Disabled In Public
Written on March 15, 2011 by Daniel P. Malito
Those of you who read my column on a regular basis know that I am considered disabled. Now, some days you would never be able to tell when watching me walk, but most days you can spot it a mile away. I walk with a unique gait that instantly telegraphs everyone in the area that I’m not physically the same as they are. It becomes even more noticeable when I have to use my cane. Most of the people I meet in my travels respond to me in ways that will make you cringe. For some odd reason they all think that handicapped people don’t notice.
The “I’m not looking at you” syndrome is, by a wide margin, the most popular response to my handicap, but it’s not the only response by any means. Another set of individuals who I have dubbed the “Excessively Helpful,” seem to pop up when you least expect them to.
The most common response to my physical disability is what I like to call “obvious ignorance.” Most people who see you limping feel an overwhelming desire to gape, mouth hanging open, in order to discover just what is wrong with you. Fortunately, their moral compass usually points them in the right direction and they soon realize that staring at someone who is different is just plain rude. Unfortunately, the people are usually so afraid of being caught staring that they go overboard trying to look disinterested. This feigned ignorance can take many extreme forms. I have been standing next to complete strangers who simply refuse to look in my direction, as if their eyes might pop out of their heads right there in the store and spontaneously combust. Sometimes I like to have fun with these people and ask them to pass me something from the store shelf, or ask them what time it is. You’re probably trying to figure out how you can pass someone an object without looking at them, and as I’m sure you realized, it’s not easy. Half the time, the object drops to the floor and the situation becomes even more awkward. One woman simply couldn’t stand it any more and literally took off running a few seconds after the box of pasta I asked her for fell to the floor. She made some vague attempt to convince me her son was calling her name, but I doubt she even had children. Why does physical disability make others so uncomfortable?The “I’m not looking at you” syndrome is, by a wide margin, the most popular response to my handicap, but it’s not the only response by any means. Another set of individuals who I have dubbed the “Excessively Helpful,” seem to pop up when you least expect them to. These are the people who go out of their way to assist you with whatever you are doing at the time. Don’t misinterpret me – I’m not talking about someone who helps you to reach an item on the highest shelf at the store. I’m talking about help at the expense of common sense. Once, while using my cane, I had a woman run all the way across a parking lot to open the bank doors for me. All three sets of them. On the way in AND out. Of course, I thanked her, but the only thing I could think of was to wonder what horrible things this woman had done that she needed the good Karma of helping me so badly that she ran the quarter mile through traffic to be my doorwoman. “Boy,” I said to myself, “she must have clubbed a LOT of baby seals.” The “door runner” is not the only example of the “Excessively Helpful,” but she definitely stands out. Apparently, good deed vouchers are in very short supply these days, and the disabled easy targets.This next group is my favorite, mostly because you can have the most fun with them. These individuals are the “Impolitely Curious.” This group of people believes that because you are different, they have a God-given right to know exactly what’s wrong with you, and won’t hesitate to ask. They approach you as if you are old friends, and get straight to the point. Earlier this month, I encountered one of these special citizens at the grocery store. As I was walking down the juice isle, he saw me limping, saw my surgical shoe, walked right up to me and asked “what happened to you?” If it was the first time this had happened to me, I might have frozen with shock. Sadly, that was not the case. If they are going to be ridiculously rude, then I will use it as an opportunity to flex my creative muscles. When he asked what was wrong with me, I responded with “oh, this? I got bitten by an alligator while I was diving for oranges in Alaska.” As I walked away, I didn’t have to see his face to know that I had confused him to the point of mental collapse. Too bad, I say. If you are going to stick your big nose into other people’s business that blatantly, don’t be surprised if it gets chopped off.The last group of characters that fills out the quartet of respondents who inappropriately deal with disability is my least favorite. Some of these people are truly vile, and can test your faith in human kindness. These creatures are all what I consider “Disability Exploiters.” They see the handicapped as weaker, and actively engage in behavior that results in their benefit at the expense of the physically challenged. They figure “well what are they going to do anyway?” You see this behavior most often when the handicapped parking spots are occupied by cars that not only do not have the blue placard, but clearly do not belong in a handicapped spot. One of those SUVs that sits so high off the ground that a special ladder folds down when you start the car comes to mind. The behavior takes other forms as well. I’m sorry to say that last year as I was making my way to an ATM machine with my cane in hand, a woman who had arrived after me broke into a sprint to get to the machine first. “What a truly caring person,” I thought, “you must be very popular at Christmas.” I suppose she thought that since I used a cane and walked slower than most, my brain must work at the same snail’s pace, and that would make her tardy to the meeting of her witch’s coven.While I hope that you got a few laughs from this column, let us not forget the message contained within. This behavior exists, it’s real, and it happens every single day. The examples I gave really happened to me, and even though I was surprised at the time, it has now become all too shockingly familiar. Individuals with disabilities are just like anyone else, except we have to do more with less. We don’t want to treat you in any way out of the ordinary, so please don’t do it to us. Next time you see someone who is handicapped, remember, they are just as scared of you as you are of them.