Wednesday, June 10, 2015

The Watcher and the Watched

The evening after we got married, Joe and I, along with Mike, Marissa and the girls, went back to Signs for dinner. We went the first time for the experience of being in a restaurant being served by deaf wait staff and learning sign language as we ordered. We came back because of the sense of welcome, true, but really we came back because of the food. It's really good food. They have a great menu. So all of us decided it would be a wonderful place to go, relax, have fun, and have dinner.

Joe and I arrived early. The ramp is a bit intimidating and I'd never managed it on my own. Joe had never even helped me, it had been Mike helping me both times. But one of the things that you learn as a wheelchair user is that you can't always rely on help being there, you have to push yourself and you have to try to do things on your own before ruling out that possibility.

So I squared myself and made it up the first half of the ramp. But I couldn't make the turn at the top. I rolled back down. I looked at it again and thought that I needed more room on my right to make the turn. Rolling back down I realized that, no, I need room on the left to accommodate the back wheels. Zip. I made the turn. OK, nearly there.

The next section of the ramp is steep. I'm heavy, my power chair doesn't like really steep inclines. But I backed up as much as I could, maybe an inch, and I barely managed to clear the top, but I managed. I was delighted. I did it on my own and I'd made enough errors to learn what works.

It was upon arrival at the top I noticed that a small crowd had gathered on the other side of the street, they, along with patrons who were sitting at the tables inside the restaurant and beside the ramp, had been watching all of this with great interest. I had the immediate sense of being a circus freak. I had the immediate need to simply flee the situation.

But I didn't.

I had to realize that however they saw me, kindly or unkindly, was not relevant to me at that point. What was relevant is that I got up the ramp without assistance. That was the only thing that mattered. Next time there wouldn't be as much of a show. Because I know how to do it.

In the end, the dinner was delicious, the service wonderful, the company fabulous and we had a good time. By the time we left the crowd, now gathered at the back of my mind had receded in proportion and importance.

But I'd be lying if I said, they weren't still there.


Susan said...

There is a very real transference of shame when stuff like that happens. It helps to be very sure that the shame does not belong to you, but to the people watching and judging. It has helped me in situations like that to turn around and make some small gesture with a wave of my hand or something, that symbolically brushes the shame off of me and puts it right back on them where it belongs. I'm sorry that happened to you. Thank you for sharing it because it is a such a poignant and painful reminder to be careful not to "watch". Without a word, eyes alone can do so much damage.

Colleen said...

Dave, they were admiring your prowess with the chair. Anyone motivated to watch for any other reason is not worth thinking about. Easier said than done, I know, but truly, it sounds like what you did was awesome - me, I cannot for the life of me figure out things like, if I move this this way then the vehicle will go that way.

Anonymous said...

Oh, come on. Everyone there was watching with great interest as you mastered something new. And silently cheering you on.

You didn't ask for help, so they let you do it your way.

Maybe it's not the best thing possible to do this in public - tightrope walkers practice in private - but I would have had a big smile on my face, in empathy, when you got to the top.

Spontaneous applause wouldn't have been uncalled for.

Celebrate your victories!

And next time, imagine how impressive it will be when you just zip up the ramp entirely on your own.


CapriUni said...

Even If Dave's audience were 100% appreciative (or even 51%), isn't it a rather sad commentary on our society that wheelchair users just going out to dine in public are such a rare occurrence that we become a day's entertainment, just by default?

Anonymous said...

I'm sorry that watching happened to you. To my mind, it's not ok to spectate, not in an appreciative way or in an unsympathetic way, NOT AT ALL.

Anonymous said...

I have been guilty of watching in similar situations. Those with some form of mobility difficulties trying to transverse something. I look, not for any form of entertainment or judgment, but to see if I can be of help should they not be able to manage. You would like to not give it a thought, but until all buildings, doorways, etc. are totally accessible to all, there will be barriers. So yes, I do watch, only to make sure that they can manage without tears, anger, or giving up. Don't forget, the person "trying" usually is a stranger that we don't know their full capabilities and perhaps that ramp or door is just too much. Perhaps with "no show" on my part I can just ease through that "bump", with permission of course. So, forgive me for looking. I am equally joyed when victory is won.

Cindy said...

I have watched drivers try to park in a small spot. I silently cheer them on and am pleased for them when they make it. I have also watched them give up and go somewhere else to park - that's when I feel bad for them. I know there is probably nothing I can but give silent encouragement - remember the child's book about the train - "I think I can, I think I can".

AnyBeth said...

