I don’t know why. But I took shaky breaths before walking inside the building, coaching myself forward. The lesson is ahead.
I’ve graduated from high school, but I haven’t escaped this anxiety. I face it almost every day. And one of the most uncomfortable yet poignant examples of this happens almost every time I walk through New York City once or twice a month. I know I’m not alone in this stress. The sign blares WALK and you do. People move but one stays seated. One a bit tattered, unshaven, cup resting alone on the ground before him.
You see the man before you approach him. And twice you look at your feet but realize the timing is off. It seems unnatural. Look at the cab. Look at the curb. Look anywhere but him. The anxiety is there because of a forlorn sense of responsibility and guilt. The stress is because it’s upon you. The lesson is ahead.
And I’ve noticed a habit in me. At the very last moment, having waited too long, I turn my eyes and meet his. Smile. Speak softly. “Hi, sir.” And keep going. I have no money.
I don’t guarantee they will break into grins each time. Sometimes the gesture is so foreign they don’t know what to do. But I know for some, it is greater than any bill you could drop.
It’s because of these experiences that I wonder sometimes if others feel that same anxiety about me. Someone a little different. People move. One sits.
There’s a lot of “What not to say” homilies, I thought I’d do an instruction of how to say (although I realize the risk of losing all male readership in providing an instruction pamphlet. (It’s ok. I can say that. My dad’s a guy)).
You want to know how to talk to us?
You don’t have to ignore the chair. If my wheel ends up on your shoe either intentionally or unintentionally, there’s no need for “My, what is that peculiar unpleasant explosion of blood inside my foot?”
And to my fellow crippled brethren, you’re not the only ones. If you’re feeling a bit overlooked, experiencing some of the understandable bitterness at the occasional ignorance of this place we live in, relinquish the conviction of your loneliness. Every day in every corner of the world sit the ones that want to connect and can’t. All it takes is one turn of the head, one shift in the seat, and you become the combination of one of humanity’s greatest potentials. Connection.
In part, the responsibility falls on us. What we emit, how we approach what differentiates us, projects onto those around us and either draws in or repels. Either welcomes or warns against.
To the rest of you, wanting to know how to talk to someone with a disability…
You do it every day.
As I’ve said before, each of us are disabled in some way. Ours is visible. Yours might be felt or seen or heard or hidden. But in any circumstance, “hello” is a good place to start.
So walk on. Roll in. Don’t look at the cab. Don’t look at the curb. Look over.
No matter who you’re passing; wealthy or poor, young or old, rolling or strolling.
The lesson is ahead.