Monday, October 31, 2011

Time Changes Everything

Here's what happened:

We were leaving the AMC theatre after having seen Anonymous. There were crowds milling about because there was a group of people who were promoting a new independent Canadian Film about diversity, difference and disability: "An Insignificant Harvey". I had stopped to chat with them about the film and was just leaving when a huge commotion broke out behind me. A man, with a big white busy beard riding in a power chair, was coming out of the door to the building and a pregnant woman and her husband stepped in front of him. He pulled up short. Then he lost control, started swearing at them, telling her that he almost slammed into her, that he could have broken her legs, that she should pay attention to where she was walking. Her boyfriend yelled at him to shut up which resulted in him screaming profanities at the two passersby. People were turning and staring, at him, at the commotion, all looking delighted that they'd have a story to tell when they got home.

Here was my first response:

I was a tad outraged and, dare I say it, even embarrassed by the behaviour of the disabled guy. I thought he was rude and out of control. Shouting obscenities, on a city street, at passersby seemed, in my mind, to reflect badly on us disabled folks. When people looked from him to me, I did what I could to repair the damage to the reputation of disabled power chair users. I even looked at them, the non-disabled gawkers, when our eyes met, with a kind of conspiratorial 'what's up with him' look. As we headed on our way home, I could hear him for nearly half a block, threatening, 'next time I'll just run straight into you'. I tut tutted his lack of control and thought he was letting down the side.

Here's what happened next:

"Excuse me."  "Thanks."

"Could you let me pass please?" "Thanks."

"Sorry but I need to get by." "Thanks."

Twice I was nearly trampled by people texting and walking, both times I apologized for being on the road in their way.

Several times, I had to adjust where I was to accommodate others. Several times more, I saw people coming and anticipated their space needs and adjusted for it. Not once did someone say 'thanks'. Not once did someone ask me in a mannerly manner to let them pass. Not once. I found myself, finally, when nearly home and nearly trampled by a woman who shouted at me to 'watch where I was going' when she looked up from her cell phone and was startled by finding me there, inwardly swearing at her. I found myself, cussing her out, cussing out the others - silently in my mind - who had presumed that this public space was theirs and theirs alone. The assumption that me and mine need to grovel for space to pass, to be thankful when they step aside, to make it my job to be constantly in anticipation of their needs, simply pisses me off.

Here's what I thought then:

That older guy, coming out of the building, looked, unlike me, as if he had been born with his disability. That means that he's spent nearly 60 or so years being 'othered' by others, being in the position of asking, lurching himself to a stop to accommodate those who can't be bothered to see him. That means that he's spent a lifetime alternating between being too visible and being completely invisible. That means that he's shouted, a lot, in his head at those who presume ownership of public space. I wonder if he just got tired of constantly monitoring himself, constantly being in control. I wonder, if when he pulled up short, protecting the woman who stepped in his path, and was lurched forward, that something broke inside of him. If he needed, that once, to let all the anger and frustration out. I wondered.

Here's what happened next:

We got to the apartment building. I had bags on the back of my chair, Joe was pulling the grocery cart. As I got to the door, I saw the young security guard, get up and come out to help us both with the doors. He is a wonderful guy, generous in spirit, and we both thanked him for helping us out. He said, with a smile, that he didn't mind at all. He then said, nervously, that no one else ever thanks him for helping out, that he appreciated our thanks.

Here's what I did next:

I hoped, deep down inside, that the man with the bushy beard, meet with kindness a time or two more in his day. Not the smothering 'othering' kindness that insults rather than helps, but the real, genuine, kindness that people have the capacity to offer. I hoped, deep down inside where prayer lives, that he has somewhere to off load his anger and upload his patience. I hoped, even deeper down inside, that I manage always to manage my anger and that it never become too big a burden to carry. In those moments, deep inside, I understood him as I should have from the start - not as 'other' but as brother.


CT said...

Dave, I appreciate the always-informative perspective. The years and years of viscerally experienced marginalization must just build and build. It's an unfairness that those who don't experience can never fully understand. It's so easy to judge from the outside when you *just don't know,* but that doesn't make the judging any less of an asshole behavior itself.

I had a question about a different but somewhat related experience. Three times in different cities I've been in a slow moving crowd (moving towards a movie theater entrance, in a crowded farmer's market where the people shuffled through a slow-moving circle, and going down a packed sidewalk downtown) where power chair users have beeped or called out to move aside to go more quickly than those shuffling through ahead of them.

I didn't think much of it at the time, other than to wonder if it is hard to move slowly in a power chair. Of course, I don't know why the chair users needed to move quickly, and just as someone might sprint to get to the bathroom or to make a bus, so these people may have just been "sprinting" to get through as anyone else who typically walked would.

But it did also make me wonder what the ettiquette of a power chair is. That is, if part of the taking turns shuffle is to move slowly in a group -- e.g, it would be rude to shoulder past others routinely in trying to get through faster at the farmer's market, because part of the taking turns aspect is to wait patiently as the crowd moves ahead until you get where you want to stop off -- would it then be rude to beep others aside to move through more quickly, too? Or on a crowded sidewalk where everyone else is more or less having to wait?

I don't mean to speculate whether these people in particular that I saw were rude. Just like I can't say if someone who ran through the crowd was doing it for a good reason, I can't speculate on their reasons.I was just wondering if there was a generally understoof ettiquette, or if you had personal thoughts on the matter.

