Friday, February 11, 2011

Gratitude, Attitude and Rights

I'd been warned. It was a warning that I heeded. I still remember sitting chatting with him in an Edinburgh lecture hall. He was a lifetime wheelchair user and as we chat I kind of felt like I was talking to an 'elder' in the disability community. Though he wasn't that much older than me, he'd lived years longer in a wheelchair and therefore was able to give sage advice.

He told me solemnly that I needed to be careful to not become grateful for what I should normally have, normally expect. The temptation, he said, is to start to see 'rights' as 'gifts' ... this was a dangerous path to follow. I understood immediately what he was saying and pledged to him and to myself that I would live a life in gratitude for the many gifts in life but, while doing so, maintain an attitude of expectation to be considered equal and to be treated equally. I didn't want a life without gratitude but I didn't want 'gratitude that grovels'.

I have failed in that promise.

I had several things to do today. Several places to go. I woke up at 3 with a knot of worry in my stomach. I worried about things that I shouldn't have to worry about. I worried about access and accommodation. I didn't want the day to become a trial. More and more often as I set to do things never done before, ordinary things, I have begun to anticipate problems and calculate strategies should this happen, should that happen. The worry got me up. The worry made me clumsy in all that I needed to do to get ready to go out.

And the whole day was fine. Absolutely fine. Every door was wide enough. Every task was easily completed. The subway ran on time, with me on it. The elevators are were in working condition. It was smooth. We traipsed through the day and when all was done, Joe suggested going for tea. So we did. I took a sip and sat back and felt a creeping sense of ... oh no ... OH NO ... real gratitude - for doors that I could get through, for barrier free aisles, for adaptable equipment, for operating elevators, for automatic door openers - for access. I tried to shake the feeling way. I knew, just knew, that I was the only one in the coffee shop with a disability and the only one feeling grateful that I could get into the building.

It was wrong.

I know its  a wrong to be grateful for  a right.

Once some smart ass stranger told me that I should be grateful to curb cuts, I said, 'I'll be grateful for curb cuts when you are grateful for sidewalks. I got the 'it's not the same' look. So I know it, conceptually, rights are rights not gifts or tokens.

But I couldn't help myself. I was just plain relieved that I'd had a day without struggle, without argument, without concerns. Gratitude slipped in there somehow. And I want to get rid of it. I don't want the fight to go out of me. I don't want to kiss societies butt simply because I'm not limber enough to kick it!

Accessibility is a right.

I am a citizen.

This society is mine too.

I am grateful to be alive, to be loved, to have purpose.

I'm not going to add, getting in and out of a building to that list. I just won't.

OK, well, I won't tomorrow. (Will that do?)


Belinda said...

Ha ha! Yes, it will do. Getting it right can be complicated.

Anonymous said...

The wheeliecrone says -
Oh, Dave! I have the same problem! Whenever I have a day that is full of entrances that are stairless, automatic doors that are wide enough and people who look at me rather than my wheelchair and speak to me rather than a person (whom I may, or may not, know) who happens to be standing near me, I am grateful. If, in addition, I am treated like a sentient adult, rather than a silly child; if people listen to me and treat me with respect, I cannot believe my luck.
You are right. It is my right to have all of these things happen - people who don't have disabilities expect all these things as a matter of course. It is my right. I need to remind myself of that from time to time.
Thank you for reminding me, Dave.

Colleen said...

Dear Dave:

Gratitude for things that are your right is still possible - but I totally agree with you - it does not involve grovelling. After some of the barriers you have encountered it is no wonder that you are grateful for a barrier free day!


Danielle said...

My thoughts aren't necessarily related to this post specifically, but your blog in general. I just recently started reading it, and aside from telling you that I'm highly impressed with your ability to write, I wanted to tell you that I thoroughly appreciate the topics you cover and the way you cover them.

I have Cerebral Palsy, have been a wheelchair user all my life, and at least half of the things that you blog about are things that I've either said, blogged about myself, or thought. Thank you for standing with me and all the other members of the disabled community in the fight for equal treatment in everything we do!

Alison Cummins said...

