Years ago I sat on a pier in Baltimore, Maryland with a friend who has been disabled since birth. As we watched the ships go in and out of the port, we talked about how our relationships are affected from living with a disability.
I acquired my disability in my 30’s and, before then, belonged to the able bodied world. I had friends with disabilities, even worked as an aide for a woman with polio for several years.
My friend, on the other hand, never experienced being able bodied. She was mainstreamed through most of school, then attended separate classes in high school. She told me this meant she had to work harder to keep up academically and go to college, since the separate classes were an impediment. Worse yet, that separation made it almost impossible to socialize with anyone outside of the special classes.
Our experience of high school, like many other things, was colored by one fact: whether or not we were able bodied. Because I was and she was not, I received advantages – educational and social ones, to begin with. I am sure there were others.
In a strong and strident voice, she looked over at me in my wheelchair on that pier and asked “So how is it now trying to fit in? Is it the same?”
I told her it wasn’t the same for me as before I became disabled. I began to explain that I was sure it was because of the way I was handling things, including relationships. I went into a discourse on the stress my accident had been and how I could have done better.
She interrupted me with a single phrase. “It’s the disability.” She didn’t add the word “stupid”, but she might as well. Actually, she probably should have.
Her statement stopped me in my tracks. I wanted to argue with her, because I didn’t want to consider the possibility that she could be right. If that was so, where did that leave me now?
“You’ll learn that there are some people you just won’t be friends with because of your disability. They just can’t deal with it. “ She asked me if I had lost friends and I nodded. “You see? And you’ll miss out on some things because of the disability. No one will tell you that or say it out loud, but there will be invitations you don’t get, missed chances. I’ve had it my whole life. Let me tell you, I don’t let it get to me. I figure it’s their loss.” She watched as a boat pulled in and docked. “You’ll get used to it too.”
I started to think about how people were acting differently. There were parties I was not invited to and some were ones I had attended for years. A few friends in my social circle had expressed discomfort being around my wheelchair. One of my friends had gone so far as to tell me she could not handle my disability.
At that moment as I sat on the pier, I realized that I had been personalizing behavior that was aimed at my disability. This was both freeing and frightening. Certainly it wasn’t helpful to blame myself when people avoided me or judged me simply on the basis of my disability. But I also knew that I could not change the fact that I was disabled.
“It’ll be okay,” my friend said, looking over at me with concern. “I’ve lived this way my whole life and look at me. I do fine.”
“I’m sorry,” I said and I meant it. “How can I feel bad about this when people who are like that are acting like such jerks?”
“Because they outnumber us,” she answered. “And some of them run things. It’s just not as easy as saying this is how it is and feeling okay about it. Because it’s not okay.”
We rolled away from the pier about ten minutes later to go get a meal in a restaurant. But part of me is still sitting on that pier in my wheelchair, trying to wrap my brain around her reality – a reality that she’s been excluded from all kinds of possibilities because she was born with a disability.
But it’s not because of the the disability. It’s because of how some people react to it.
Ruth Harrigan Copyright 2007