I lost my TAB (temporarily able-bodied) status in November of last year. I fell and managed to break my ankle in two places and tear loose a couple of ligaments; I also managed to badly sprain my other ankle. Surgery, hospital stay, month restricted to one floor of my house, month in a wheelchair, and use of a walking cast, crutches and walker followed the break. Then, I was supposed to get the two lateral support screws removed, but the surgery showed the bones had been set too far apart for the ligaments to attach. So, I had the surgical equivalent of wash, rinse, repeat. At the time of this writing, I’m at the walking cast/crutches/walker stage. But all of this, especially two rounds in the wheelchair, gave me a brief and sharp immersion into life with a disability. I learned things that had meaning for me—way beyond how hard it is to maneuver a chair—and here are some of them:
It is hard to maneuver a chair, but it isn’t the chair’s fault. All those little blue wheelchair-accessible signs are lies. Bathroom stalls at the end of a long, narrow corridor of TAB stalls are usually not accessible, unless you can maneuver your chair like a unicycle. The doors often open out, so you have to back up and hold the door at the same time. Then you have a straight shot into the stall, but no room to turn the chair around, much less the ability to turn around and close the door. I usually gave up, parked the chair and used my crutches—but some don’t have that luxury. Are these accommodations ever tested by actual persons with disabilities? I can’t imagine anyone in a chair approving of these installations.
The chair is not for sissies. While hauling myself around, I developed the greatest upper body strength of my life—and I was once a long-distance swimmer. Many ramps are at an incline that looks small to TABS, but are impressively and oppressively steep if you are in a chair. Also, having to transfer my carcass up and into bed, other chairs, or up and down stairs gave me killer triceps—and killer neck aches. The reserved chair spots in theaters are also raked at a very steep angle. During “Lord of the Rings,” I had to keep resetting my brakes. I probably could have slid all the way to the front row if I hadn’t blocked myself against the back row of seats.
If you’re in a chair, you’re a walking feel-good opportunity for TABS. Since I was in the chair during the Christmas holidays, I found myself regarded as a living Tiny Tim by many TABS. One man opened a door for me, and after I said “Thank you,” he waited for something more—something about his embodying the spirit of Christmas. I actually felt as though I had to say, “God bless us, every one!” There seemed to be a lot of pity out there in the mall—however people’s comments and help didn’t seem aimed at me, but at A DISABLED PERSON. Often people who helped me wouldn’t look me in the face or listen to me; they wanted to help THE DISABLED PERSON.
Hallmark Hall of Fame stories about the integrity, courage and independence of persons with disabilities have done as much damage as good. Given how difficult the raked floors are in theaters, how most doors open out and my general incompetence in maneuvering with chair and crutches, I needed a lot of help. But it’s clear that a number of people have seen the TV movies where the person with a disability brushes away the hand of the TAB who would help them, and says defiantly, “I don’t need your help or your pity!” I would be incompetently running my chairs into walls as I rolled on carpeting or struggling with pushing open a door at the end of a ramp I’d puffed my way up, and people would hush and walk quietly by. They were respecting me, I guess. I asked for help a few times (after getting scraped knuckles from running my chair into walls), and people would be incredibly surprised. Maybe if the little blue signs were true, none of us would be in these no-win situations.
In the chair, I found other people with disabilities would look with knowing eyes at me as we struggled through crowds. At one point I was paused in a drugstore as my spouse searched for something, and people were bumping into me, swarming around me, backing into the chair. A small, elderly woman with a four-pronged cane was being jostled by them as well, stating loudly, “Excuse me!” She glanced over at me as she was knocked about and said to me in a disgusted voice, “They never look!” And I realized then that I was not one of the “they,” but probably had been. It was an unhappy sisterhood in that crowd.
To be in the chair is to be at any moment a part of a tremendous production. For a number of buildings I needed to access on a business trip to New York, the management had earned their little blue sign by devising arcane routes for those in chairs. Several times I was transported behind the public areas to freight elevators, by routes that demanded leaving the building and going into another to get to an elevator leading to the third or fifth floor. I even was taken through offices and executive washrooms to get to my seat at the Met. At one French restaurant, where I had explained my situation when making reservations, I faced a hostess who grimaced at me as I stood before the steps down into the restaurant. She didn’t want to take me back outside into the rain to get to an access point in the next building, so she snarled over my head to my spouse, “Can she use zee sticks?” Fortunately, I could use them to hop my way to our table. What I missed most about my loss of TAB status was the ability to do things for myself, by myself.
Lastly, in the chair you’ll learn surprising things about your friends. I was really shocked by the number of people who took great joy in getting to push me around—to take control of me, if you will. Some also enjoyed calling me “crip,” “gimp,” and other names; they never would have done this to a person who looked like they were in the chair to stay. I wonder if the social anxiety about being required to be polite gets to one, and the opportunity to express forbidden terms is too great to resist?
So, I learned from what I hope is my brief time in the chair and on crutches that the public uses little blue signs to avoid lawsuits and to feel good about themselves—but the disabled are far from regarded as full-fledged human beings in the world.