To live life in a wheelchair is to be exposed to a constant barrage of insults, real and imagined. The problem with most of these slurs — some of them dating back to Helen Keller — is that they have been decried so many times that they have lost their sting, their ability to shock, irritate, or upset. They are a lot like the classic spousal complaint, “You never listen to me!” You punch that button too many times and the non-listener becomes inoculated and listens even less. They’re looking right at you, but their mind is on lunch.
With disability insults, the boredom cuts both ways. When a chair user like me hears one of these well-traveled grievances, I go, “Oh, that old chestnut — is that all you got?” When even a sympathetic nondisabled citizen hears a gripe he or she has heard a million times before, their reaction is, “If that’s your biggest problem, you’re a damn sight better off than the 1,100 people who died in that Bangladesh garment fire last week.”
It’s time to bury the old affronts and come up with some fresh ones. I have no idea what those new ones might be, but I am pretty sure about some old ones that should be retired and placed in cold storage at the American Disability Museum. And you know them, too.
The Parking Lot Insult. Probably the most frequently voiced bellyache on Planet Wheelchair. Pick a version. “Damn, there are no accessible spots in this lot!” “Damn, they’re all taken!” Or, the worst offense: “Damn, that car doesn’t have a placard. Where’s my baseball bat?” Sure, you can spend the next hour calling the police or complaining to the Wal-Mart manager, but neither will give a hoot. They’re saying, “We understand.” They’re thinking, “Oh, for chrissakes, find another spot!” For some people with vans who need extra space, this is a genuine problem. But for most paras — i.e., whiners like me — finding a suitable spot 100 feet away beats the heck out of an aneurysm.
The Helping Hilda Insult. Another classic: four simple words that scorch the brain of every gimp: “Can I help you?” It usually happens when you are getting into your car with a bag of groceries. It doesn’t matter how many times you explain that you’ve been doing this for years and don’t need their blithering help, they are still going to ask. That’s what people do — it makes them feel like the good Christians (or your faith here) they really aren’t. A complaint that produces no change is a useless complaint.
The Food Ordering Insult. Waitress: “And what would he/she like to order?” Nasty companion: “Well, why don’t you ask him or her!!??” As opposed to reasonable companion: “Bill, what appeals to you tonight?” Or, you, reasonable Bill, speaking up: “You know, I think I’ll have the Chilean sea bass. It’s not extinct, is it?”
The Super Attitude Insult. When some way-too-cheery type crosses paths with you at the mall and announces that you have a “super attitude,” you want to roll over their foot and yell, “No, I hate everyone, especially you!” You think you’re really scoring one for the team, until Mr. Cheery responds, “And you got gumption, too. You are so brave!”
The TV News Hero Insult. “Oh, look, Marge, another TV news story about a double amputee who is rolling across America ‘to raise awareness.’” See “Helping Hilda.” As long as there are local newscasts that need a dollop of schmaltz to serve up after all those blood-spurting crime stories, the heroic crip will be a fixture in your living room. Better to complain that no people with disabilities ever show up in those crime stories. “Hey, we like to rob banks and shoot people, too!”
I’m only scratching the surface here. The point is: If you stopped bitching about all these little nuisances, would it change your life? Yes, it would. Your blood pressure would level off, more waitresses or waiters would shamelessly flirt with you, and someone who observed the equanimous way you handled an irritating situation would pat you on the head and crow, “Super, super attitude!”