reason my husband’s wheelchair seems to them a much more fascinating icebreaker than something so mundane as the weather. In truth, though, I think we could be trapped in a blizzard, and the person trapped with us would still be asking my husband how fast “that thing” can go. And they wouldn’t be asking so he could go for help.

This summer we visited my husband’s uncle and realized that the new weather-stripping he had installed at the front door since our last visit had transformed a tight passageway into an insurmountable one.

As we made this discovery, and realized we would need to change strategies and take the back door, my uncle-in-law’s neighbour came bounding across the street. Rather than introduce himself, the first words out of his mouth were: “My mother’s in one of those things!” And then, as though he had just uttered the secret password at an exclusive club, he proceeded to wrench the wheelchair away from me and struggle against the impossible doorway.

Believe me, it took a few minutes to wrench it back—he was stronger than me.

I wish the general public could learn from their children. Kids are so much easier to deal with. They have yet to learn that individuals with disabilities are anyone other than ordinary people with really cool accessories. The most frequent greeting we get from children in public is not “You’re fast in that thing!” or “A kid in my class is in one of those things!” but: “Hi.”

Hi… Simple, yet classy. I like it.

I suppose we’re a little further progressed than we used to be. It wasn’t that long ago when people with disabilities didn’t even get to the point of exchanging words with children. At least those days, when parents yanked their children out of a wheelchair user’s path faster than you could say “Elephant Man,” are becoming less frequent. Disability is not as contagious, I guess, as it once was.)

I only hope the public gets comfortable approaching people with disabilities sooner rather than later.

Personally, my tolerance will last only so long. Otherwise, the next time someone asks my husband if he’s “always been in that thing,” my inquiry about what they’ve “always been” just might not be printable.