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.