All my life I’ve been an ordinary person. If you were to have seen me walking down Market Street in the downtown crowds I pretty much blended in. I would say I’m probably average height and weight for an American female, I have no deformities, and nothing particular that stands out. Sure you may notice me as ‘that Asian girl’, but in general this doesn’t happen very much in SF.
Before I got sick I was pretty much ignored in public. As an urbanite I very much appreciated the sense of anonymity that living in a city provided. At the grocery store people shoved past me, and the cashier was probably the only person who said hello – and usually that was only if s/he was required to by store policy. When people waited on me at a restaurant I felt no different than how they treated the person who was with me or anyone else. If I needed help or customer service at a store I had to flag down a worker bee and wait.
Now that I’m a ‘disabled’ person I am no longer invisible. I can’t decide if this is good or bad. Being on oxygen in a wheelchair is something that can’t be easily overlooked. Now I’m stared at – a lot. Usually from kids between the ages of 4 and 8. I only had 1 kid ever smile and wave at me – she probably knew someone in her life who was in a wheelchair. Regardless, she was definitely the exception. Adults usually smile when I catch them staring, and they immediately go about their merry way. Only one adult has asked what happened to me, and that was while waiting for the elevator in the hospital parking garage.
I will never forget the old lady outside of BJ’s Restaurant & Brewhouse. Janet, Carol and I were outside waiting to be seated. This elderly couple came out of the restaurant and the woman stared at me for a long time. She must have been in her late 70s or early 80s. If I were to have drawn a thought bubble over her head it would have read ‘Oh my God I hope I never end up like her’. I’ll never forget that appalled look on her face.
Earlier this week I went to the mall. This trip made me 1. realize that I am indeed a disabled person and 2. aware of our cultural response to the handicapped. We went to the food court for lunch, the Apple store so I could replace my wireless router, and to See’s for a treat. I don’t think I had ever been treated so well in my life.
It’s not just what people did for me, but the feeling I got and the response I felt from complete strangers. People held the door for us, made sure we had room in the elevator, I was greeted warmly by every person I encountered, and I felt like I was given undivided attention. People were actively listening to me and making sure I felt comfortable. I remember thinking, this is what it must feel like to be beautiful or famous… without the envy.
My theory of why I’ve been treated this way is that when people see me, they see a young female who shouldn’t be in a wheelchair on oxygen. I think it’s the combination of pity and compassion along with our country’s general belief that everyone deserves the right/chance to do/be like everyone else. We’re all about equality here in the US… well, at least in theory.
If I were elderly instead of in the ‘prime’ of my life, I wonder if I would have been treated so well. I think more people would expect an old person to be on oxygen in a wheelchair and therefore not feel a strong sense of injustice. Though I must say that I have observed people’s patience and understanding increase three fold for people who are physically handicapped, young or old. (Physical being the operative word. I’m not going to get into perceptions of the mental and unseen disabilities in this post.)
I wonder how much truth there is to the saying ‘you can tell a person’s true character by seeing how they treat service people and the elderly/disadvantaged.’ Does it reflect a person’s true character, or does it just show what kind of manners they were taught? Just because someone has good manners, does that automatically mean they are good people?