Kiss of Death: the ‘Pity Look’

When I roll through a busy sidewalk, my biggest struggle is not trying to navigate between strollers and avoid fruit stands. My biggest struggle is to meet people’s eyes when they look at me. I know what I’m going to see, the look that makes me feel helpless, alone and incapable; the pity look. The furrowed brow, the mouth that drops slightly when they see me, the open eyes that say “you poor dear. You are just the saddest thing and no way should you be out here by yourself”. This look is the face of the unfortunately universal societal expectation for disabilities; that they are something to be pitied first and foremost.

Yet I pity those who look at me like that.

Anyone who fails to see the potential in someone with a disability, the capabilities, the accomplishments or simply the human in the chair fails to meet the disabled worlds’ expectation that we will be treated equal.

Sometimes I can’t tolerate the comments, stares and parents not correcting their children’s comments. On these days, days when I don’t have the energy or motivation to tolerate and educate, I wear my aviator sunglasses indoors to get groceries. I wear headphones and blast music and don’t look at people in the eye. I retreat from social interaction. This is not a great strategy, but everyone has their limits.

When I was injured, my personal focus during recovery was to do everything I could to be “normal” again. But no matter what I did, I always fell short. Doing “normal” things like washing dishes, laundry, going to the bank or going out to eat weren’t even close to the “normal” that was before the accident. It took me time to realize that the point wasn’t to “return to normal” or even to return to anything at all. I now had a new body and with that came a “new normal”.

 

And what many find hard to understand is that I like my “new normal”. My “new normal” is a lot of fun; who else gets to skip the security line at an airport or can get a super awesome Great Dane service dog? I do, however, struggle with my new life as a disabled woman because of how I’m treated and seen out in the world. Traveling throughout Europe has taught me crucial lessons about the disability world; the first being that the ‘look of pity’ is universal and will always be found. That’s discouraging because there’s a lot about me for someone to be proud and not pity. I only struggle with my body and my limitations when I’m treated like a helpless invalid. Sometimes I wish for invisibility or just to roll through a crowd and not be seen at all.

But I’m proud of myself. I’ve learned from my experiences here in Europe to not expect the society I interact with to treat me like I’m a capable adult; it’s my job to be assertive enough to be independent when I want independence and ask for help when I need it. I don’t look to my society anymore for affirmation of my accomplishments no one will be proud of my honors Bachelor’s degree when they’re more interested in how I drive my car or how I get groceries alone. So instead, I’m my own cheerleader, I’m my own coach. I’m proud of myself and more importantly, I believe in my own strength to be able to meet the eyes of the next ‘pity look’ and roll on.

Puerto Naos playa
playa de Puerto Naos, Canary Islands

 

 

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Do I feel pretty?

 

Oktoberfest, Munich
Oktoberfest, Munich

Do you remember the first time you felt beautiful?

Guys, do you remember that first moment where you felt like the stud in the room? For girls, was it prom? Was it the moment you put on your dress or when you saw yourself after your hair was done? For guys, was it the first time you put on your team jersey and got out onto the field? Now this one might be harder, but do you remember the moment when you stopped feeling beautiful?

It’s harder to see a beauty or a handsome guy when there’s a whole lot of wheelchair in the way. Sure. But does it need to stay that way? The first time my husband told me I was beautiful when we were dating, I didn’t believe him. I was nervous, he was cute and I knew my make-up could not be covering up the volcanoes of breakouts on my face. The day I believed Dusty was when I saw his jaw drop as I was coming down the aisle. I learned my own beauty by believing the compliments and comments at the beginning and then growing to believing in myself. I grew to know, from the respect and love of my husband and finally in my own opinion, I was drop dead gorgeous.

And then I woke up a paraplegic.

I was 21 when the accident occurred, which is a fragile time for a young woman. My growth in having a positive self-image was immediately arrested and I had to start all over. Looking good is one thing; looking good sitting in a chair and being 4 feet lower than everyone else is quite another.

Today, I have no idea if I’m actually beautiful by everyone else’s standards because I don’t understand what people actually see when they see someone with a disability. In my experience, generally people only see my chair when they meet me. It doesn’t matter to me if they think I’m attractive; someone who ignores the person but sees the chair is not a person whose opinion is worth valuing.

