Saturday, August 04, 2012

What To Do? What To Do?

I never know what to do in these situations.

I was rolling through the kids clothing section at Target looking for school clothes for Ruby and Sadie. A mom was with her little boy who asked her, "What's wrong with that man?" Mom, and good for her, was embarrassed but didn't hush her child. She said, "We all need help sometimes." That didn't satisfy him, "But why is he in that chair?" She was flustered.

Being very near them, I said, "I have a disability and I move around on wheels. Look," I continued pointing to the cart that he was sitting on, "you are on wheels too!"

General laughter.

Mom decided to add, "Yes, you ride on here when you get tired. And he rides on his wheelchair when he's tired too."



How the hell did that get into the conversation?

I said, looking to the boy, "I'm NOT tired, I just have a disability and move differently."

Now she was a bit upset. I didn't realize that I had just corrected her in front of her young son. I didn't think through before I answered. I just wanted to make sure that the kid didn't equate disability with 'tiredness' or it's cousin 'laziness.' I knew I'd upset her and didn't know how to pull back.

I said, "I'm sorry."

OK, you guys are all good at this, what should I have done ...?


CL said...

Hmm... If you're trying to think of how you could have said something without making her upset, I suppose you could have softened what you said by saying (warmly, with a smile) "Haha, well some people sit down when they're tired, but I use a wheelchair because I have a disability and move differently..."

I understand your reaction, though -- I don't know if she was desperately trying to avoid explaining disability for some reason, and maybe she meant what she said as a "white lie to end this line of questioning" because she was embarrassed & worried about offending you. But at the same time, I really see how "tired" pushed a button with you because of ugly stereotypes out there. It was good to correct the child so he wouldn't think anything like this, and because there is no reason children can't be told about disability.

Anonymous said...

I guess that it would depend on the age of the child as to how far you would wish to educate. General rule - never correct a parent in front of the child. You made the lead in with the cart - you made the identification with the child on wheels - I'm afraid the mom picked up the ball and ran in the wrong direction. Also, the child was asking the mother, not you - nor did the mom turn to you for the answer. Bottom line - you did educated, yourself and the mother. Let's hope the outcome is more awareness all around. :-)

Karen said...

I guess Anon and I are doomed to disagree forever! They were talking about you within earshot of you ... in my mind that gives you permission to join the conversation. Nothing about me without me, to me, includes conversations in a public area. Secondly, who made this rule that you never correct a parent in front of a child? I think that's damaging and dangerous. Children don't need an infallible parent, the need a human one. Mom had an opportunity for teaching her child about how to respond well to new information. I get a little sick of the idea that mom's and dad's always know best and mom's and dad's never make a mistake. I've made plenty, my folks made plenty, and we LEARNED from them.

Kim said...

Peoples abilities and disabilities are so complex and varied. Sometimes I have explained differences my children have noticed by saying 'some people walk, some people wobble, some people wheel, we all find our own best way to move around'. However we also have a close friend who has severe chronic fatigue syndrome and uses a wheelchair when he is, well, tired. So I agree with CL, in that you could acknowledge the Mum's explanation as correct in some circumstances, but then (if you wished to) explain that you used a wheelchair for a different reason.

Cindy B. said...

I have worn glasses since I was 6 years old and when my kids at some point asked about a disability, I simply said that I don't see well so I wear glasses, that person does walk well so they use a wheelchair - that seemed to satisfy them.

Cindy B. said...

Oops, should have previewed my comment before hitting Publish- that person doesn't walk well.....

Moose said...

"Never correct a parent in front of a child?" Spoken like a true control freak. It's not like you randomly walked up to them to correct something you heard the mother say.

I think you answered just the way I would have. The idea that someone needs a wheelchair when they're "tired" may be technically true for a few but not for most people who use them. The mother got flustered and pulled an answer out of her butt. Her answer was borderline offensive, and you politely corrected it.

