Column from October 8, 2003
Copyright 2003 by Laura Hershey
My eyes flinched in the bright lobby light, as my consciousness struggled to return to 21st century North America. So accustomed was I to a movie-dark version of colonial Australia, that real life felt overlit and unreal.
That's not my excuse, though. By the time I ran over the stranger's foot, my vision and orientation had returned to normal. The theater lobby had grown more crowded. I was too near the elevator and stairs so that filmgoers, all a foot or more taller than I, streamed around me as if I were an ineffective dam. The press of bodies and loud voices made me suddenly uncomfortable. I had to move.
That's not my excuse, either. In fact, I don't have an excuse to offer to the man whose foot I ran over with the chunky rear wheel of my heavy, battery-powered wheelchair. It was a simple mistake. If I could offer him anything, it would be an apology.
I'll never have that opportunity. I didn't even learn until later that the bump I rolled over was a human foot. When I felt my wheel going over that small obstruction, no jerk or cry of pain alerted me to its suffering. For all I knew, it could have been a discarded Junior Mints box or a bunched-up rug.
A few minutes later I was talking with my assistant, Clara. A man's voice behind me demanded of Clara, "Are you controlling that wheelchair?"
She looked up, startled. "Pardon?" she asked, unable to comprehend the question.
He repeated, more loudly, "Are you controlling that wheelchair?"
Clara looked at me for guidance, both because she couldn't think how to answer such an outlandish question, and because she knew that I needed to be involved in such a conversation. "You don't control the wheelchair," I reminded her.
Her instinct confirmed, Clara looked back at the man and said, "I don't control the wheelchair."
Undeterred, he huffed indignantly, "That wheelchair ran over my foot!" Then he stormed off, unsatisfied but unwilling (or unable) to put his demand for acknowledgment, contrition, whatever, to the actual perpetrator of this wrong -- me.
I learned later that the man had continued his raging for several more minutes, out of my earshot. He limped exaggeratedly and complained noisily to his friends about the pain. Eventually I went home for dinner with my friends and family. I never saw the foot I had injured, nor its owner's face.
Typically, when someone injures another, whether negligently or deliberately, the injured party confronts the assailant. What ensues after that -- argument, dismissal, mea culpa, reconciliation -- will vary according to the personalities involved. In this case a collection of fears and assumptions prevented any such scenario from playing out. This fleeting, aborted interaction provides a vivid example of how disability prejudice distorts social relations between disabled and nondisabled people.
Why would this stranger go out of his way to avoid me rather than to confront me? Why accuse my assistant? Would he really have been satisfied with an apology from her, though she had absolutely nothing to do with hurting him?
This non-encounter left me feeling as if I were the one who had been mowed down -- not an appendage in my case, but my status as a morally responsible human being. I got away with wronging someone, albeit unintentionally, solely because I have a physical disability.
Perhaps the situation would have played out differently if I had been there alone. The presence of my assistant may have added fuel to the stranger's burning desire to exempt me from consideration as an equal. Few people understand the nature of personal assistance services used by significantly disabled people like myself. Perhaps this man saw me as Clara's "charge," a term frequently used to describe recipients of support services, with its corresponding implication that Clara was "in charge" of me. U.S. culture tends toward an all-or-nothing approach to disability and independence, in which a person is presumed to be either totally self-sufficient, impressing everyone with their "I'll do it myself" attitude, or else abjectly dependent and unable to initiate, much less carry out, action.
Therefore, when he saw Clara assisting me physically -- putting away my wallet, perhaps adjusting the position of my head -- the man with the injured foot figured he'd found his culprit. She's standing up on two feet; furthermore, she's helping me do things that people are expected to do for themselves -- so she must be calling the shots, right?
Wrong, actually. My attendants help to facilitate my carrying out of my own choices, when I need them to do so. While I do acknowledge, complement or thank them for their work when appropriate, I do not give them credit for my deeds, nor blame them for my misdeeds.
Others often do, however. Even when my attendant does not facilitate my actions, people often presume her to be in control of the situation. Clara had no role whatsoever in causing my wheelchair to run over the stranger's foot. Her presence alone was enough to distract him from my ownership of the action.
So, I write this story to my friend Harriet, who has a disability similar to mine and who's had her share of strange encounters with clueless strangers. She answers, wondering about my response to the stranger -- or rather, my lack of response. Her question makes me wonder too: Why did I not spin my chair around, face this man, and say... well, something? I don't usually shrink from confrontation. Recently I wheeled up to a UPS driver parked in front of a ramp, and lectured him until he looked wearily abashed.
A physical obstacle, a patronizing comment -- these are opportunities to argue and/or educate. I meet my adversary head on. We become uncomfortable equals, battling in a spirit of democratic pluralism.
This encounter felt different somehow. The stranger appeared suddenly behind me, then retreated just as quickly; I never saw his face. These logistics, and his refusal to face me, deflated my confrontational impulses. Perhaps I harbored a little shame too: I was the guilty party -- and I was let off the hook. Maybe I secretly suspected that I had been unfairly exonerated before, for other sins of commission and omission.
In any case, this man apparently held a deep-rooted belief that disability and responsibility could not coexist in the same person. This rendered him unable to insist on apology or restitution. Now he'll never have closure on this painful incident. Neither will I.
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