No, I have no idea if I’m truly “beautiful” because the person whose opinion I care about, Dusty, still thinks I couldn’t be more gorgeous. And that didn’t change with the accident. So I learned to once again trust in my own self-value and look the way I want to look.

And how do I want to look? I think I’m drop dead gorgeous, so I want to give all those people who stop to look a true reason to stare.

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What Other Students Think: Disability in the Classroom

What Other Students Think: Disabilities in the Classroom

I asked two of my friends about their experience with having me, a physically disabled student, in class with them and if it has been any different of an experience than having anyone else in class.

Alexi Mchugh (sophomore, studying Public Health, South Carolina Honors College)Grace Zimmermann (sophomore, studying French, South Carolina Honors College)

 

How has your classroom experience changed when there is a student with a physical disability? 

Alexi: There’s no change. I’ve got friends with disabilities in my classes and you see the accommodations the professor makes for those students, but that’s it.

Grace: It’s not really different. I see a regular, if not more sassy (referring to me, Julia Rodes), individual and to me, being in a wheelchair does not affect someone’s ability to learn or be kind.

Do you think a student with a physical disability is able to be socially successful at USC?

Alexi: Oh, absolutely. My friends have had no trouble having fun, hanging out, becoming popular or any of it. They’ve had just as much fun in the dorms as I have.

Grace: Yes, I definitely think they can. I think it may be more difficult to navigate campus, but being limited physically does not mean you are in any way limited socially.

Do you have any tips or suggestions for incoming students with disabilities? 

Alexi: Student Disability Services is a great program; the people there are very friendly and helpful. They’re the best thing to utilize on campus to get notes or record lectures or really just anything you need to do well in classes. The office has some really great people.

Grace: My suggestion is to be kind. People can be nervous/not know how to behave around individuals who have physical disabilities. They do not want to offend and some do not know the appropriate response, so be patient with them. They’ll figure it out.

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On Making Friends

 

                                                                                      ….. Friends

When you have a physical disability, sometimes it feels like the most attention you get on campus isn’t from friends… it’s from people staring at the way you walk, look, talk, or get around. It’s a sad fact, but it doesn’t have to stay that way. USC is a very versatile, friendly, and adaptable campus even though it doesn’t feel that way sometimes. But let’s face it; we don’t live in a world that’s always friendly either. So instead of keeping your head down as you go from class to class so that you don’t see the stares, I’ve found a way to make friends with those people that are staring. Want to hear the secret?

I say hi.

It’s simple, but it breaks down the barrier that’s between you and that person immediately. They stare out of ignorance, not because they’re mean-spirited. And by looking at them right in the eyes and saying hi, you’re immediately breaking the image that you’re some exhibit at the zoo and reminding them at you’re a person just like themselves. It works every time for me.

I’ve taken it one step further and used their I’m-uncomfortable-around-people-who-don’t-look-like-me attitude to keep the help I need around campus. We have a bumpy and hilly campus and I’m often tired when I try to push myself from class to class. So, when I see someone looking at me and they’re going in the same direction I’m going in, I start the following dialogue:

(Smile) Hi! Are you going this way? Could I hang on to your backpack (or get a push)? Where are you going? That’s great, I’m going all the way to ______. Could I get some help? So what year are you? Freshman? I thought so. What’s your major? That’s great!

Not everyone is comfortable getting help and this is where you set your own boundaries. If you don’t like it when someone opens the door for you, then politely say “thank you, but I’ve got it”. And sometimes that’s what I do. I don’t ask for help to confirm the stereotype that people with disabilities can’t do things on their own- sometimes I’m just a lazy senior, just like the majority of seniors on campus. I just happen to have a different way of being lazy.

The point here is when you’re on campus, embrace your identity. Your disability is a part of what makes the beautiful you and there’s no reason to be ashamed of it. Don’t let what other people stereotype your disability as take hold of your identity. I may be that-girl-in-the-wheelchair, but I know for a fact that I’m also that-girl-who-talks-with-anyone and that-girl-who-asks-so-many-questions-in-biology and that-girl-who-uses-freshman-to-get-around-campus and a hundred of other names. But first and foremost, I’m Julia. And that’s the person people are friends with, not my wheelchair.

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