Since I hurt my knee nearly two months ago, I’ve been on crutches. Crutches suck. They’re unwieldy, uncomfortable, and unpleasant. Unless you are my 13-year-old son, in which case they’re the greatest toys ever to enter the house. Naturally.
Months and months ago, Pace and I booked tickets to Chris Guillebeau’s World Domination Summit, held in June in Portland. Even though I hurt my knee and traveling would be difficult, Pace and I decided to make the trek anyway – we both adore Portland, Chris is our friend and something of a mentor, and we knew these people would also be our people. It was really a no-brainer.
But crutches suck when I’m just hobbling around my day-to-day life, walking as little as possible. The very idea of trying to navigate crowded airports filled with rushing people, tiny plane aisles, and then the conference all weekend – and then doing it all again in reverse to get home – made me cry.
So we rented a wheelchair.
Ever wondered why your child is insane in the grocery store, begging for all kinds of terrible snacks? Because all the brightly-colored boxes are at his eye-level – which I found when sitting in a wheelchair. I would reach for things I didn’t even want, because everything is mind-bogglingly enticing! It’s a good thing Pace goes shopping with me, else we’d all be eating sugar-saturated cereal and not much else.
And that was just the beginning.
I became invisible to some people. Invisible. They would look through me – even people at WDS, people whom I figured would be more open-minded than most.
I became more visible to others. Homeless, to be specific. I realized that they live on a different plane than the rest of us – and I was visiting that plane. There was a girl curled up at the base of a building with her dog, and as I wheeled by, we looked at each other – really, really seeing each other – and we both smiled and waved. This happened over and over with homeless people all over the city – our eyes would meet and we’d smile at each other; not just a smile, but a glimmer of kinship. Of recognition. Of realization – we are less than human to many other humans.
I became public property. I was in the bathroom at the Tillamook Cheese Factory (where Pace and I pilgrimage to for lunch when we’re visiting Portland), and a woman asked if I needed help. I clearly told her no – many times – but eventually she just grabbed my chair and pushed me into the stall. If I’d been a child, she could have been arrested for such an act. As it was, I was too stunned to protest once she grabbed me, and she nearly injured my arm in the process, and then she vanished.
What was that all about? She wasn’t even the first or the last random stranger to just grab me and forcibly relocate me against my wishes! But I can’t imagine any of the people who grabbed my chair and forcefully moved me doing so if I hadn’t been in a wheelchair – no one’s going to grab my shoulders and maneuver me into a bathroom stall.
Not without getting decked in the nose, anyway.
I also learned that “handicapped accessible” is often not so much – and often a bold lie. Over 90% of the bathrooms I attempted to use were nigh impossible to maneuver on my own – meaning I never got to go pee without help. Seriously. And most of them doubled as storage: wine boxes, cleaners, and in one case, a ladder blocked the way. We also had to use the scary poorly-lit alley back entrances to many restaurants, as their friendly storefronts opened with staircases.
And then there were all the people who talked to me as if I were mentally handicapped. I realize that some people in wheelchairs are most certainly so, but I would wager there are more than a few who are physically handicapped while mentally sharp as a tack – myself included. But I got talked down to on many occasions, treated as if I were not just slow, but downright stupid or utterly incapable. I got patronized. People would ask Pace for my preferences instead of talking to me. People would talk to me very slowly and in short, simple sentences. This one really slays me, as I feel my injury was so obvious – my leg is in a ginormous brace sticking right out in front of me.
Come on, people.
Is this really how we treat people who are differently abled – in whatever form that takes – from ourselves? Like they’re stupid or invisible or less than human?
When we see someone in a wheelchair, what scares us so badly that we can’t even treat them like another human?
When we see a homeless person, what’s so scary that we avoid their gaze?
When we see someone different from us, why do we ignore them?
This multiplies out and out.
I used to be afraid of African American men because my mother and grandmother were – until I learned that they’re human beings just like me. Until I learned that the color of our skin has nothing to do with our hearts and souls.
I used to be afraid of fat women because I hated myself for being one. When I accepted myself as a fat woman – and more than that, when I started loving myself regardless of my size – I stopped being afraid of others like me.
So what I get from that is fear and hate.
We fear those like us and we fear those different from us.
And we hate what we fear.
When I am in my wheelchair, I’m still me. I’m still Kyeli. I’m still smart and funny, still a big dork. I’m still fat. I’m still a witch. I’m still a writer.
I’m still a good person worthy of respect and love.
And so are all the other people in wheelchairs. And so are all the other people who are different from me.
And so are we all.
Our size and shape, the color of our skin, the color of our hair or eyes… that’s just the icing on the cake. Our insides are what matter – our hearts, our souls.
The bits of us that are all the same.