And I didn't then either.
Not at first.
When I first sat down in my wheelchair, my world didn't change but my experience of it did. Suddenly I was made unwelcome in places I had formerly gone. The hard cold edge of exclusion cuts deep at first. I had to learn to 'place' my anger properly. Learning that my status as 'outcast' comes from being 'cast out' ... that other other's othered me ... that a giant hand took an eraser and changed my vocabulary constantly
And that battle, then, was a poorly understood one. I thought it was about 'stairs', I thought it was about ramps and curb cuts and wide aisles. I thought it was about the physical world that took prejudice and constructed monuments of inaccessibility in worship. This, very young, understanding of accessibility consumed me. I talked about it and wrote about it and thought about it ... I wrote letters, I staged protests, I spoke with managers. Anger, properly placed, is a powerful thing.
But one grows in understanding. As I matured from 'newly disabled' into 'truly disabled' ... I began to get it. I began to see that stairs are no where near as intimidating as stares. I began to understand that I'd much rather fight the former than face the latter. Suddenly there was simply no safe place. Anywhere. My weight, my wheelchair ... my DIFFERENCE ... screamed loudly every where I went. I couldn't ever simply blend in. I even grew grateful for those who had learned to pull their stare, no matter how firmly it stuck to me, away. I could feel glances rip off the skin of my being. I could feel the effort that eyes made to find something, anything, else to look at.
Children are the worst. Parents seem, en masse, to be oblivious to the eyes of their children. Little eyes peer at me, gawk at me. Little fingers point at me. Little hands pull at mother's dresses and father's pants, trying to get their attention, to get older eyes to see what younger eyes have discovered - huge difference. I hesitate to say here, but there are times, when I see a group of children, I head in a different direction. Sometimes I hide away. Waiting for them to be gone. They can, like a swarm of locusts, devour my self esteem in moments.
So yesterday, I rolled into the room where the dancers gathered before the big show. The Propeller Dance company's children's show was to start in a little less than ninety minutes. The older class and the younger class were together in the room. Make up was being applied to the dancers, kids were gathered together in the excitement of the moment. Suddenly, I realized that I was surrounded by children. I felt that fear creep up my spine, I readied myself for the assault, and ...
Not one kid even looked.
A room without stairs, a room with stares ... a safe place.
I have few safe places.
These kids were so used to different that different wasn't different any more. Difference wasn't welcomed. Difference wasn't tolerated. Difference simply wasn't noticed. I found myself engaged in what was happening. Rolling over and by a group of kids to see Ruby get her make up put on. Rolling back by a different set of kids to chat with Marissa about the chaos around us.
Was I hurt.
I've heard all the various reasons why inclusion matters and why inclusion should be encouraged. I even heard a presentation many years ago, when segregated schools for kids with disabilities were the norm, where the presenter listed 115 reasons why inclusion (although it was called 'integration' then) benefited children.
I hereby add one more reason to that list.
It creates a world of gentleness and safety.
And, forgive me for saying this, but we could use more of both.
During the show, I did what I was supposed to do. I got all teary watching Ruby do her dance. I got all mushy inside watching all the children work together to create art. I noticed and appreciated both the art and the message. I did. I really did.
But what I did mostly was allow those children, those magical children, to hold me safely and gently in their tiny hands and their huge hearts.