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.”