I feel that as a TAB I am missing the point and I probably am.

But I don’t take anything as a right and I am grateful all day.

I’m grateful that I have work, family and love.

I’m grateful to live now and in a Canadian city, with easy access to clean water and health care.

I’m grateful every day to be able to use the sidewalk and the metro to get to work.

I have access to some of these things because of people who came before: the technical people who made them possible and the political people who caused them to be made available.

Some of these things I have access to simply because of the luck of the draw.

So while you should feel just as entitled to use the sidewalk as I am — because you are — cut yourself some slack in being grateful for the existence of a sidewalk you can use. Because I walk on the sidewalk, and I’m grateful for it too.

Andrea S. said...


I think Dave is trying to make a distinction between being grateful just because we're all lucky to have certain things--which a positive kind of grateful in which we are simply conscious of what we have and not taking it for granted, versus a more groveling kind of "gratefulness" that, for once, he isn't being singled out for being excluded from all sorts of basic things that most abled bodied people *do* take for granted but that he does not always have as a matter of course.

I'm not sure I'm explaining this well so it probably still isn't clear. Basically what I'm trying to get at is the fact that there is more than one TYPE or "flavor" of being grateful, and the kind that Dave is talking about I think is rather different from the one you're talking about. It's the same word but actually a different concept or tone to it.

Think of it as the difference between being grateful that you have enough to eat every day and are safe from violence every day or mostly every day ... and being grateful because, just for today, the person who normally beats you and takes the food off your plate has decided to be "nice" to you and be a little less cruel this day. Grateful in a way where you feel like you're supposed to "owe" someone some kind of debased groveling or exalted recognition because, just this once, they decided to treat you with the same decency with which they treat everyone else.

I hope someone else here can find a clearer way of explaining all this because I'm having trouble finding the right language to wrap around this concept.

Anonymous said...

I encounter something similar in a different realm -- maybe this will help illustrate the difference between the kinds of gratitude.

I don't own a car and get around by bike in the city, so I have lots of encounters with lots of different drivers. Sometimes those encounters go well, and sometimes they don't, and that can affect how I feel at the end of the ride.

Sometimes I get home feeling grateful because I've encountered drivers who've waved me across the intersection with a smile even though they could have legally taken the right of way, or because a driver hollered something nice to me about my bike (happens occasionally).

That's a good kind of gratitude, as I perceive it.

Sometimes I get home feeling grateful because at least I didn't have to deal with a driver who was so angry at me that spittle was flying from his mouth as he screamed at me about how "I should run you off the f---ing road, you f---ing b----!" (like the one who pulled up next to me as I rode to work this past Monday morning, angry because I was riding in the lane where the law says I should).

That's a bad kind of gratitude. As a fellow human out using the roads, I shouldn't have to feel grateful for the mere fact that nobody threatened my life.

Feeling grateful because something good happened is lovely. Feeling grateful because the bad stuff one is used to having to deal with didn't happen is not.

Shan said...

Yeah, I'm with Alison. The Bible says 'in everything give thanks' and that's what I do. I'm grateful for sidewalks, storm drains, flushing toilets, electricity. Health care.

In a coffee shop I'd be grateful for different things than you, but that doesn't mean I wouldn't be grateful.

I know the point you were trying to make though. I just don't like the assumption that it's, and I quote, wrong to be grateful for something just because it's something you need rather than want.

Stephanie said...

Sometimes I am grateful for sidewalks, for doors I don't have to wrestle open, for days that go smoothly despite everything that can go wrong.

"I don't want to kiss societies butt simply because I'm not limber enough to kick it!"

I agree wholeheartedly. Access is a right, but even rights should not be taken for granted, with or without disabilities involved. People have fought hard, given their lives--both the living and the dying parts of them--so that these rights can be ours.

I think it's a mistake to take gratitude--at least the gratitude for a day that went smoothly and the rights that make them possible--as the same thing as kissing society's butt.

I'll be grateful for any days that go smoothly; they're rare enough that they're worth being grateful for, at least for me. And I'll be grateful for all those who fight for rights for everyone.