Saturday, September 06, 2014


For those who haven't used the subway system in Toronto, let me explain how I get into and out of a subways stop. On entry, along with several turnstiles where the bulk of those entering go through, there is a spot for wheelchair entry. You approach it, put in a token or swipe through a pass, and then a gate swings open leaving room for you to get through. Once through, the gate closes. To exit you approach the same gate, push a button, the gate swings the other way allowing exit. It's a simple and effective solution. It's, of course, used by all sorts of people; those with strollers, bundle buggies, large packages, bicycles as well as those of us who use wheelchairs.

Yesterday we headed downtown to go to the theatre and pick up tickets to go see the 'Last Night of the Proms' next Saturday. We wanted to be sure that we had tickets for the both of us and a couple of friends, it's become a tradition for all of us. The subway was packed on the way down, just packed. I was the last to get out and then just pulled over to the side for a few moments to let the throngs get out and get passed me. The subway platform is a little frightening to me and I fear that my joystick will get bumped in a crowd and send me plunging over the edge.

As the crowd thinned out I noticed a disabled woman, walking very slowly and carefully towards the exit. She wore a helmet, which looked like it had been battered and bruised by several falls, she used a complicated kind of cane that assisted her with a complicated kind of walk. She, like me, was being careful, clearly understanding what it is to be someone who moves slowly in a world full of people in a rush.

She got to the exit just before me. It looked like she was going for the accessible exit, but she did not. She stopped just beside it, at the turnstile next to it, then began a routine of dealing with cane and getting her body into position to go through the turnstile. I, being careful to not startle her, made a wide arc around her which took me to the accessible exit. I pushed the button for the gate to slide open as she pushed to go through her exit.

She spoke to me as she went through, "At least I don't have to use THAT exit. I can still get myself around just fine." She smile a superior smile, very proud that she wasn't a member of the disabled classes, and slowly moved on.

I felt quite stung. It's one thing to get that kind of attitude from the great non-disabled throng, but to get it from someone who has a clear and noticeable disability, was something else. I have always known, of course, about the 'disability heirarchies' .... the one they use and the one we use. She was clearly stating to me, "whatever you think, don't think that I'm one of you, I am more than you, I have value because I walk and I don't use adaptions." Well, except for the complicated cane and the helmet, perhaps.

The absolute need that some have to disavow their disability status strikes me as so sad and so unnecessary. I know we are surrounded by negative messages about disability, I know that we are targets of hate and hateful behaviour, I know all that. But pride beats prejudice every day of the week. Her need to slap out at me, letting me know that her exit through the turnstile allowed her entrance into a different world of respect and acceptability than mine, seemed to come from a deep place within her. A place where fear of her own difference gave her the need to punish that difference in others.

I fought the impulse to shoot back at her. She may have been mean, but anything that I said would be have been cruel. Even the mildest rebuke like, "Honey, look in the mirror, you are as disabled as I am" would, I think, have crushed her.

So. I said nothing. I let her have this moment. I expect she's experienced unkindness elsewhere, she didn't need it from me.

There are times my heart slaps hands over my mouth. This was one of those times. I hope though, that she can begin to embrace who she is, I hope she can lose the fear, I hope that she can experience, for a moment what it's like, to simple be herself.


Anonymous said...

I have seen that hierarchy in members of the disabled community and have felt amazed by it for years. The most stunning example was when a woman said, "I may be blind, but I'm not r*&^*&^d." It was heartbreaking to me!

Colleen said...

Dear Dave:

I love that - my heart slaps hands over my mouth. There are times when my heart needs to get those hands securely slapped over my mouth. I'm sad to say it doesn't always make it.

Your post reminded me of one of my most distressing experiences with my daughter Cari. We had been getting some support from War Amps. They had been great at getting me in touch with other parents of children with Cornelia de Lange Syndrome. And they invited our whole family to a conference of other families of children with amputations in Ottawa. So, the opening remarks were by Cliff Chadderton, who had been a leader at War Amps for a long time and everyone seemed to like and respect him. Here was his message: our kids may be missing limbs but at least they are not missing their brains. I don't think he used the r word but he might as well have. There I sat holding my precious daughter, who did have a developmental disability, with tears rolling down my face. It was one of the most devastating moments for me -encountering prejudice where I had reason to expect support. We never accepted their help again.

I think that hierarchy is so much a part of our society we aren't even aware of it until we run into it's more blatant expressions.

Thanks for this post

Flemisa said...

And here I will quite cheerfully use anything that will make my life easier and therefore allow me to enjoy it more fully!

Anonymous said...

Dear Dave,

I have not commented here for a while even though a read here everyday.

Right now I am experiencing a lot of trouble with my body and am in more pain than usual. And I am stressed and sad.

And feeling like this: every move causing pain and effort makes me insecure with myself and my surroundings.

I think thats what would me think in categories like "at least I still can do this or that like a normal person".

Acceptance of ones limitations is a very hard learned lesson.

I love that you have such a attentionable heart.


Anonymous said...

I too love - my heart slaps hands over my mouth- What a wonderful phrase. I expect to quote that many times into the future. Charlotte

ABEhrhardt said...

I am reminded of the time the Saint to the lepers, Damien, was able to say, one morning as he preached, "We lepers..." when he began - up until that moment he had served the lepers on Molokai faithfully and lovingly, but as a non-disabled servant because of his love for them.

You have educated me so much since I began to read your blog - now I laugh at myself, and all the lessons I have learned in the past 25 years of being disabled.

Many of them, especially at the time, I have NOT wanted to learn.

Most of your posts are gentle, educational, and loving - with an occasional slap 'upside the head,' but I don't kid myself: disability doesn't make me a better or more loving person. Only what I do and think and say does that.

I will be learning the rest of my life. I continue to hope it will translate into as much action as possible.


Moose said...

I DESPISE the Disability Olympics. "My disability is worse/better than yours!' "Well, at least I'm not as bad off as YOU!" and the all-popular event, "I'm more *normal* than you are!"

Sometimes I think this is what is really behind the whole "disability inspiration porn" crap - the percentage of disabled people who are very loud about the fact that they do things JUST LIKE NORMAL PEOPLE DO. As if there's something not normal about a disability, as if they can pretend their disability doesn't exist, as if the world will magically 'heal' a disability if you just act 'normal.'

I hate people.

Robin said...

What strikes me most when disabled people pull this hierarchical crap is that they forget, or don't notice, or are afraid to notice that, as you pointed out, plenty of visibly nondisabled people use the accessible options for perfectly valid reasons (lots of packages in hand, several children in tow, etc). It's an excellent argument for universal design.

I'm sorry that woman was creul to you, though. Lashing out at others is one of the les cool things about human nature.

Louise said...

Thank you for your generosity

audaciouslady said...

It's everywhere. It's as if the disabled are having a competition on their own to see who is more disabled. I want to say, DING DING! YOU WIN! You are better than me. Now please get out of my way.

B. said...

It's typically human, eh, - sad but human. A caregiver said something about normal people to me the other day. Then she paused and said "oh, that was terrible...". I've heard it so many times before and knew she meant no offence so I said, yeah, I use that word too but sometimes I'm not being very complimentary.

It is sad to see/hear someone who has their own distinct challenges putting down someone else to feel better about themselves.

Thanks, Dave.

Anonymous said...

Bless you for developing that heart. Poor, cruel soul.

Liz said...

Thank you so much for this word picture:my heart slaps hands over my mouth.