Dave, glad you managed the ramp, difficult as it is. Think you could manage it the first time or two next time you must?

liebjabberings, surely you must be kidding about the applause. A group of strangers wouldn't do that to a tot taking their first public steps. It'd be really, really weird.

The staring people, especially the ones stopped across the street, were being... uncouth. (Impolite doesn't cover it. Unintentionally rude in an awkward way.) Unless you've directly involved yourself (like by offering help if needed along the way), glances are understandable but WATCHING is much less so.

Little kids can do this better. Once, past the cashiers of a big-box store, I was putting on my winter gear to go outside. A little way in front of my shopping cart (just too far to speak) was a 4-year-old girl sitting in another cart. For a few seconds, she gave this look of disbelief turning to interest, likely never having seen a person in a manual wheelchair handle a shopping cart. Ready to go, I put feet above a bar on the long bottom shelf and pushed my legs against the vertical tubing. I pushed my rims and got the whole contraption going. As soon as the girl saw how I made this work, a momentary expression of consideration passed over her face. She then gave me a nod of approval and a brief smile before returning to whatever business a little girl in a shopping cart has.

The last part is important. "Oh, they've got that. Back to my stuff." is important. If you're not going to offer help (and then do no more than requested), staying focused and not going back to your business is making things weird. But I can only speak for myself.

Totally agreed, though, whatever others may have done, it's getting up that ramp or getting that heavy cart moving that are the truly important bits. What I can do is worth a lot more to me than what people think of it. You can independently access a restaurant you really enjoy. That's a Good Thing, worthy of whatever celebration you may wish. :-)

Anonymous said...

I agree with liebjabberings and with Cindys analogy with cars parking in small spaces. I would've watched, not out of any egotistical idea of "helping" but because somethings are just visually interesting. And if it'd been me in the powerchair figuring out a difficult ramp I'd totally have whooped when I succeeded so whooping/clapping a stranger wouldnt seem weird to me. Watching people in itself isnt wrong.

Anonymous said...

I usually put my manual chair behind my seat. Most days I can manage lifting it up, and the half step to my seat. Yesterday we were parked next to a car with someone behind the driver seat, who looked ready to leave. I waited a bit, because it is easier with more room, but they didn't move, so *shrug*, procede to put the chair away.

For some reason it didn't go right in and I was struggling. It bothered me a lot that that stupid car was sitting there watching . As soon as I got in, they left. I guess they thought they were giving me space, but I wish they had just left. It *doesn't* feel good to be watched.

Anonymous said...

In response to Anon 12:40 - I don't think helping is egotistical. Mother Theresa must have been a real cow then. It is the attitude that counts. Just as we can't label all those with disabilities as helpless, we can label all those that have a heart of helping (better yet the skills) as egotistical. Yikes!

Anonymous said...

Its egotistical for strangers to hover watching a disabled person with the assumptions that a, theyre not going to be able to manage and b,that the able bodied watcher is going to be able to help simply because theyre not disabled. Most able bodied people have no clue how to move my chair, get me past an obstacle, lift me safely or not get in my way and make whatever I was trying to do harder. Most able bodied people are far more of a hindrance than a help in reality. And I'm far more comfortable with people staring at me out of interest/ curiosity/ for entertainment than with the patronising idea that theyre only watching out for me in case I need their probably unhelpful help.

And of course sometimes it doesnt feel good to be watched, but often thats because people feel unneeded shame, embarassment etc at not appearing perfect or at making mistakes. And really itd be healthier to get rid of the shame etc rather than collude with each other to never look at each other and pretend we're all individual bubbles instead of parts of a connected whole society.

Ettina said...

"Its egotistical for strangers to hover watching a disabled person with the assumptions that a, theyre not going to be able to manage and b,that the able bodied watcher is going to be able to help simply because theyre not disabled."

If they were assuming a), they wouldn't just watch - they'd jump in to help without asking.

And as for b), I wouldn't assume that a nondisabled person *couldn't* help simply because they don't know a bunch of stuff about the person's disability and assistive equipment. Especially if they are willing to ask the disabled person if and what kind of help is needed.

Once I saw a woman whose power chair was literally falling apart (the joystick's attachment was loose and kept slipping). I waited to see if she could manage it, and when she started getting frustrated, I offered to help. I didn't really know what to do, but at least I had an easier time reaching the area that the problem was in (she couldn't get out of her chair), and with her chair malfunctioning it was a lot easier for me to fetch help than for her to do so.

I didn't do this out of ego, but simply because I could see she was upset and why she was upset and I wanted her to not be upset.