I suspect her being upset may have been more about recognizing she said something stupid. Although it's possible she's one of those ninnies who thinks that children should be "protected" from knowing about things like disabilities and people who aren't 100% "normal" (for her definition of the word).

Mary said...

I think drawing a parallel between a wheelchair and a child's pushchair is never going to end well. Especially when the child is old enough to be speaking like that - at that age the pushchair, along with the seat in the shopping trolley, is something that exists mostly to confine the child for the convenience of the parent whose hands are otherwise full. It's not synonymous with independent movement.

But the only answer to "what should you have done" is "whatever the heck you felt like doing". For every disabled person who, like Karen, wants to be a part of the conversation, there's another, like me, who strongly feels it's not my job to invest my shopping time and energy being someone else's Learning Experience.

If you want to educate, do, if you want to leave well enough alone, do. You're doing your damn shopping. You're obliged to be reasonably civil to other patrons of the store but you don't have to enrich their lives.

Anonymous said...

I think you made an important distinction; one that BOTH mom and child needed to be made aware of. I think you handled the situation perfectly and with much grace!

That the mom wasn't appreciative speaks to her ignorance, not to your willingness to educate her.

Her reaction is not your responsibility. No "I'm sorry" needed!


CapriUni said...

I'm with Sue on this one.

So Mom got upset. It's okay to be upset sometimes. Maybe that experience will help her remember not to jump to "lazy" assumptions about other people.

I think her instinct was to make you less frightening to the boy by painting you as being "just like" him.

What was it you said about that sentiment in your post about the Disability Pride Parade? "Balderdash!"?

Anonymous said...

When this has happened with my children, I first tell them that we do not talk about people like they're not there - it's VERY rude.

I also use the eyeglasses analogy: some people use them all the time and some people use them some of the time.

Debbie (NJ)

Tamara said...

Personally, Dave, I'm good with the way you handled it. I don't know if was the very best way, but I don't have any better response. Maybe you could have led with something like "I'm going to have to disagree with your mom a little bit. I don't use a wheelchair because I'm tired ..." But moms and kids have to learn sooner or later that moms aren't infallible. If that really upset her, she needs to get over herself a bit. I don't think it should be a problem to be corrected in front of your kids. That seems like a silly "rule".

Anonymous said...

My guess as a mom is the word "disability" was a new word, so she was trying to explain it. But she panicked being in front of you instead of in private. What to say? His legs don't work? He's too sick to walk? She doesn't know why you're on wheels or what might offend you. She did try to make a human connection to show her son how you and he had something in common. (though incorrect). And then you repeated the "disability" word which doesn't have any meaning to the child. "I'm not tired, I'm macaroonacle.". Huh? Tough for both sides being put on the spot!

Anonymous said...

I think you approached it in the right way... perhaps Mom was feeling a bit akward about her son's comment and just blurted out the first thing that came to her lips.

frieda said...

Well... onother option could be to talk to the mother and not the boy: "I'd like to explain to you why I want your son to know that I'm not in the wheelchair because I'm tired. May I explain that to you?" .... or similar words.- I'm german, so I'm not the one to choose the words fitting best. But I hope you got the idea of it.
Now the mother can decide whether she wants to hear some explanations right now. Maybe she is interested, maybe not - but you both have the chance to get in contact about the theme. Maybe she really understands - and the kid will benefit, too - on the long run.
This reminds me of a situation some years ago. I was staying in a hotel while I was working in Fuessen in the german Alps. Morning, wheeling around to collect breakfast for me and my friend . A boy, maybe four or five years old , stood still watching me carefully and fascinated for some minutes. Then he explained to noone special: "I want a wheelchair as well. My feet wouldn't hurt that much when we were hiking."
Very good guess, clever boy.
Mom's face turned purple. I was stunned about the cleverness of the boy. And could tell the mother I wasn't offended. And could tell both that I use the wheelchair for another purpose - me legs don't work. Then: breakfast and off to work. Much fun.

Utter Randomness said...


