Ramblings on healthcare, medical education, and life with a spinal cord injury
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I Don’t Need a Bell for My Wheelchair

So I was reading over a blog post by Eva, about how people react to her approaching in her wheelchair.  Her blog is very interesting, and she has a camera attached to her chair, often recording the odd interactions she has with people. In this case, the women reacted appropriately – she just moved her cart out of the way, didn’t make any inane comments and didn’t make a big deal out of it.

If only everybody were like that.

Her post reminded me of the countless times I’ve had similar interactions with people and the poor judgement they’ve expressed in commenting or reacting. It’s a subject I’ve pondered writing about a lot in the past, and she’s provided the spark with which to do so.

I’ve never been one to move slowly. I grew up in New York where you walk fast, regardless of if you actually have a specific place to be. It’s just how things are done. And I’m not about to change my behavior just because I’m sitting down, so I still tend to move at a decent pace. And for whatever reason, this seems to give people the impression that making comments is OK. The one I get the most frequently is something to the effect of, “hey, slow down! You might get a speeding ticket!”

Really? I mean, really?? I usually shrug it off and if I respond at all, it’s a polite smile as I move ahead. But it’s irritating. And it’s far from original or clever. I don’t make comments to the effect of, “hey, the tortoise is going to beat you!” Or, “hey, looks like the grim reaper is catching up with you!” What gives you, somebody I don’t know, the right to make a comment relating to my disability? What in the world makes you think that’s acceptable?

The worst that I’ve heard so far was an older man I had passed in the hospital who was walking with his wife. They were walking fairly far apart from each other, which seems to happen a lot, and consequently blocking off the entire hallway for everybody else. This particular hallway is wide enough for at least four people to pass narrowly side-by-side, but a lot of the time two people walking together, yet widely apart, will block the whole thing. I said “excuse me,” loudly enough for them to hear, and the man stopped dead in his tracks before turning around, and only then stepping aside. Now, this is a cardinal sin in New York foot traffic patterning. You move aside before stopping, always. New York aside, this also just seems like common sense.

As I passed them, he made a comment to the effect of, “you should put a bell on that thing!” OK, he probably meant it like a bicycle. Both have wheels. Whatever. I let it slide and continued on. Then the speeding ticket comment came a second or two later. I ignored him again as I continued further away. I then heard a bit more quietly, and I suspect possibly not intended for my ears, something to the effect of, “hey, that kind of looks like fun.”

People who know me know that I’m not the type to get aggressive or angry, especially with people I don’t know. I give people the benefit of the doubt and let most things slide, figuring there isn’t much point in getting in people’s faces and that most of the time, however misguided, people mean well. I’ve always been an easy-going person, and I find that being angry and spiteful just requires too much energy to be worth it. But this was, without a doubt, the closest I’ve come to blowing up in someone’s face. The last comment took the cake, and my mind was rife with all of the harsh things I could have said in retort.

But I didn’t. And although there’s a part of me that wishes I had, at the same time I would have said things that would have brought me down to that person’s level (well, probably even lower). Which is not the person I aim to be.

I had a conversation a while back with a classmate about public illness. And he recognized that many people who have adverse health situations just want to be treated the same way as everybody else, without a spotlight shined on their differences. Now, I don’t purport to speak for everybody with a disability, but this seems like common courtesy to me. Just because I’m in a chair doesn’t mean you can make asinine comments. Pleasantries are fine, and a bit of discretion in speaking goes a long way.

Most of the things I’ve heard people say have been fairly benign, and stories I’ve heard from others dealing with a disability have been much worse. In that sense, I’ve been fortunate so far. And I do feel as though my reactions have changed over time and become more just a recognition of the comments being a reflection purely of the person making them. So they bother me less than they used to.

But please. Don’t tell me I need a bell, and don’t warn me about speeding tickets. I would very greatly appreciate it.

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