Wednesday, December 05, 2012


We were walking along Bloor Street heading towards home. I was with people I know, nearly but not quite friends, and we were talking and laughing. Suddenly we all noticed a fellow coming towards me, a well dressed, pleasant faced, man. He was making kind of odd throttling gestures with his hands and he was definitely headed for me. Then he made a quick lunge, while still a ways away - maybe two or three feet, and then stormed by me.

I was terrified.

Completely and utterly terrified.

"Did you see that?" I said with a shaky voice. My companions immediately said that they did and how strange the whole thing was.

"I was so scared," I said having trouble keeping my emotions in check.

And then an even odder thing happened. They began joking about how I could just power my chair up and ram into the guy, how I could back over him as he lay on the ground. Further hilarity carried on between the two of them as they laughed and joked about how I could have used my power chair to wreak revenge.

I tried to break in to their conversation, I really needed to be heard, "I felt really vulnerable."

Again they joked it away saying that in my chair I was invincible that I'd have been able to 'take him out.' And, then they were off on more revenge kind of fantasies.

I don't know when I've ever felt so utterly alone.

I am not, I think, a coward. I am, however, controlled. I have had several comments from other wheelchair users here on the blog who write about how if something is in their way - they just push through the barrier and if things fall, so be it. I can only admire that kind of chutzpah. I don't have it. I am mortified and embarrassed if, by accident, I knock something over. In the five years I've had the power chair I've never run into anyone, certainly never purposely, and I'm very, very, careful and aware even if those who walk are completely distracted by 'i-ing' their way down the street. I pads and I pods only means I extra careful.

So I'm not that guy.

And I don't want to be.

I tried a couple more times to get my feelings across because right then I really needed them to listen to me, to acknowledge that what happened was frightening and to give me a sense of their support. I'm sad to say, I didn't get it through.

Maybe they don't see my vulnerability in the way that I feel it.

I don't know.

But right then I understood that my experience as a disabled person often puts me out of reach for ordinary empathy. Maybe.


I felt alone.

And a little lost.


cheeselady said...

I'm glad you're OK and sorry your acquaintances were unable to offer you the support you needed. It had to be a scary experience and their lack of empathy made you feel very alone. I assume your almost-attacker is mentally ill and needs help.

Ezra Bradford said...

I think stories of strength, like "I could totally have taken him," are the way some people are used to dealing with feelings of vulnerability.

Anonymous said...

Oh Dave - how frightening. Too bad your "friends" couldn't see your position. Perhaps they were trying to defuse the situation with humor - but I'm with you - it is NOT funny.

Being threatened goes into the dark places.

You are no stranger to having fear - and you should have been heard.

I agree with you about charging with my chair - but I think if it came to it, I would use whatever was at hand to get away. Let us pray that you/we will never have to make such a choice.

Anonymous said...

Yikes - it is hard to feel so vulnerable.


Joyfulgirl said...

Sorry you had these 2 bad experiences. It reminds me a little of how sometimes I don't take a child's fears seriously and not fully hear what they are saying in an effort to 'make it better'. I'm not proud of that.

Tamara said...

I don't know what to say. What a strange reaction to a frightening situation.

Liz Miller said...

I have had similar experiences, telling stories about being attacked, or threatened and having people joke about it or dismiss it. (I'm not disabled, but I am very very short)

I think it's because they don't know how to deal with vulnerability, or don't want to face the fear they experienced when they witnessed (or in my case, heard about) potential violence happening to a friend.

In other words, they probably felt vulnerable and helpless, too. Helpless to protect you at that moment. Helpless to stop your feeling of vulnerability. And they laugh and joke to chase away that feeling.

Alice Fraggle said...

I'm so sorry that you felt so vulnerable, and that your companions didn't listen to you. I think we all owe it to each other to acknowledge each others feelings, and not automatically brush them off. Perhaps their way of dealing with the threat was to make jokes, but they should have acknowledged how YOU felt, since the man was coming towards you.
Take care!

L. said...

When training as a volunteer in pastoral care I learned that it is a common reaction to respond to an expression of vulnerability with a "la, la, la can't hear you" denial (you'll beat this thing, it'll be OK, you could have just run him over). People don't like being uncomfortable, so often we aren't the best listeners that we could be because we're rushing to cover up our own concerns or worries.

I don't know if this happens more to those with disabilities as I am not disabled. It could be that some others perceive you as more vulnerable and that their denial is more likely to come up as a result. But since, like illness, disability is a state of physical being that can be perceived as unsettling or different, it might well be more common.

At any rate, we were taught that this is a very disempowering and discouraging way to treat vulnerability and that the appropriate response is to listen and to mirror the feelings remarked without trying to "solve" them. But, as I have learned over and over, this is easier said than done! That denial or rejection of discomfort is such a built-in response. I'm not saying we should excuse ourselves. Just that I keep on catching myself not being the best listener I could be.

Shan said...

I agree with you about not bashing around with your chair. I don't like those attitudes either - "if something falls, so be it." I guess I feel like, being rude and inconsiderate is not an appropriate way to respond to rudeness and inconsideration. One can either help a situation or hurt it. If a store display makes an aisle inaccessible, and you smash it down and let the oranges roll all over the floor, the only point you've made is "People in wheelchairs are assholes." Not "Oh dear we should move that."

