It was the first day of class and the room was packed with PhD hopefuls trying to mask how terrified they all really were. And like any important first day, Murphy’s law set in motion and everything began to go wrong for me. I was late, couldn’t find the right classroom, and somehow managed to elegantly interrupt the professor while he was introducing himself. It was going to be a bad day.
As I took refuge behind my laptop screen, I heard the voice of a woman who was already challenging the professor. Her words exuded unapologetic intelligence, sharp wit, and a sense of humor that could make anyone forget about their rough day [including me]. We became best friends on the spot and people who didn’t know us assumed we had known each other for years. After two hours of intense lectures, we’d be dying to rush to the nearest Starbucks. On the way to our usual caffeine joint, strangers would ask “Are you okay?” Some would even ask “Do you need help?” Others just stopped to say “You’re an inspiration! Stay strong”.
You see, one of us is in a wheelchair.
Now the first stranger got a polite Thank you. The second got a headshake signaling that we did not need help. By the time our quest for coffee and gossip was interrupted by a fifth person, we snapped; “Yes please! Help away! What has she been doing most of her adult life without you?!” was the response.
I must admit that, at face value, this is a harsh response. In a world where we hear awful things everyday, people offering help or words of encouragement should be an opportunity to rejoice. But the truth is that behind all this kindness is the implied assumption that being in a wheelchair- that having a disability of any sort- is synonymous with weakness; that it is a disadvantage of catastrophic consequences – enough to render someone a recluse hidden at the periphery of society. So, when one seemingly manages to find the “courage” to not only be part of society but also be ambitious enough to pursue their dreams, they are an inspirational exception.
You see both of us have wanted to become professors since we were children. Both of us worked hard to get into a PhD program and powered through gruelling courses. We both went through the ups and downs of balancing careers with full-time educations, family, social activism and writing. Sometimes we were the heroes of our own lives and sometimes we wanted to hide with carefully designed plans to wallow in bed for an indefinite amount of time. And when one of us felt that way, the other one would forcefully pull he up [by the hair if necessary]. And when of us had a victory the other beamed with pride as though it was her achievement. The wheelchair did not play a part in any of this. The wheelchair did not cause the bad days or worsen them any more than it helped with the victories or made them sweeter for having happened inspite of a physical disability. Life was the cause of it all and we experienced it as full human beings.
When did the wheelchair become a problem? The first time we wanted to go to the University cafeteria and realized there were no ramps to help us get there. When we had five minutes to get to class and had to search an entire building for an equipped bathroom. When we wanted to attend a conference at a 5-star hotel and had no way of getting to the ballroom except through the longest route possible, carrying the wheelchair down a flight of stairs. When there was physical pain in the legs but the doctor didn’t bother to examine them to find the source and assumed it was caused by the disability. We were dismissed after a five-minute checkup.
The disability only becomes one when we are reminded that we have designed our world for only one kind of the human body. There is only one version of what a body should look like and one acceptable way for how it should function. It is also designed so that we can only love, accept, and embrace only one kind of physical existence. All other versions are lumped together in a big box we call abnormal. If you don’t belong to the right box, then you and your family should be forever devastated. It’s also best if you stay hidden to avoid the cruelty of the outside world.
The first time our lunch plans were blocked by the lack of ramp, [being the loudmouths that we are] we marched to the head office and demanded one immediately. Surely enough, two weeks later, we were enjoying lunch in the cafeteria. We spoke then and we continue to speak. We stare back when people stare at us as we try to shop at the mall. We tell people that it’s okay to acknowledge the wheelchair. That it’s okay to acknowledge their discomfort at not knowing how to approach someone with a disability. That the key is to push through that discomfort and learn.
Learn about what we share as human beings for there is much more that we have in common than what separates us.
So the next time you see someone with a disability, smile at them if that’s what you do when you make contact with strangers. Talk to them if that’s what you normally do when meeting someone new. Ask them about their disability if it intrigues you, but whatever you do, see them as more than a wheelchair or a hearing aid. See all of them. See them whole.
My best friend and I share one of those friendships that will see us old and toothless together. I pray that everyone experiences this at some point in their lives.
Wait. I still haven’t shared which of us is in the wheelchair. But does it really matter?