Disability can create some unique embarrassing moments. A few weeks ago my wheel got stuck in the mud and I had to wait on a kind passerby to push me out. In college, the only route to the accessible bathroom was in my Hoyer lift, sans pants, through a co-ed dorm. It can even be awkward pointing out to chatty strangers that just because I am in a wheelchair, I don’t know their cousin’s uncle’s sister-in-law who also happens to use a wheelchair.
But my single most embarrassing moment? I was on a national stage, a dozen other women in wheelchairs on either side of me. We waited patiently, ready to be recognized for our disability awareness work. A presenter in a sequined gown ascended the stairs, turned to us, unleashed her inner Mariah Carey, and began belting out Hero. As my jaw clenched and cheeks turned red, I wondered if anyone else was feeling the same tornado of humiliation and ire that whirled through my head.
I think that, like me, many individuals with disabilities want to be treated like any other person. I’m no Tiny Tim. (In fact, one could call me Em-eneezer when it comes to my monthly Social Security checks.) I’m also not the bitter cripple bent on sabotage, a la Ephialtes in 300. (Though my inner Em-eneezer might be tempted to hang out at Xerxes’ opulent parties, if given an invite.) The truth is that disability is one component of our character, and it does not define us as characters.
For these reasons, I was stunned when one of my friends – an active disability advocate – recently told me I inspired her. Did she not understand what an insult that was? She obviously didn’t know me well! And apparently I didn’t know her at all. My heart sank.
I slowly took a deep breath. It was a good thing she was driving and couldn’t see the tears beginning to well in my eyes. “Shannon… Why would you say that to me?”
“Because, Em, you are awesome! It inspires me that you graduated from law school and got your Master’s degree in spite of all the garbage they put you through! You are so well-spoken, and are a great advocate. I look up to you for that, and I am inspired. What? Is it weird for you that I say that? I do mean it.”
Suddenly, I realized that she did. Each one of Shannon’s words was genuine. She did know me; it was my accomplishments and talents that she was complimenting, not the fact that I was in a wheelchair. Now I was embarrassed for being such a jerk.
Shannon’s sincerity helped reinforce two important lessons. First, just as I don’t want others to assume things about me, I need to restrain my inner pessimist when it comes to deciphering others’ intentions. Not only is it unfair to them, but it also causes me to miss out. It’s nice to know that I am supported and appreciated, and positive feedback only propels me to accomplish and try more.
Second, I have little control over what others find inspirational or heroic. I live my life to achieve whatever I’ve set my sights on or simply out of necessity. For example, since I can’t do manual labor, I had to go to school. Any disability-related struggles are second-nature, so I don’t really pay attention to them. However, if they mean something to someone else, who am I to say it’s wrong?
So, while I don’t expect that I’m the wind beneath your wheels, I do hope that in this blog you’ve found a bit of empathy and the perspective that Shannon gave me. The next time you get a visit from Mariah, Jr., smile. Have a conversation. Maybe your next cheesy hero serenade will be from Enrique Iglesias. In that case, a little worship might not be so bad.