But my days of walking with a cane, and slowly working my way to unassisted mobility, have shown me some surprising (and frequently disappointing) facets of the people I encounter day to day.
My first surprise came early last week when I decided to go to Best Buy. I had spent most of my time on my couch since the surgery, and was running out of entertainment. For my first solo venture out of the apartment since surgery, I went to buy some DVDs and a burger for lunch.
I was in the checkout, having my purchases rung up by a kid no older than 20. I paid with a credit card, using one of those swipe machines that are in nearly every store. Now, I’m no stranger to Best Buy, nor was it my first time to use such a machine, but this kid felt the need to give me instructions every step of the way. It seems my physical impairment, to him, implied a mental deficiency as well. Why? It’s anybody’s guess.
Not to say that everyone was insulting that day. The folks at Fuddruckers treated me as just another customer, which I sincerely appreciated. They clearly understood that I was a fully functioning human being, and that I knew what I could do and would ask for assistance if I needed it. I appreciated that.
But the next day it was time for me to return to work. In some ways, I’m grateful for this experience, because it has shown me something about the true nature of a few of the people I work with. My immediate coworkers, as well as my boss, are all quite easygoing about my knee. I have asked some of them for help when I needed it, which they gave uncomplaining, and they in turn have inundated me with questions about what it feels like and how long my doctor thinks my recovery will take. In short, we treat each other as the friends we are.
But the people I pass in the hallway are frequently nearly intolerable. I accepted that I would be explaining my condition to ten or twenty people a day, and I don’t mind. People are curious. What I didn’t expect was the interaction I get when walking down the hallway.
There is one girl, who I know to be an otherwise good person, who makes a pouty face at me every time we pass. All she can see is what I can’t do, never how far I’ve come. Today was my first day walking unassisted, which, admittedly, makes me slow and laborious. However, it’s a major step toward walking normally again, and I’m quite proud to have achieved it. Every time she makes that face at me, she shows me that she has no idea what I’m going through, nor how much she belittles my accomplishments.
Then there’s the guy who asked how I can drive (a question I’ve frequently encountered). I responded as I always do, telling him that it’s my left knee that is healing, and I drive an automatic, so my driving is unaffected. His response? “Well, that’s one thing at least.” Indeed, that is one thing, which we can add to the dozens of positive things that have come about as a result of the surgery, which actually have affected my daily life. I mean, if we’re going to look on the bright side, let’s start with the fact that I no longer have debris floating in my knee joint causing me pain and difficulty walking. How about the fact that I have made significant improvements in my range of motion in the past week by working with my physical therapist?
The truth is that these people truly don’t understand the challenges I face and the hurdles I have overcome. Their misplaced sympathy is, to me, worse than apathy. I don’t need them to feel bad for me; I don’t feel bad for myself. In fact, I’m quite pleased with my progress, even if the road is difficult.
And this has enlightened me about how I imagine people who are permanently handicapped might feel. I will never understand what they have endured, and what they face every day. They don’t need my sympathy. Sometimes, they might need my help. They can certainly use my respect. But what they really need is to be treated as people, the same as anyone else. They’re not less, nor are they more. Some of them are nice, and some are them are, I’m sure, quite rude. There’s no need for me to be overly friendly or accommodating. As I knew how to ask for help when I needed it, I’m sure they know also.
So here’s my message for you: if you encounter someone you don’t know who has a disability, it’s probably best for you to just treat them as you would anyone. If you don’t regularly make conversation with strangers, leave them alone. If you’re the type to engage the person next to you in conversation, then go ahead and strike one up with them. If you spit at everyone you meet, well, spit right on them. The more you treat them as special, the more they will resent your highlighting the differences between you. The more you treat them as humans, the more they will appreciate you for it.