As to actually running over someone, or squashing their toes, or whatever - unthinkable.

As to the incident itself, I know how scary that is, by the way. Ian got assaulted on a street in Victoria by a random, clean, attractive man. We were standing on the sidewalk looking into a shop window, minding our own business. This man strode towards us, clapping his hands loudly once or twice as he approached. When he got to us, he suddenly grabbed Ian and threw him towards the traffic on Fort Street. Luckily Ian smashed into a parking meter or he'd have been strawberry jam on the road.

The police said "Was he wearing chambrays? [Yes, he was.] THAT GUY? If it's that guy, you're lucky. It could have been a lot worse for you. We're already looking for that guy. If you see him again, don't approach him. [Duh.] Call 9-1-1."


Colleen said...

Dear Dave:

I am sorry that you were so frightened and then so abandoned. Erratic and unpredicatable behaviour directed at you is pretty scary! I wonder if your companions were frightened by it too, even though it sounds like you were the focus of the man's behaviour.

"But right then I understood that my experience as a disabled person often puts me out of reach for ordinary empathy." This gave me pause. I hope it's not true!
Would you be comfortable changeing the "often" for "sometimes"?

I hope you have had someone who listened to you.


CapriUni said...

I admit: almost immediately after reading this post (soon after it appeared in my syndicate feed), I started trying to find explanations for your acquaintances' behavior, and running through, in my own mind, what I would have done or might have done or could have said, had I been in your situation.

But I know that is often less than helpful, because it comes across as "how to be better at being disabled."

I think now, my reaction was / is my own defense mechanism, because the idea of not being heard when I'm afraid is almost as scary to me as the initial threatening behavior. And I don't want to think that I'm really sharing space with people who are so unempathetic, so my brain goes into all sorts of activity to find some other reason behind the behavior.

But I do know that it would probably take a lot longer for me to trust these acquaintances as real friends than it would if they had paused to hear me.

I hope today finds you on more solid ground.

Dave Hingsburger said...

Colleen, I'm afraid, to be honest to how I really feel, I can't. The number of times, when I am with others with disabilities, that I hear 'they just don't get it' or when I'm with parents of kids with disabilties and hear, 'They just won't understand.' I thought about your request and maybe with more thinking I'll change my mind but right now - I'm sorry, I just can't make that wording change.

Colleen said...

Dear Dave:

I have been thinking about this since I left my comment. I was interrupted a kajillion times while writing it and went on to a busy day all the while concerned that my comment could be interpreted as minimizing your feelings which was not my intention at all. Rather, I am expressing my own distress at how alienated you feel.

It disturbs me greatly that you feel empathy is often lacking from people who are not disabled. You have a great deal of credibility with me - so I believe you! even though I wish with all my heart that it was not so.

I spend my days teaching classes full of DSW students about empathy - about letting go of your own stuff and just listening to people - really hearing them - and being open to other ways of being in the world. Dave, you inspire much of what I teach! (and I hope practice)

The world is more broken than I thought it was. My rhetorical question is: How do we get from "often" to "sometimes"?


Dave Hingsburger said...

Colleen, I understood where you were coming from and I appreciate the work you do towards creating the willingess and the ability for your students to have empathy for others. I value your work too. I just wanted to be completely honest about how I feel about the world that I live in.

Anonymous said...

I am so sorry you had this experience. Being scared is bad enough, not being heard only adds what my Dad would have called "Insult to Injury".
Be Well.

Kimberly said...

I have a lot of empathy for you and what you were feeling and even the frustration at not being heard, but I also understand the other side. I think it may not have been that they weren't hearing you, but that they were scared and reacting the way they had to deal with emotionally themselves. My mother's house was broken into when my sister and I were living there. My sister and I were both laughing and making jokes even though we were both scared and feeling violated. We even commented that the cop probably thought we were involved because we seemed so flippant about it. It is the way I always deal with being scared and even stressed. I laugh instead of scream on roller coaster and I even laughed my youngest daughter out during labor. I know that if I were your friend, I would totally see your position, but I'm sure I would have been scared and upset and immediately turned to joking and laughing in any way that I could.

Anonymous said...

I am so sorry that happened to you. And anticipating your next post, I doubt the attacker was mentally ill.

Based on the evidence, they were mean. They clearly enjoyed being near your terrified experience.

Friends are the folks who know how to support you in the worst circumstances. If they don't know how, they ask instead of dismissing your request.

Colleen said...

Dear Dave:

One of the things I admire about you is your honesty. It makes me think. It sometimes disturbs me and makes me move out of my comfort zone. Though that is usually uncomfotable it is almost always an opportunity for growth.


Rickismom said...

To me, the reaction of the 2 "aquaintences" is much more scary than the man who threatened you.

Rickismom said...

What I am saying is that I suspect very highly that many who "tsk-tsk, oh how sad" when there is the case of someone with a phychosis being violent, only care until comes the need to pay higher tax dollars to help divorces get a better restart in life, or a half-way house for men who are NOT willing to take medication, and whose families fear them....