20 May 2009


in a previous entry, i described my experience being blind. a few years after that, i learned what life is like for those bound to a wheelchair.

in 1984 i bought a brand new, '82 honda silver wing -- a touring bike, complete with full fairing, hard saddlebags, and a hard trunk that was interchangeable with a passenger seat. it was the last year in which silver wings were made with a 500cc engine -- after that they stepped up to a 650. more recently the bike has been redesigned to resemble the body style of an overgrown vespa scooter, which is just a crime.

but back in the day, i loved that bike. i was a university student at the time, and had no car. but in tucson, arizona, a motorcycle is usable year round, so i didn't need four wheels. i could go anywhere in town and be guaranteed of finding a space small enough to park my bike. and out of town, what a dream to go swooping and gliding on the curving desert highways around and through the mountains surrounding the city, with no metal envelope barring my senses from the sky, the air, the desert. and on a motorcycle, as on a bicycle, you lean into turns, making riding a three-dimensional experience. sweet.

however, a year later on my way to an evening class on campus, as i approached a busy intersection, a little old lady in a big ol' cadillac in the oncoming lane made a left turn, directly into my path. with no time to stop, i tried to get past the impact point first. another tenth of a second and i would have made it. but her front bumper clipped my bike's rear, sending me careening toward the opposite curb. when my front wheel struck the curb, the bike came to an instant halt and i was sent flying forward, somehow sommersaulting through the air, threading neatly between power poles and sign posts, and landing on my back with my head toward the street. i was knocked unconscious for a minute or so. when i came to, i couldn't move my legs. a passerby stopped and knelt beside me, told me she was a nurse, and she would stay with me until the ambulance arrived. an angel. the other driver just kept going, oblivious until someone stopped her and told her she'd hit someone. she was cited for failure to yield to oncoming traffic.

which didn't help me -- after several hours in the ER, xrays, a sadistic nurse's aide with a brillo pad scrubbing the embedded tar from my knees, and being mostly ignored, it was determined that i had multiple abrasions (road rash) and two severely sprained ankles (also probably a mild concussion, though that wasn't spelled out). two dear friends helped me home, and i spent the next two months progressing from being bed-ridden, to being in a wheelchair, to crutches, to a cane, and finally to being ambulatory again.

it was the wheelchair experience that was most enlightening. just learning to maneuver around one's own home, from bed to bathroom to kitchen, takes some doing. but many people have mastered that, and so did i. what came as a shock was getting around out in public. the first obvious issue is physical access to buildings via ramps and elevators. okay, a pain but not insuperable. the schock came when i realized that people were deliberately avoiding looking at me. i was still me, but they were seeing a cripple in a wheelchair, and their shallow discomfort wouldn't allow them to interact with me as one human to another. they looked over my head as though i wasn't there, even in cramped quarters. i'd become invisible.

this has a deeply demoralizing, dehumanizing effect, especially when you already feel isolated, your normal mobility disrupted, every routine translated to an act of will.

i was lucky, on so many levels. i could have been killed. i could have been permanently paralyzed, or brain damaged (though some might argue that in fact i was). my time as a disabled person lasted only two months. but it was a window into the lives of all the unseen people around us who live their lives in wheelchairs. my own experience, and becoming friends with passengers in wheelchairs during a job driving paratransit vans, taught me that people with disabilities are among the most resourceful and resilient on the planet.

now when i meet someone in a chair, i make eye contact and greet them with understanding. i hope that you, gentle reader, will do the same. i've been there, and know what a difference it makes when someone reaches out.

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