On our recent holidays, I was injured to the point that I was out of commission as far as walking for 6 weeks, give or take. The injury happened at the beginning of our 2½-week holiday; the situation was what it was, and we made the best of it. The injury could have been far, far worse, so we are grateful for God’s mercy there, as well as sending just the right people along in the moment of need. But what I want to address today is something that I experienced on the day of our journey home:
We were able to book wheelchair assistance through all airports on our way home; in all three airports, I had widely different experiences. I have always been aware of the fact that someone in a wheelchair needs special consideration, and has needs different to those of people who are physically independent. But it was a valuable experience for me being the one in the chair and out in public this time; it’s something I think everyone should experience at least once, whether you’re injured or not – just to become aware of another perspective.
Some people felt free to stare at me; I know that many were merely curious or concerned about how I’d been injured, as my disability was obviously a temporary one with an injured foot bandaged (I dislocated my ankle). But I’m tempted to ask, since when is staring at a person polite? Wheelchairs tend to intimidate people – they don’t want to ask personal, intimate or impolite questions, and that’s right. But I know from friends who are permanently in wheelchairs that they’d rather be asked politely what their disability is than be stared at or ignored. And that brings me to the other reaction.
This second reaction, and one which was far more frequent, was that of being completely ignored. Sometimes it was intentional, but more often than not I was simply invisible. People would rush past me and jerk my foot off in their path with them as they went, without so much as an apology. They would swing their backpacks into my face, knowing full well a wheelchair stood beside them. Such blatant insensitivity was a bit of a shock to me, to be honest, and a few of them had better be glad I was unable to rise to the level of their face, because I might have been tempted to get in it…
Another sensation I became aware of, in empathy with those friends who are permanently in wheelchairs, was that of being at the mercy of those assigned to you. At the first airport I was put into the hands of a completely indifferent, bored young woman who wasn’t interested in the slightest in even friendly chat; she was glad to be rid of the wheelchair duty, and frankly I was glad when my husband took over and sent her on her merry way. To get me onto the plane (which was on the tarmac with stairs two out of the three airports…), they waited until everyone else was on (I’d been told I’d go on first to enable me to get to my seat safely), and then put me in a freight train-sized mobile lift machine with room for 20 people, raised me to the level of the plane, and rolled me in; the machine brought the analogy to mind of killing a gnat with a shotgun… a bit of an overkill. Crammed into an economy seat that never has enough leg room at the best of times, I had to endure a short hop flight of 50 minutes to our next airport, my leg propped up across my husband’s knees into the aisle, exposed to everyone who walked by and took it with them in either direction. I was in tears of pain by the end of that ordeal, but not once did a single person apologize for injuring the wounded, or even wait for me to get my foot out of their way.
The next stop, I was hefted and strapped into what amounted to a manual pallet jack for people, without padding or shock absorbers; three wheels “climbed” (read “jerk-drop”) the stairs to lower or raise me one step at a time. The two men who were assigned to move me were plainly from the luggage handling department, and they’d never sat in such a contraption; I was jarred and jerked down the stairs like a piece of luggage, then sat in the wheelchair and zipped through the back doors and into the airport security area through the crowds with not a thought to how it might feel to the person sitting in the chair; groups of people were ploughed through using me as the breaker. All that, to be jerked back up the contraption into the SAME plane.
The third airport, home at last, we had a finger dock, and I was simply able to hobble down the aisle and sit into a chair; the person assigned to me was friendly, genuinely concerned for my safety and well-being through the crowds, defended my personal space from backpacks, elbows and feet, and was personable. She accompanied us from the gate to the taxi. She was a balm to a frazzled soul.
If you were seated in the wheelchair, how would you want to be handled? How would you want to be seen, or taken into consideration? Do you know anyone who has to go out into the public with a disability of any sort? Sometimes the invisible disabilities are just as challenging in a very different way, because if a person might be sympathetic to someone with a clear disability like a wheelchair, or cane or seeing eye dog, they won’t realize the person with an invisible disability needs just as much consideration and patience. Think of things like MS, or chronic fatigue, being deaf, or other disorders that limit the person in various ways. I have such an invisible disability, called Marfan’s Syndrome; even people who know me and know theoretically that I have limitations tend to overestimate my ability to keep up e.g. on a group hike, or underestimate my disabilities and simply think I’m being difficult or wanting extra attention, or just lazy, none of which is the case. I know my problems are nothing compared to many friends who struggle with terminal illnesses, or disabilities that limit and have lethal potential; everyone has different struggles; but I’ve found that attitudes help or hinder, enable or disable. I can learn to rise to (or above) my challenge, but having a supportive environment goes a long way to helping and enabling too.
The next time you see someone in a wheelchair, or with a disability of any kind, put yourself in their seat. How can you help them? How should you be more patient with them? How can you ease their way? There is a Native American proverb that says, “Never judge another until you’ve walked a mile in their moccasins” and I can say without a doubt that it’s wise advice.
If you struggle with a long-term illness, or disability, please take a moment to be encouraged by Grace Quantock.