“Hey, you seem like something is wrong. You seem off. I noticed you with your handicap, struggling with your bags on the way here and I don’t like the way you look.” I was repelled from the word handicap alone. In that moment in Newark airport, I was completely exhausted. Just minutes after returning from a work trip to London, I already felt jet-lagged. And here was a security officer at baggage claim not “liking the way I looked.”
Although my flight had arrived early, bad weather had delayed others and suddenly there were a bunch of international flights converging. The line through passport control got longer and longer, with only one line open for Americans and one for foreigners. I bumped into Ethan and Charlie’s soccer coach just in after a torturous delay from Toronto. The congestion built and it was clear the airport was ill-prepared.
As I slowly walked along the line with my carry-on and purse, I noticed another line that had formed, with individuals mainly in wheelchairs. When I approached the head of the line I was in the line guard took one look at me and pointed, stating loudly, “Hey, you can go on that disabled line….with the people that are wheelchair-bound.”
Although I tried to object, he clearly was not going to take no for an answer. My heart instantly sank on several levels. First, because I simply don’t identify myself as someone who needs extra help and assistance just because I happen to look different. But mostly, because I noted the expression of a man and also a woman in that “disabled” line when they heard the guard’s words. I quickly wondered if they hated the word “wheel-chair-bound” as much as I disliked being labeled “disabled.”
After showing my passport to the officer at the booth, I admit there was a part of me that felt momentarily grateful for being able to get out of there so quickly . I felt even a bit guilty as I waived good-bye to the boys’ soccer coach who was still in the long, slow “regular” line. Looking at the time, I had a smile on my face as I realized that I would likely make it home before the kids were in bed. I couldn’t wait to see them and John. We were celebrating our 16th wedding anniversary the following day. Still so many years after meeting my husband, I have never taken his love for granted, knowing how many men took one look at me and balked at the thought of spending their lives (and being the mother of their children) with such an imperfect woman. Undeniably, John was worth the wait.
I grabbed my bag and began to roll it carefully but awkwardly with my other belongings throwing me a bit off balance and headed toward the exit. And that was when the officer stopped me, telling me I looked “off.”
Recently I was driving Ethan to Middle School on my way to work and flipped on the radio. Playing on a popular area station was a show I have blogged about in the past, called “Blown off.” While I’d like to say that all I listen to is high-minded talk radio and NPR, I must admit I still cannot resist this show about unrequited love. The premise for each piece is that a young man or woman who was on a recent date wondered why the other didn’t call for a second date. The hosts, Scott and Jade, bring their story public by first interviewing the rejected person who is longing to know, “what happened?” Ethan, already at 13 years old and a total political junkie abhors the show and would much prefer radio silence, but he endured listening to the day’s episode. Little did I know that the radio exchange would produce a loud gasp from both of us.
On it, a young woman had phoned in to see why a guy she had gone out with two weeks before never called her back. According to the woman, she had met the young man she found very attractive through a dating site and thought the evening went quite well. Smitten, she decided she simply had to know why he didn’t call. When he picked up after a few rings, I noted he seemed nice enough and even commented on the fact that he thought she was nice and very attractive. “Mom, do we really have to listen to this garbage?” Ethan interrupted, but at this point, I had to know. Why didn’t he call her back? It just didn’t make sense. He paused, and said, “I didn’t call her back because she’s wheelchair-bound.” And that was what prompted the loud reaction from both of us. At that point, Ethan hopped out of the car and as I blew him a kiss he said to me, “Mom, you have to stop listening to this crap.”
As I waived goodbye with my one-fingered hand and he did the same with his own, I kept the radio on long enough to hear if there was any other reason he did not find the young woman suitable. Instead, what I heard was an animated back and forth about how he couldn’t imagine himself with a woman “so disabled.” And then he added, “I’d rather not spend my life having to constantly help someone else.” Not surprisingly, the woman was incredibly offended. At first she attempted to describe how independent she was but he persisted in describing how he didn’t want to go on dates and feel that he would need to help her go to the bathroom. At that she made an audible gasp. Although by participating in the show she got the answer to her question, the exchange left her angry, humiliated and frustrated.
That night I went home and coincidentally a friend had posted a Huffington Post article on the Don’t Hide It Flaunt It Facebook page, titled, “Stop Saying ‘Wheelchair-Bound’ and Other Outdated Offensive Terms to People with Disabilities by Zachary Fennell.
The piece focused on terminology and how, with one innocent misstep” an able-bodied person may receive a tongue lashing just for saying handicapped vehicle instead of wheelchair accessible vehicle. It went on to provide a list of useful insights such as the fact that wheelchairs enable and increase accessibility—quite the opposite from binding. But then, to my surprise, Zenell went further and even acknowledged that even some terminology perceived as acceptable can be received begrudgingly. “Different people prefer different terminology….heck, many hate the term ‘disability’ and prefer “differently-abled.” But then, To overcome these different preferences requires an open mind and patience. Open your mind to different opinions and stay patient.”
If you spend any time with me or have read past blogs, you’ll soon learn that I am actually one of the people that don’t like the label, “disabled” applied to us. To me, it represents that my children and I are less-than, even though we were simply born this way. As I’ve previously reasoned, to me people tend to use the word disabled commonly to describe a broken-down vehicle that is destined to create a nuisance to everyone else. However, I’ve heard from people that have (for example) lost a limb in an accident or from being in military combat and they will be the first to tell you they feel every sense of that word.
But regardless of how we regard ourselves or how others choose to label us, something Zenell said made me think even more broadly. His advice to encourage open-mindedness and patience was directed to the people who encounter those of us with blatant differences. And unquestionably, I’d love if everyone that comes across me would not automatically assume my physical difference means that I am incapable of living a full life, even one with ease and joy. But to me, in some respects Zenell’s advice should also extend to people like me who are different. As I reflect back on the young woman on the radio show seeking love, ideally she wouldn’t have tried to pursue someone not returning her calls.
Rather, it would have been best if she’d realized that she just needed to be patient-that if the right man is to come along, she need not need to press. He will come along and fall in love with her unconditionally. And he won’t think to label her, he’ll simply love her. And, he will be worth the wait.