I have spent a lot of time recently thinking about kindness, about the conscious ways—some graceful and some clumsy—we attempt to express our human connections. We take a second to hold the gaze of a stranger, to nod, to smile a little, or to comment on our common location or circumstance. These gestures, even when they are slight and fleeting, remind us of the importance of human interaction. As a person who spends her public life confined to a wheelchair, I find that I am often the subject of conscious attempts at kindness. People hold doors for me or retrieve items from store shelves. Most of the time, these interactions are pleasant and gratifying. Once in a while, though, they are disconcerting.
One day my partner and I went out to lunch. Even though we’ve learned to choose chain restaurants because of their handicap accessibility, eating out is a rather fraught experience for me. I can no longer use a knife to cut my own food and it’s difficult for me to use public restrooms by myself because bathroom doors are impossibly heavy and unmanageable for a person in a chair whose arms are as weak as her legs. The result is that I feel needy and uncomfortably visible when I’m in public situations, especially those that involve eating.
On the day I am describing, I was facing a woman of about my age who was seated at an adjacent table. She seemed particularly troubled when I passed my plate to my partner and asked her to cut my vegetables. This stranger looked at me with what I thought was sympathy and shook her head ever so slightly. When I picked up the salt and pepper shakers and realized that they both had those twist tops that have become so popular but can only be used by the most able-bodied among us, I again passed my plate to my partner and asked for her assistance. As she had before, the stranger in my line of vision looked at me sympathetically and shook her head. I tried to avert my gaze and focus on my meal, but I kept wondering what that woman was thinking. Finally, as she walked by me on her way out of the restaurant she touched my shoulder, smiled sweetly, and said, “Bless you.”
Not long ago, I was in the grocery store. It was the middle of a weekday, so things were pretty quiet. As I drove my chair into the produce section I had the rare presence of mind to remember the one item I had actually come to purchase—bananas. I noticed, though, that the bananas all looked a bit overripe and I found myself staring, unsure whether to buy or not. (I’ve discovered that one benefit of being retired is that I have plenty of time to ponder these deep and consequential questions.) In an attempt to snap myself out of my reverie, I said aloud to a woman standing next to me, “The bananas are a little brown today.” She suddenly snapped her head in my direction and exclaimed, “I thought you were deaf!” I asked what would make her think I was deaf and she motioned toward my chair.
In the days before my left hand became nearly useless I loved to engage in those crafty pastimes that result in countless unused scarves, bags, and hats. One day as I waited in line at a craft store, the woman just behind me placed her hand on the headrest of my chair and began leaning toward me. More than once I heard her take a breath as if she were preparing to speak. Aware that I was the focus of that desire, I turned slightly in her direction. Taking my invitation, she leaned forward and enthusiastically proclaimed, “I am so glad to see that you still have the courage to be out by yourself!”
In a culture that teaches its children to avoid the impulse to “stare” at people we perceive as “different,” disabled, or otherwise non-normative, those of us who rely on canes, walkers, or wheelchairs are often met with a politeness that renders us invisible. One evening my partner and I went to a concert. During the intermission a woman who has been acquainted with both of us for years approached us for what I initially thought was going to be a three-way conversation. What transpired instead was a conversation over my head – literally over my head. No matter how many times my partner attempted to include me in the conversation and no matter how many times I tried to interject myself, our acquaintance never looked down at me. She simply chattered on as if I were not there.
As I began this post, I was determined to interpret these interactions as mere collisions between clumsy attempts at kindness and my own body, which has itself become quite clumsy. At the same time, I was trying to resist the temptation to make a list of examples of the insensitivity people show to those of us who require extra space and accommodation. As a result, once I described the situations, I felt completely unable—at least for a moment—to make meaning of them. I was stymied by my belief that I had only two options for responding to these experiences: that of the Pollyanna or that of the Crank. The writing, though, revealed a more complicated reality, for I both appreciate and am confused by these people who reach out to me in public places. I prefer them to those who choose polite avoidance; they are willing to set aside their own psychological vulnerabilities, to screw up their courage and address a stranger they perceive as wholly different from themselves. I am grateful to them for seeing and acknowledging me. That said, I wonder what it means to be “blessed” by a stranger, to be lumped into the generic category “disabled” where the difficulty I have reaching a produce counter is conflated with deafness, and where congratulations are in order when I venture into a store by myself.