I'd said 'Hello' to him the first time I saw him pushing himself around the mall, even though I knew he saw me he completely froze me out. "OK, then," I thought, and didn't acknowledge him again. It annoyed me a little bit because he's a wheelchair user himself. He's maybe only 10 years younger than me. I don't know any disabled people in my new home town yet. And, because of that, it can be lonely. Being the 'only one' in a crowded space is the oddest kind of feeling, it's hard to explain.
When I first moved here I used my power chair to go over to shop at the mall, it's quite close and I could zip across there in a few seconds. I stopped that several months ago and began driving over and using my manual chair to push around the place. I'm trying to keep my fitness level up and to ensure I've got the strength to push the distances I have to push. No matter how many hours I spend in the gym, nothing I do there helps me maintain 'push power.' So, I push.
I was out shopping, at a large box store, and Joe and I had picked up what we wanted. I saw that the line up was long and I said to Joe, "Why don't you go pay and I'l lap the store.' He agreed and I set off. It's a big store but like many of these stores, the outer lap is often only slightly populated with customers. I got a good rhythm going and was making the last turn to head back. There he was the wheelchair guy. I'd seen him often since that first freeze and gave him what he wanted. I didn't acknowledge him and simply went by.
He surprised me this time by saying 'Hello' as I approached him. I was shocked. I nodded hello back, and kept going. As I was about to pass him he said, "Keep it up.' I pulled to a stop, I was a bit breathless because I'd been going fairly fast and it was a long push. "Pardon me?" I asked. He said that he'd seen me working the chair and was impressed by my dedication to pushing myself when I didn't have to. He'd noticed Joe and saw in that an option for being pushed instead of pushing myself.
He was all friendly and chatty. I asked him, near the end of our short conversation, "Why now?" I'd greeted him before and got the cold shoulder. He became a little embarrassed. He said that he hated the stereotype of disabled people being fat and lazy people who could walk if they wanted to but preferred to be pushed around. He's a little thick in the middle and even though he was born with his disability, people make comments about his laziness and believe they know why he is in the chair. "When I saw you," he said, "you were in a power chair and I immediately saw you in the same way people saw me. And I didn't like it. But I've seen you most often pushing yourself, using your strength, and I realized that I was wrong."
It took a second for all that to sink in. I had trouble knowing what to say. I understand what he's saying because people do that to me all the time too. They assume that I'm fat and lazy, further they assume that because I'm fat I'm in the wheelchair and if I only lost weight I could walk again. It's "igotry" (the combination of outright ignorance with outright bigotry) people who are ignorant of what disability is and means combined with prejudice and preconceptions. This thought combined with 'he should know better' but disabled people live in the same world as everyone else and disability doesn't make you a clairvoyant saint.
So, after a pause, I said, "Nice to meet you."
"Likewise," he said.