Sunday, July 27, 2008

Tess of the UberVille

You know what's kind of weird about living here in Toronto in this particular apartment building. Everyone in the building is very cool about the wheelchair. I get looked in the eye when I'm greeted, people speak to both Joe and I and most importantly no one ever grabs the chair in their rush to get by or their impulse to help. No one. Ever. I expected something different, frankly, worse.

Yesterday after coming home from teaching up in Barrie, Joe dropped me off at the front of the building while he went and moved a few more boxes from the car up into the apartment. I sat beside the bench where others come out to sit and wait for taxis or to have a quick smoke. I chatted with people there and those coming in and out of the building. I was remarking to myself how nice everyone seems to be and how unaffected they were by having a new tenant with a disability. Cool.

Finally it was just myself and the Superintendant and he asked me how I was finding the building accessibilty wise. I told him that I was managing well and that I was impressed with people's graciousness regarding the chair. He said, "You've got Tess to thank for that."

I pictured Tess, who lives across the hallway from us, and in my mind I saw a sweet mild mannered elderly woman with a disability. She uses a walker to get down to the garbage shoot but a wheelchair to get around the area. On our major move in day she openned her door and welcomed us as neighbours. She reminded me of the type of woman who would bake cookies just to fill the air with scent. We plan on having her over for tea when we are finally settled. Understand then I was a bit surprised that the Super was crediting this little old woman with humanizing the building for me.

It took no encouragement at all to get him to continue talking. He explained that Tess had had several loud battles with residents regarding their actions towards her or her chair. People, he said, would grab her chair only once. She would tear a strip off them. She does things on her own and she asks when she needs help. She doesn't want to be seen as a helpless old woman and 'Bless God' anyone who tries that stuff on her.


That old lady with white hair and blue walker. That little tiny woman who greeted us in fluffy slippers. She's a disability activist.

Who knew?

But I'll tell you what I learned.

It makes a difference what I do every day, what I stick up for, what respect I demand. I'm changing the world. One person at a time. One interaction at a time. It's what Tess did. And it mattered.

It's what I can do.

What you can do.

And it matters.


rickismom said...

This is so true of anything you want tyo change. Once, as a nurse, I started work at a hospital, and discovered that things were not 100% on the night sift. So I slowly worked for change (head-on wouldn't work), and within 1 1/2 years the problem was solved.

Each of us reacts with hundreds of people. Each of us who stands up for the right of people with disabilities/cognitive delays to be treated as PEOPLE will have a ripple effect.

Glad your building is so nice. Its nice when you DON'T have to go to war for something, isn't it?

Emma said...

God I really wish I had my own Tess right about now. I'm getting a little sick of all the fighting I'm having to do at the moment. Still, thank you for the reminder that I'm not just fighting for myself.

Kei said...

Bless sweet Tess. And you.

FAB said...

We can change the world!

Doesn't matter if it's through one person at a time or hundreds.

I'm so glad this world has Tess and Dave and all the other "pains in the ass" who promote change!

Here's to you all!

Terri said...

What a perfect story--perfect illustration. Just what I needed to hear--and truly wonderful writing. You have the perfect touch.

yanub said...

A great story, Dave! Here's to all the Tesses of the world, and may we all be her.

FridaWrites said...

Thank you, Dave. I needed that today.

FridaWrites said...

My husband keeps telling me I'm not a good representative for people with disabilities because I tell people they can't do certain things to me (like park on the wheelchair access aisle and refuse to move or go into the disabled stall in front of me as I try to steer into it or squeeze past me in a dangerous way rather than go around, ad nauseum). I said I don't want to be a repr., but he said I am anyway and that people will develop stereotypes based on me since people have limited exp. with PWDs, and think that all disabled people are grumpy.

Andrea Shettle, MSW said...


Unfortunately, most people have such limited experience with people with disabilities (or at least, limited experience with *knowingly* interacting with a person with disabilities, as opposed to interacting with people whose disabilities they don't even know about) that I think there is a certain amount of truth to what your husband says. People really *do* develop stereotypes from such limited interactions, often without really thinking about them or realizing how non-representative their own limited interactions are. And they don't even stop to think that maybe their own behavior is *triggering* whatever grumpiness or other behavior they see in the very few people they meet with visible disabilities.

Yeah, it really sucks being viewed as automatically representative of an entire group of people when all we're trying to do is get through the day.

At the same time, people do need to learn that certain things THEY do are not okay.

As a deaf person I run into this sort of dilemma myself pretty much daily. I strive to do this by being tactful and polite but firm when I need to "educate" someone about the appropriate way to deal with a deaf person. I say I strive to do this, but I've had bad days when I've probably come across as grumpy just because I've gotten so sick of having to deal with certain kinds of behavior over and over, or (more often) because a person is being particularly dense about taking in my message.

FridaWrites said...

Yeah, I know there's a certain truth to it. Yesterday I told a girl very nicely that she needed to go around me on my left rather than climb over my wheels on the right since she was about to fall in a lake if she did that! Or injure me and herself. But she snarled at me. It was so minor I didn't notice it, but my sister, who's not used to being out with me in the scooter, did. It's amazing that this kind of disablism is constant and that I just have to put up with a certain amount of it. It's awful that people think I'm being mean when I ask them not to squeeze between me and a counter or shelf rather than go around--it's dangerous to me and them, but people try it all the time rather than take an extra two steps to go around.

yanub said...

Frida, I have found that, generally, nondisabled people will go out of their way to be inconvenienced by people with mobility impairments. In a 12 foot wide hall, they'll aim right at cane-using me, making exasperated noises when I simply stand there rather than get out of their way. Hello! If I could easily get out of the way of other people, I wouldn't be needing a cane!

FridaWrites said...

Yes, that's it, Yanub, exactly! Adaptive equipment is like a magnet.

FridaWrites said...

Yes, that's it, Yanub, exactly! Adaptive equipment is like a magnet.