Becoming a Non-Person

By Patricia Zick @PCZick

I ceased to exist for a few hours to those around me recently.

The occasion occurred in the corridors of a hospital when I sat in a wheelchair. My husband pushed me down long hallways from the doctor’s office to the lab to the pharmacy. I’d been suffering from a viral virus that made my legs weak. I was unable to walk long distances. I’m getting around much better now, but for a short time, my mobility took a hit.

So during my excursion to a doctor’s appointment at the hospital, I decided to make life easier by using the chair positioned near the exit doors to the parking garage.

When I sat down, everything changed. I ceased to exist as a functioning, live person. I consider myself a friendly sort of gal. I smile and say “Hi” when I pass people in public places. But when I became wheelchair-bound, no one looked at me; they either looked away or looked at my husband who was pushing me around. At the elevator, people rushed in before us, instead of waiting until my husband pushed me into the small space. Perhaps I noticed it more on this particular day. I felt lousy and vulnerable and needed a smile or kind word thrown my way. No one offered even a glance.

My disability was temporary, but it forced me to examine my own behavior. I hope I don’t discount those not able to do tasks the rest of us take for granted. I try to open doors for people. I help others get things down from grocery store shelves when I see them struggling. I certainly want to believe I smile at folks in wheelchairs, but now I question if I really do.

I shared my experience with a good friend who takes care of her brother suffering from multiple sclerosis. He’s unable to walk or do tasks for himself. I almost cried when she told me what happens when she takes her brother out in public.

“You can’t believe the sadness I feel when we go out, and he’s in his wheelchair,” she said. “This larger-than-life man who was a hero to so many, an inspiration to anyone he met, is now a non-person. At a restaurant, the host overlooks him to ask me how many in our party. They don’t know he has asked ME out to dinner, and he’s paying. At the ballpark, people stand in front of him, so we constantly move around. And while the doctors are getting better and directing questions to him, they still look at me to discuss his health.”

Heartbreaking to hear; devastating to live through it.

If I treated anyone challenged with a disability as less than human, I’m sorry. But now I’m conscious. I’m fortunate. I’m grateful. I’m humbled.

And I vow to look everyone in the eye, even if it means I have to lean down to do it.

A former coworker of mine kept a little sign in her office that said, “Never look down on someone unless you’re reaching down to help them up.”

19 thoughts on “Becoming a Non-Person

  1. Your experience is all too common I’m afraid.
    There is a boy at the school where I substitute who is in a wheelchair because he has no legs. I always say Hi! to him when I see him in the hall. Physical situations do not make anyone less a person.

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    • I hope this post is shared by others so a large audience examines their own behavior. Thanks for sharing your story. I’m sure that young man appreciates your kindness more than you’ll ever know.

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  2. Nice post, Pat! This made me think about an amazing speaker/author that I saw last year. His name is Gary Karp. He suffered a spinal cord injury as a teenager that left him paralyzed from the waist down. His views on disability and social issues are provocative and inspiring. I highly recommend his books to anyone who is living life “on wheels” – or knows someone who is.

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  3. So glad you are on the mend. We so often take our health for granted. Thank you for writing about your experience. I too like to smile at people as I pass them but now I will be more engaged when I see a person with a disability.

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  4. First off, yes, I do believe we can shy away from acknowledging handicapped people. I think there are different reasons for it though. Some are just plain ignorant, others may fear singling someone out for their disability. Either way, it IS wrong and it IS unkind…everyone is equal and should be treated accordingly.

    Secondly, I am glad to hear YOUR wheelchair stint was temporary and that you’re on the mend. Here’s to your health!

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    • Thanks again. I wondered if anyone would notice. I’ve been playing around with it for the past week and think I finally found something I like. I’ve always liked yours – it’s rather mysterious.

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  5. I hope the doctors have finally gotten you straightened out. I’ve been worried about you.

    You brought a good point to light, and there have been several reasons discussed here regarding the lack of attention paid to the disabled. There are probably people who fall into all camps: awkwardness, obliviousness, fear. Unless we’ve been touched personally by someone in a similar situation, or read a blog like yours, we probably will never realize we’re behaving in inappropriate ways.

    Corey’s grandfather lost his leg and was wheelchair bound for the last several years of his life. It was quite an eye-opener for us. I’m glad your experience was a temporary one.

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  6. Becoming a non-person is very hard to deal with and especially when you are alone and living single. You learn as you have to what and how to do to survive. Being overlooked is commonplace. Rudeness unfortunately follows…not only are you no longer seen, you are no longer heard…no matter how loudly you speak. You are expected to be grateful for whatever is done…so what if you ask for an apple and got a 4 ounce container of applesauce? What difference does it make? Say, You are allergic to onions and you ask for no onions on or in your food, but somehow onions are in everything you get because no one remembers you cannot eat onions and you are told to just scrape them off even tho’ the onion flavor has permeated the entire dish, includind the salad with the wrong dressing🙂 My suggestion is be as healthy as ye can be, as long as ye can be…don’t missunderstand, I appreciate all that is done for me and I do treasure the people who truly care, for it is these people that make handicapped living bearable.

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    • Thank you for sharing your very personal and unfortunately far too real experience, Geraldine. It certainly is a shame, but I think talking about it helps because many people ignore it because they’ve put themselves in the other person’s shoes. I wish for you the best, and I am happy to hear you have those around you who care and love you. Thank you for stopping by and be sure to read tomorrow’s post with an update on my friend’s brother. It’s amazing.

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  7. Pingback: Communication is an Endangered Species | Living Lightly

  8. This one really made me think. Beautiful piece.🙂
    And those were squash seeds I put up! But pumpkin was pretty darn close.🙂
    We’ll see if anyone else gets it. My mom sent them to me in the mail for our garden last season.
    Have a good night!

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    • Thanks, Jennifer. I plead bad eyesight, although the truth is, I’m not sure if I could distinguish pumpkin seeds from squash, although my husband probably could. Thanks for stopping by.

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