Monday, July 11, 2011

Awake, Alert, Alive

Her hip smashed into the controls of my wheelchair and sent me flying off to my left. She had come from behind so I hadn't seen her coming. Luckily there was room to fly into, I hit nothing and no one. I waited for an apology that didn't come. She was walking rapidly away from me, looking down, tapping a message into an electronic gadget. OK. She's lost to the world that she was in.

Then I realized a pattern that I was seeing. Several times on the sidewalk, even more during festivals or parades, I find myself tapping someone on their shoulder or arm to get their attention and fail to do so. Every time I fill with frustration that these people out in public are so tuned into what's going on somewhere other than where they are - that they are a danger to me in the places where they actually are. I thought them highly rude, I found myself feeling a kind of discrimination in that they couldn't see me as a disabled person and they couldn't feel my little disabled tap on their shoulder. I felt more than invisible, I felt like I didn't socially exist at all.

I think I was making a huge assumption.

Maybe.

I think that people are starting to detach from their very bodies and have begun to live somewhere naturally insensate. I don't think the woman was rude. I think that she was living in her mind, her eyes and her fingertips. I don't think she felt her hips slam into me at all. Those people who I had to tap because they couldn't hear me were all holding on to things, looking into things, doing things to things. I think that they have had to divorce themselves from their bodies in order to be able to be part of the machine.

Oddly. Really oddly. My disability has made me more, not less, aware of my body and my physical space. I constantly seem do be doing math and geometry and surveying when I'm out. Will I fit in here? Will I be able to turn there? If I go here can I get there? Those are only some of the equations. Then there is the focus on making sure that my chair doesn't come into contact with other people's shins, other peoples elbows, other people's paths. I was never so alert in public before disability.

I don't think, and correct me if I'm wrong. I've ever seen someone with a disability out in public texting while they are wheeliing, in the same way that 'they' text while they walk. I'm not sure I've even seen someone with a disability wheeling or steering a chair while talking on the phone. Certainly I've seen wheelchair users with earplugs in listening to books or music or whatever - but even that is rare. I wonder if we all, or at least most of us, see a huge social responsibility that comes with wheelchair use. A kind of social responsibility that isn't assumed, as it rightly should be, by those who use feet for transport. I am very aware that my chair is made of metal, and that metal hurts when it strikes flesh. But then, as I've been elbowed countless times, hip smashed a few times more, and have been smacked countless times by back packs. Don't we all share responsibility? How have I suddenly, by being disabled, by getting around in my wheelchair, become the guardian of the safety of others around me. It must be because when THEY bump into ME, they always respond like it's my fault.

I've always been grateful to my wheelchairs, both the manual and the power, for getting me around. Now I find myself grateful for them for keeping me awake, keeping me alive to my environment. They may not see me, but they should be grateful, that I have the grace to see them.

17 comments:

GirlWithTheCane said...

Having had to use a wheelchair myself for a year, I think that you're right about how disability forces us to become very aware of the space we occupy/don't occupy. And, much like anything else regarding disability, I think that people seem very...ignorant, in the sense of being unaware...of the complexities of these issues of space and sharing it respectfully, simply because they've never had to think about it. Not an excuse...but a reason. *sigh*

Betty said...

Texting, what could be that a important. Those people walk over others, drive into others, are rudeness personified.

I sometimes feel like smacking them just to make them come back to the here and now.

A friends grandson was walking his dog and texting, because he wasn't paying attention to the dog, she slipped her collar, was hit by a car and died in his arms, bleeding.

I hate texting, I wish it would go away.

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Patricia said...

I think your frustration is felt by many people, non-wheelchair users too. It amazes me that people who need to text cannot just step aside for the time it takes them to text. I text a lot myself, but I am quite aware I need to concentrate on what I am texting so stop walking and step aside.

Laurel said...

*raises hand*

I happily talk on the phone while pushing, and if it's urgent enough (and it's downhill or an easy level so it's feasible) I'll text as well.

That said, I do both with my head up and without running into anything or anyone, including the sudden stops and swerves necessary to keep other people from running into me (although if I can't avoid them...I brace, I don't give).

I don't think about my personal space in such a formal, abstract way as you describe, although as a dancer I have to be intimately aware of my body all the time. I find that's part of the learning curve of using a chair, though.

Jess and Glacier said...

I just recently have experienced what you wrote about today. I was in Toronto working my guide dog and was amazed at the people who ran into us, forcing him to make sharp movements to keep me safe or to start shoving people with his head. I was being followed by a sighted friend who told me that everyone who ran into us, including when we were crossing Young Street, were texting. I think you're right-disability does make you aware of your body and even though I do not have to worry about hurting someone with my mobility aid because it is a living, breathing being, I have to worry about people hurting him and getting in the way of his work. Being aware of your surroundings could mean the difference between successfully crossing a street and sometimes I am more concerned with my own body/safety and tend not to care if Glacier has to push someone out of the way with his head.

Cindy B. said...

