The first time I was given money by a stranger, I thought there had been some language barrier confusion. “Nein, nein (no, no)”, I tried saying in my limited German, “Al ist gut (all is good)”. The smiling elderly woman replied in English, “No, is for you. Is for coffee together” and pointed at Dusty behind me. She turned and was gone, leaving me with a 5 Euro note and bewilderment.
Did I just accidently beg for money?
Strangers daily approach me to ask why I’m in a wheelchair. I have an approachable face and a friendly demeanor, so small chat with the person waiting in line for the bathroom with me can quickly turn in to asking about my medical past. I understand; when you see a paraplegic, there’s assumedly a story about how they got in their chair. It’s NEVER OK TO ASK a stranger or even an acquaintance, but it will continue to happen.
In this instance, Dusty and I were at the main train station in Stuttgart and were on our way to Munich for our first Octoberfest. While I checked the overhead screen for our train, Dusty ran to the bathroom. (**Read: Girl in wheelchair, appears alone = looks approachable, helpless and in need of immediate assistance) An elderly lady standing close by asked me if I needed help reading the sign. I thanked her and said no, but not assertively enough for she then asked where I was going. I’m a friendly person and I answered her, telling her (in my broken German and then apologetically in English) that we were going to Munich and I was excited to see Octoberfest. In her grandmotherly way, she patted my shoulder and said in English that I would have a good time but why was I in a rollstuhl (wheelchair)?
At this point I should say that I used to explain about my accident to anyone who asked. I only realized this year that my accident, my past, is personal information and I have the right to protect it. I felt obligated to tell people who were curious, that I owed them an explanation for my disability and their uncomfortableness with my body. That is complete bull-squirt. No one is obligated to expose themselves about their disabilities to strangers.
I hadn’t reached that conclusion yet, so I did tell her but rather resentfully. She no longer was looking so grandmotherly and all I really wanted was for Dusty to come back so we could hop on the train. It was when he returned that she gave me the 5 Euro note, which left me feeling like I had just been paid for letting her feel altruistic about helping a girl in a wheelchair.
I’m not insulted that she did this and given her age, I truly should not have been too surprised. I’m only the second generation of the wheelchair using demographic that goes out in the world independently, that live successful lives, that make money on their own and contribute to society. In her generation, a disabled person meant an invalid person more likely than not. I surprise people of older generations when I tell them I have a college degree or when they see me riding the bus alone. The cultural expectation of the limitations of a disabled person are far greater than reality even for my generation, so it makes sense that this older woman reacted to me the way she did. In a historically Catholic country like Germany, seeing someone less fortunate than yourself generally meant a guilt-ridden impulse to empty your pockets. In her mind, she wasn’t being rude but instead doing what she thought was expected of her.
My expectations are different, but I’m from the Yes, We Can! generation of wheelchair-people. So I can relax and know that my fellow coworkers of my age won’t have been taught to treat me like I’m not quite as capable of being a human, but I may run into that every once in a while on a train. And my reward for tolerating these generational gaps in social norms towards disabilities?
Buy myself a Pumpkin Spice Latte with those 5 Euros.