While it clearly wasn't true in this case, some older children do in fact use pushchairs/strollers for stamina purposes. Often they are used by kids with low muscle tone from a variety of disabilities or medical problems. They're cheaper than wheelchairs. Another case where an older child might be using a stroller would be the case of some children with autism. Having a safe and familiar place is really important and can decrease stress and meltdowns significantly. It is also common for children with autism to run away.

The fact that you made a judgement about people who use a stroller for their older children on a blog about disability without even considering the idea that some of those children have disabilities makes me sort of uncomfortable.

Nathan Dawthorne said...

You forgot to wear your "I'm different. Get over it." T-shirt... or that tattoo on your @$$ that says "There's no such thing as normal." That way you can just moon them next time.

Mary said...

Utter Randomness,

I am at a loss to see where you could have drawn such a conclusion from my remarks, especially since you acknowledge that it's obviously not the scenario being discussed in this post.

The fact that you choose to get uncomfortable about a perceived judgement a stranger on the internet did not, in fact, make, amuses me no end.

Ettina said...

Mary - it may be that Utter Randomness feel a bit touchy about it because of websites like this one:

Utter Randomness said...

I inferred what I did directly from the following words from your comment: "Especially when the child is old enough to be speaking like that - at that age the pushchair, along with the seat in the shopping trolley, is something that exists mostly to confine the child for the convenience of the parent whose hands are otherwise full. " It was pretty obvious that you judge parents who are using a stroller for their older children pretty harshly, without considering that there might be a medical reason for it.

Utter Randomness said...


I'm sorry if I misinterpreted your comment. It did seem very judgmental from my perspective, but I can tell that you didn't mean it that way.


Does the person who runs that blog walk around Disney parks all day taking pictures of kids who can't walk the required 8-12 miles per day? Also, I like how they block out the faces of some of the kids, but not others...

Mariah said...

As the mom of 4, I say you're good.

I would assuming that the concerned face the mother made was because she was embarrassed that she said you were in a wheelchair because you were tired. And if she wasn't embarrassed, she should have been.

The world is a big place, and I don't know everything. I have no problem being corrected in front of my kids-- I am big enough to handle it. And, it gives me a chance to practice humility and graciousness, if I can manage it.

Alyssa said...

Not that this excuses anything, because I'm almost positive that you use an actual wheelchair, but at least here in the states people use those damn electronic carts to tool themselves around stores like target all the time. Often for no better reason than they are tired. Or they are obese and don't want to get tired. So really it could be that you got insulted by not one but two stereotypes and bad situations. (I'm sorry, having never met you I don't know how visibly obvious your disability is...such as if you have had an amputation or something that would obviously blow the theory I just put forth.)

Utter Randomness said...

Alyssa, you judge people harshly. You don't know why people are using the electric carts. Some people have invisible disabilities.

Also, why does it matter to you if someone is using the cart because they're tired or trying to conserve energy. Is conserving energy something that only people with disabilities can do?

Also, some people are overweight BECAUSE of their disabilities (which may or may not be apparent). Some medications cause uncontrollable weight gain, some people are unable to exercise because of extreme pain.

Some people are just poor and unable to afford good food. Next time you're at the grocery store, compare the prices of healthy food to the prices of the less healthy food. Think about how much you need to buy of each to make a filling meal. It's hard to eat healthy on a budget, really really hard, and it's not so easy to jump income brackets.

Alyssa said...

You are correct. There are invisible disabilities that i may not be aware of and i apologize to anyone who may have one and might be offended. However, I "judge people harshly" because I know many (including members of my family) who use electronic carts but don't really have disabilities.
I appreciate that there are two sides to this story and that maybe the point is that everyone should be able to determine his/her own "needs." I find it a bit hard to take, though, when an elderly person with a walker and an oxygen tank is standing at the door waiting for an electronic cart to be returned while a high school football player cruises around the store on it because he's tired from his double-session practice.
Thank you, though, for softening my heart somewhat to the idea of invisible disability. I will monitor my thoughts more carefully in the future.