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Thursday, May 8, 2014

Life is Never Dull in the Land of Disability

I thoroughly enjoyed using my handcycle all winter and this wet and cold spring thanks to a trainer. My bike sits smack dab in the middle of my living room. A perk of living alone is that no one complains about the appropriateness of a bike in the middle of the largest room in my house. As the weather theoretical is supposed to be warming, I am eager to ride my bike outside. I have had a few rides outside but not many. I am still learning about my bike too. Yesterday I brought the bike to a great local bike shop for a tune up. I had a long gear talk with the bike guys. Bike people I have learned are gear geeks. One and all were very impressed with the bike design. No upgrades are needed and the bike needs a few minor tweaks. As I left the bike shop I felt really good. No one asked rude or intrusive questions such as why I was paralyzed. No one stared at me. No one was rude. No one said anything nasty. The focus was squarely on my bike and because it was different there was even a cool factor involved. Maybe, I thought, people are not as rotten as I think. Maybe ableism will become a thing of the past. Maybe I will fit into mainstream society before I die. This is a weirdly optimistic line of thought.

For those that know me, do not worry. I am not going to suddenly become Mr. Sunshine. As is the norm, one positive social interaction at the bike shop was quickly followed by an overwhelmingly negative experience. I went to the local market after I left the bike shop. Within minutes I knew I was in trouble. An older man started following me around. He kept his distance but it was painfully obvious he was stalking me. I was worried. I knew he would engage me at some point. I knew it was going to be unpleasant.  I did my best to lose the guy. I succeeded--sort off. As I left the store there he sat in a pick up truck in handicapped parking no less waiting for me. Worse, he was on the passenger side of my car (I enter my car on that side). I put my bags in the back of my car and left my car to go to another shop. I do not need to go anywhere but I hoped the man would tire of waiting for me. I had no such luck. Screw it. I went to my car and the man is standing between his car and mine. His driver side window is down and his wife is sitting inside. I know I am screwed. I open my door lock my wheelchair and he drops the bomb I knew was coming. He said "God struck you down because you have evil in your heart. You committed a mortal sin". My face remains passive as though set in stone. He went on: "If you are not evil God struck you down, crippled and maimed you body, because your parents are evil and committed unspeakable sins for which God is punishing you". His wife then chimed in: "We will pray for your rotten soul and terrible body. God may forgive you. You must pray for forgiveness. Even evil people can see the light through the goodness of God".

These two radically different social interactions took place on the same day, in the same town, and within a mile of each other. Is it any wonder newly minted crippled people struggle? I am reminded of a line in excellent film Murderball: "In the beginning paralysis is a mind fuck". The mind fuck is not adapting to a paralyzed body but to the verbal assaults by strangers, social isolation that comes with wheelchair use, and stunning ignorance routinely displayed by bigots such as those I described above. I have been paralyzed for three decades and still struggle when accosted. I have learned engaging people who invoke God is punishing me is useless. However, I have developed a reply that will at least lead to silence. I replied to the man and woman by simply stating "Thank you for sharing your thoughts" with dripping dead pan sarcasm.  I better tread lightly here, who knows I might get struck by lightning.


Michael Watson said...

Ouch! I just don't get that sort of behavior. Actually, I do get it, sorta. People deal with their fear of contagion by blaming someone, usually us. The imagine we are to blame, that the Creator hates us. Of course this is hogwash, but it still hurts. I suspect it does little for the attacker's anxiety, either. Disability happens.

Sara Buscher said...

These people were most uncharitable and judgmental-- not at all how people of faith should be. Shame on them.

John C. Hathaway said...

What part of John 9:3 don't they understand?
I have had similar encounters, though more "charitably" presented, many times. Some random person comes up to me in the produce section, for example, and says, "Do you mind if I pray with you?" And I, anticipating what's coming yet trying to be open minded, say, "Sure." Then the person lays hands on me and says, "Lord, please heal my brother, [by the way! what's your name?]" "John." ". . . John, and forgive whatever sin causes him to be in this chair!" That, said, I've had many encounters with random people that have been very positive, as well, but I can usually tell. I've also had a few people who saw my Rosary or Crucifix and "stalked" me to ask for prayers, advice, a hand-out or if I personally knew an exorcist they could consult.

Mary Jane Hathaway said...

People are idiots and I'm sorry that happened to you.

Not that this is anything close to your experience but recently I had a real head-scratcher of a comment. When I signed a major book deal after years of below-poverty living, someone I barely knew told me, "God is rewarding you for staying home with your kids instead of being a career woman."

It was really funny because I've worked when there was work to be had, even going back to work when one of my kids was two weeks old.

Like you, I just... shrug. Arguing wouldn't change their minds. People can be total idiots.