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Monday, July 23, 2018

Out and About and Routine Harassment

I have lived in Denver over a year. This is the first city I have lived in that is truly accessible. I take the train and bus everywhere I go. Before I arrived, I sold my car because there was no pressing need for a vehicle. I was also concerned about driving post heart attack. For a few months after my heart attack I was continually short of breathe. I experienced lightheadedness. I had pulmonary edema. My legs were the size of tree trunks. Going down the hallway where I live left me breathless. I was not going to drive a car and put myself and others at risk. I felt it prudent wait a year before I would evaluate the need for a car. Well, a year has passed and I am asymptomatic. I am no longer short of breath. I have some edema but that is related to the summer heat and routine paralyzed life. I am never lightheaded. The only bodily change I have noted is that I am increasingly sensitive to heat and hills, whether pushing my wheelchair or riding my bike, sap my strength quickly. If this is what life is like when one's heart is failing, I will take it any day of the week. Indeed, the only time I think about my heart is when I take medication in the morning and evening.

Without a car, when I shop I am rarely alone. By shop, I mean the big hauls of groceries and routine errands to locations where the rail or bus does not go. Now with a new car, I am free to go out even when it is very hot. The degree of freedom a car awards a person is nothing short of amazing. Even in a city with accessible mass transit, having a car is a real luxury. I have not driven in almost two years and the car has energized me. In a car I am on equal footing with bipeds. There is no difference between me and any other driver. In the short period of time I have been driving and interacting alone, I have been forcibly reminded by others my existence is way out of the norm. In just the last week I have had many rude and insulting remarks directed at me. I am free game to others. A random sampling of unwanted comments or experiences I have received in the last ten days:

"Where is your caretaker? You can't be allowed out by yourself".

"You can drive? That does not seem safe."

"Where is your back pack? All wheelchairs have back packs for groceries". 

"Wow, getting in and out of a car looks like a time consuming process. Thank God I am not wheelchair bound".

At Costco, three people grab my cart and push it away from me for no apparent reason. A stranger informed me an employee of Costco should be pushing the cart for me. Apparently I was showing off and acting like I was independent.

Mothers grab their child's hand and state "Watch out for the wheelchair".

At the gas station, an attendant stares at me as I take my wheelchair out of the car. He appears mentally altered and is cursing under his breath about what a "stupid mother fucker" I am.

Welcome to Donald Trump's American society. Ignorance, bigotry and hatred have been normalized. Viral videos abound of racist behavior--white people feel free and justified to call the police when black people have the nerve to simply exist. This week I have been forcefully confronted with the reality that I too am subjected to taunts and bigotry. My crime? Being out and about alone. The above comments are predicated on being alone. When I am alone, I am a target. Independence for crippled people comes with a heavy price tag. Hence, I am reminded yet again that I am the other. Strangers do not see me as a human being but rather a wheelchair--an inanimate object that is deeply stigmatized.  It is though my existence takes place in circus sideshow replete with distorting mirrors. When I am subjected to unwanted comments it is though people see everything but me and rely on figments of their imagination to extrapolate what my life is like. The irony here is they have failed to use their imagination. If there is one thing I truly embrace about life with a disability it is imagining what is possible. And believe me, there is a world of possibilities--one just needs to be creative enough to imagine a good life. Of course this imagination is dependent upon adequate social, societal, and economic support. And this gets me back to Donald Trump and the GOP that seems hell bent on stripping away any semblance of social support for the poor, disabled, elderly and all others who are vulnerable.  Last week was a forceful reminder where I stand in American society--stigmatized and unwanted. Not to worry though. I remain undaunted as do many of my crippled peers and this alone makes my heart soar with pride.