Your post here brought it to mind, even though this is in some ways the opposite circumstance.

Dave Hingsburger said...


I don't know of any code of manners regarding using my chair. When I got the chair they were careful to tell me of the operations of the chair and how to negotiate curb cuts and the stuff. They never mentioned any social aspects of using the chair - the marginalizaiton, the Bill Maher style reaction, or the frustrations. They also didn't mention anything about how to use the chair politely. For me, I don't want special access because of the chair, I don't push ahead or push aside. If I'm in a line up, I'm in a line up. For example, the bank I go to has a narrow aisle for line up. I pull off to the side of the first person in line, get eye contact with the last person in line and say 'I'm after you, OK' they always nod. The first in line typically offers for me to go first and I always say, 'No, I'm comfortably seated, I'll wait my turn.' To answer another question, it is quite easy to go at a slower speed than the chair can go. I'm usually with walkers so I always go slower than the chair can go. Sometimes, when I'm out alone I like to open it up but never do in crowded spaces. I think a set of guidelines for powerchair use would be helpful, especially when you are new to that mode of transit.

Belinda said...

I loved "not other but brother." That is a great thought to carry into the day.

Tamara said...

I realize that people treat those in wheelchairs/powerchairs differently, but I have to say that people don't just do this to those in wheelchairs. They step in front of others without thought all the time. I especially hate it when you're walking out in a crowd and someone just stops short in front of you. It's frustrating and kind of dangerous in a big crowd. While I understand that he lost control and shouldn't have started screaming profanities, I have to admit that I was kind of cheering him on.

Some people just think the world revolves around them, and I have trouble caring too much that they were called out on it.

That said, I agree with you - I pray that he experiences much more kindness in his life to offset those rude experiences.

CT said...

Thanks, Dave. I appreciate your time and mental energy in the response. It's a question that could have been taken in a harsh way, and I'm grateful that you didn't.

Let me be clear that I cannot even count the number of people I've seen running through a crowd, shouldering past, or otherwise hurrying through on feet more quickly than those around them. For me to have seen 3 power chair users do it in the space of some 40 years -- if it does say something about power chair users, it isn't that they tend to be rude.

Rgarding the post above mine (hi, Tamara :)), I think there is likely something about visibility at play. I don't currently use a wheelchair, but I suspect users are likely to experience long stretches of a binary response: they are either clearly not being seen or they are clearly being treated as "other" when they are seen. People who routinely walk also have the mitigating experience of being seen and treated as just regular folks to balance out the jerk factor.

There's nothing like the feeling of normal to recharge one's batteries, as Dave so eloquently noted recetnly.

Ettina said...

"it would be rude to shoulder past others routinely in trying to get through faster at the farmer's market, because part of the taking turns aspect is to wait patiently as the crowd moves ahead until you get where you want to stop off"

Really? I routinely shoulder past people in crowds, trying to get out of the crowd even if I don't actually end up where I needed to be. As an autistic person, when I'm trapped in a crowd, panic sets in. The longer I'm in a crowd, the more overloaded and disoriented I'll be. It literally hurts to be crowded.

I just hope people aren't judging me for doing what I have to do to get out of a situation that's harmful to me.

CT said...

Ettina, this was a specific location in a specific context, and I expect it is not a place you have been. The character of that particular place was its own. Different places seem to have different cultural expectations, you know?

People did shoulder past there, but if they were physically brushing aside other people, they generally said "excuse me" or "beg your pardon" or somesuch. That was a verbal acknowledgement of the behaviour being unexpected and outside normal bounds. I don't know if you do the same, but I can assure you that if you pushed past me without saying something, I'd assume you were dealing with an emergency.

My question was not about whether any given action was rude, but whether Dave had a sense of whether there was a general expectation about moderating speed in power wheelchairs within the disability community. I really had no idea myself, and I didn't know how feasible it really would be. (sometimes a jerky stop and start just doesn't work with some kinds of equipment, or it becomes more difficult to manuever, etc).

But rest assured, if we've ever been in contact (!), I figured you were dealing wiht something big yourself.

Shan said...

This has more to do with personality than anything else. Some people blunder through, oblivious, and some people are aware and careful. I'm a person who constantly monitors everyone else's movement, watch me in a crowd is funny because I look like some crazed Frogger character - walk forward, watch it - he's stepping back to look up at the building and doesn't see me, so leap back! Okay, walk forward - jump right! - walk forward - duck! STOP DEAD! There's an opening on the right, dash for it before it fills up!

Then at the end when I'm on my lily pad on the other side of the highway, I get 1000 points.

ivanova said...

That poor guy. Sounds like he just cracked. I guess whenever people act like that there is a reason, whether we'll ever know it or not.

CapriUni said...

I'm also wondering if he was genuinely afraid that he would hurt her, and part of his outburst was fueled by that.

It is possible, as has been noted, to go slowly in a power wheelchair -- but it is *not* possible to stop on a dime. Most of them are designed with "gradual breaking" systems, to avoid injury to the user.

Often, when I'm in a crowded situation in my motor chair (especially when I'm going along a narrow sidewalk, or over uneven ground), I feel physically unsafe -- that either I, or someone near me will end up hurt. And that feeling is compounded when the bipeds around me are in a haze of able-bodied privilege, and don't even see me.

Perhaps he was swearing at her in an attempt to impress on her how important it is to pay attention.

Elasti-Girl said...

That last paragraph is like a breath of fresh air.