Handicap Makes a Difference In How People React to You

For more than two months, I didn't walk. Extensive foot surgery caused me to roll around the world on a small four-wheeled scooter.

It was easy on the marble floors in the State House, but tough on rugs and ramps, impossible in snow.

But the most interesting part of the experience was the reaction I got from other people, particularly strangers, who didn't quite know how to react. And, more often than not, just pretended not to see me. At times, I felt quite like Alice in Wonderland, invisible.

People do treat you differently when they think you're handicapped.

Other people have told me of similar experiences, and strange reactions. One friend related how, while going through training to work with the handicapped, she spent a day manipulating around the world while blindfolded.

"I could hear people talking about me," she recalled. "It was like they thought I couldn't hear them, just because I couldn't see them."

Another friend told me about two women who conducted sensitivity training for student and employee groups. Both would arrive in wheelchairs for a presentation on dealing with handicaps. But, midway through the program, one woman would get up and start walking around the room. People who had been condescending, changed their attitudes immediately.

Most people, as I said, just pretended they didn't see me. As I rolled through halls, offices, parking garages, stores on my scooter, they looked away, or down at the ground, evidently not wanting to face a grown woman riding on a scooter.

And I, too, heard the comments. "What was that?" "What's wrong with her?"

Maybe they didn't know how to react, although they could have just said "hello" or "good morning" or, even, asked me about my foot. More often than not, I think they figured that I was somehow lacking in brain power.

But the slights of strangers were matched by the kindness of friends and family. They hauled me, and my scooter, in and out of buildings and cars, into restaurants, into church, into the House chamber. They moved meetings to handicapped accessible sites.

If you planned ahead, you could go almost anywhere. Perhaps not easily.

Theaters were a problem. One, promising ahead of time to provide seats that were handicapped accessible, led me, hopping one one foot, down about a dozen steps. Getting back out was worse.

You'd be surprised how many people park where a curb cut is, making climbing over a curb mandatory, when you should be able to roll through it.

Most restaurants were easily accessible, once you got inside the front door. And, one hotel showed me their private lift, hidden behind a screen, so I could get into the dining room.

Another hotel, when the fire trucks arrived, warned that the elevators were disabled and that we should be prepared to evacuate the building. Being on the seventh floor, caused a lot of worry, believe me. After the alarm proved false, the desk informed me that I should have called to have two men come and carry me out.

After that I was much more safety conscious. Wondering how I'd climb out of a ditch after a car accident, for example.

But bathrooms became the biggest challenge. Stalls too small to accommodate the scooter, flushing mechanisms that you had to stand on one foot to use, lack of bars to pull yourself to a standing position.

Carelessly placed furniture became major obstacles. I couldn't carry anything, like purse or briefcase, or I couldn't steer or stop the scooter. While I struggled to open a heavy door, a group of military men just walked right by, without an offer to help. People ran right into me without being sensitive to the space I needed just to turn around in an elevator, or stand, on scooter, at a reception.

It was impossible to get through crowds, or to cross a room to talk with friends, without assistance or major effort.

Today, a week after returning to my feet, I appreciate my gradually returning mobility.

And, I have a far greater respect for the Americans With Disabilities Act and the need for handicapped accessible streets, curb cuts, bathrooms and buildings.

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