Hotel rooms often have mirrors in the oddest of places. At home we have a mirror in the bathroom and one in the hallway by the door. Gotta see to brush your teeth, gotta check to see that beauty is blazing before heading outdoors. I check the mirror maybe, maybe, twice a day on work days, not at all on weekends.
We are in Montreal at a hotel on the start of a 5 day mini-vacation. We arrived later than we thought we would - construction increased our travel time by hours. I was tired after a busy day and decided to stay in while Joe headed out to have a beer in a local bar. I checked emails, answered all the work ones, wrote a couple personal ones, checked the stats on the blog, read the comments ... and that was it. I got up out of my wheelchair to go to bed and my housecoat flapped open. There imbedded in cellulite was an imprint, on either side of my body, of the wheelchair arms. I looked at it fascinated. You could see the armrests, the metal curves of the side and the space under the armrest before the protective cover. Wow.
Since I was alone in the room, I shrugged off the housecoat and twirled around looking at the various places on my body that were imprinted with chair. I thought it funny. I heard Joe's key in the door so I quickly put the housecoat back on and sat on the side of the bed giggling.
Later I thought about the imprint the wheelchair has had on my life. It hasn't left a mark on my career or my relationship with Joe ... it has barely made a mark on my friendships or my collegial relationships. It hasn't made the difference I thought it would.
What has been imprinted, very much so, has been my understanding of the social world. There is both incredible generosity and incredible hostility directed at me because of the chair. In equal meassure. Little acts of kindness by strangers, kindness unecumbered by pity, leave me often touched to the point of tears. But little acts of barbarism can leave me breathless with fear and anxiety.
I had begun doing the teasing and bullying workshop for people with intellectual disabilities a year before becoming disabled myself. I loved doing the workshop and was impressed at discovering a steel backbone in many with intellectual disabilities. I heard stories that would curl your toes but I also heard of the incredible determination to make community home. To not give up lost ground. I stood in awe of those who faced daily slurs and continued on, understanding beyond expectations that they were making a difference. I also stood feeling helpless when those less strong wanted to shrivel and die in the face of the routine and casual bigotry of strangers.
All that mattered to me then.
But as my life was imprinted with the wheelchair. As I began to experience that kind of daily prejudice, that routine ignorance, that predictable bias, it more than mattered to me - it empowered me. It gave me fuel. I began to feel a flame burning inside me that wasn't there before.
One of the comments recently, from an angered parent, referred to me as a professional who is thousands of miles away from the front line. That comment rankled me because it's never been true. I've been directly teaching, directly supporting people with disabilities my entire career. My caring doesn't stop at the end of the stay and start up with pay the next day. But, I do admit, that a day in the chair out in the community taught me more than thousands of hours of work, thousands of hours in classrooms and lecturehalls.
It taught me the truth of the community.
It takes guts to go out the door. It takes courage to enter the world. Because every day there will be hurt, every day there will be stares, comments, social violence. Every day takes a renewed spirit and a sense that it matters what I do, it matters where I go, it matters the respect I demand.
It matters so I do it.
It matters so you do it.
Because our lives have been imprinted with disability.
Therefore our lives have been gifted with purpose.