As we were leaving the movie theatre, we were engulfed in a crowd of people. It was like two competing swarms collided - those coming in and those wanting out. People were going every which way. I have learned to slow way down, let the crowd disperse before going forward at any speed. People who stare at me become people who won't see me and there's always frightening near miss moments, moments when their inattention leads to aggressive taunts telling me, who's stopped and not moving, to "be more careful in that thing!" As I waited, I noticed her. Quietly sitting in a line up, maybe fourteen, maybe fifteen, small in her chair. Further crowding the lobby and creating a confusing traffic pattern was an interactive lobby display, lots of young people wanted to be there, wanted to have their picture taken beside it. She was one of those, a typical teen girl wanting to do typical teen things - sitting down.
I wanted to go over to her, speak to her, advise her. But that would, of course, been an act of sheer cruelty. Teens don't want advice in the first place. But even more than advice they hated being centred out by strangers for any reason. So I willed her on, trying to eliminate the sense of aloneness that she clearly felt surrounded in a crowd that wouldn't see her.
Four times people stepped over the little dividing rope, that separated the line up from the lobby, right in front of her. She said, not a word, others in the line up behind shouted out to the interlopers but they ignored the complaints, exaggeratedly thanked the young girl in the wheelchair, transferring blame to her, and took their place back to her. She clearly didn't like to be too close to the people directly in front of her so she left a small space, it was this space that they stepped into, those who saw her as the weak link in the line up.
The man behind became increasingly agitated. At one point he grabbed the back of her chair and tried to move her forward. It was a power chair, it's not that easy to do, it startled her and she quickly attempted to move, trying to get away from the force of his touch. She nearly slammed into the back of the legs of the young fellow in front of her. I saw her now, begin to look at the rope that separated her from freedom. Her eyes looked desperate.
But then something happened. She closed her eyes, took a breath, I saw her lips quietly move - saying some kind of mantra to herself. She opened her eyes and began to move along the line, not with aggression but with purpose. Someone came to join the people in front of her, that had stepped over the line, the guy in front, with unbruised calves, said, "You don't mind do you?" She said, "Yes, I do." It took something from her to do - as I think it would have from any shy teen, but she said it. And said it firmly. No one else stepped in front of her while I was still there.
I know the place she went to, she went to that place where all disabled people go, perhaps all people who live with discrimination and bias and bigotry. She went to somewhere where she could hear again that she had a right to be there, a right to the space she took, the right to participate, the right to have expectations of participation, the right to be next in line, the right to be respected. It's that place where we've gathered every bit of encouragement and kept them filed right next to every realisation we've had as to our own worth and worthiness. Those are in the display cases right next to our collection of the rights we've so far claimed for ourselves. It's a place to visit when invisible, when walked on, when made to feel valueless.
I'm glad she had that place. I'm glad she could visit there, the museum of her history with disability. There's much to be learned there. There's much to see. There's much to pick up and touch. In the moment she opened her eyes, with the dusty smell of history on her fingers, she set about creating another display for another day - knowing full well that there will be another day.