Saw a first for me today - a young girl riding a 2 wheel bicycle and texting with one hand. Scary stuff, considering the traffic conditions around her.

I am not disabled but I was run into today by a person who chose to change directions in a store without checking if anyone was already in that space.

sashasmithy said...

I think I must be more narcissistic and more pessimistic than you are, although in reading your blog, I know I'm more pessimistic. But in my first two chairs, big bulky things that I had difficulty moving on my own, I did pay a lot of attention to where I was, how I would fit, and I was very careful about running into someone. When I got my third chair, it fit me perfectly and I think somewhere along the line I took back my freedom as an able-bodied. I used to text without looking, I now do the same again. I talk on the phone while wheeling. I see no reason to stop being human for the sake of others. Of course, around here, people part like the seas around me, so perhaps I've merely taken advantage of that. I may watch for people's toes (for some reason they're very protective of them ;)) but I refuse to give people more comfort about not bumping into them because I'm sitting.

Kristine said...

I'll own it. I've definitely been known to talk, text, and check facebook while going down the sidewalk in my chair. After all, I'm a product of my generation. :) But I'm also hyper-aware of the potential for distraction, and am even more vigilant about looking around me than when I'm empty-handed. I also don't make any attempt to divide my attention that way if I'm in an even slightly crowded area.

I think a large part of our alertness comes from the training to realize, when someone else bumps into us, it's OUR fault. Always. Drives me crazy.

I also hate that we have ZERO latitude to be clumsy/careless like everyone else. I can know somebody for years and years, and never touch them with my chair. But that ONE time that I thought there was space behind me, didn't take the time to look, and accidentally bumped into a friend... they'll remember that one moment for the rest of our lives, and forever think it's funny to bring up "that time you ran me over!" (Note: there's a world of difference between "bumped into" and "ran over." The truth is generally the former, but people always claim the latter.) My gosh, if I held every unintentional bump against everyone else for the rest of their life....

And, of course, I can't figure out the people who will "helpfully" hold a door open, or step aside on a sidewalk, or whatever, but CLEARLY not leave enough room for my chair (not abnormally wide; just average, power chair) to get through. Then we're at an awkward standstill, neither of us able to figure out why the other won't move. I don't get it. Is everyone else's spacial perception that far off? They seriously can't tell that I'm 8 inches wider than the allotted space, and a metal chair can't "suck it in and squeeze"?

Sometimes, the able-bodied are a mystery. ;)

Noisyworld said...

It's just common decency...and it doesn't seem to be common enough :(

I can't text and walk because I'd fall over lol I have to be aware of the space around me because I'm not always sure where I am in that space. I used to march/bound along avoiding people (by a small amount, plenty for me but I don't know about them!) so perhaps my disability has made me a better person?!

Susan said...

Dave, wheelchair or not, you see more than anyone else I know.

Kristin said...

Brilliant post Dave. I have to thank you for teaching me to be so much more aware.

Ettina said...

I'm oblivious a lot, regardless of what I'm doing. I don't text, but whether I'm playing DS, reading a book or simply thinking, most of the time when I walk I'm not aware of my surroundings.

I don't think that's a terrible thing. I need to take it into account and make sure I'm safe, but it's not like I'm not truly living if I'm thinking about something other than my surroundings. My world is more than just where I happen to be at the moment.

And I'm certainly not being inconsiderate just because I'm not watching my surroundings. I'm a very considerate person. I just daydream a lot, that's the way my mind works.

Shan said...

I have to disagree with the "that's just the way I am" excuse. A person may be naturally careless, but that doesn't free them from the responsibility to watch where they're walking and not run into other people. I don't think a person's right to be absent-minded takes precedence over another person's right NOT to be smashed into on a sidewalk.

To quote George Costanza, "We're living in a society here." It IS everyone's responsibility to observe basic civility and consideration.

I read while I walk, but the book is low down in my eyeline, and I can clearly see whatever is coming my way. I've stepped over bugs, for heaven's sake, without raising my eyes. It's possible.

Princeton Posse said...

Same group has DVD's in their cars! Real life taking place outside the window...

Anonymous said...

Shan,

Some of us have brains that are wired in such a way that we CANNOT HELP but be distracted or day-dreaming all the time. Trust me. I've tried. For 41 years. It can sometimes be one of the more annoying features of having some form of an executive functioning disorder.

Yes, people have a right to not be smashed. But those of us who are already trying the best we know how, and who are basically safe (for ourselves and others) 99.9% of the time could do with a little more patience, please. Please don't assume that we're being careless on purpose, or that we're being "careless" because we don't care about others.

Becca said...

~coughcough~

Powerchair user here, with severe, complex impairments. I use a communication aid - often, operating my scanning switch with my left hand while my right drives my chair. I listen to answerphone messages on my mobile. The only reason I don't send texts is because I can't easily access that function on the phone.

When I'm driving and doing something else I'm constantly scanning, up and down, up and down - check ahead, look down to what I'm doing, check back up... unless some muppet steps directly into my path, it works pretty well.