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Published October 1, 2019

THE VIEW FROM MY SEAT

Being wheelchair-bound also means learning tolerance

By Ernie Williamson / The Bulletin

We rolled into a crowded restaurant on the South Loop.

Judging by the stares, we must have been quite a spectacle.

Our collection of about 15 quadriplegics, paraplegics, stroke survivors and accident victims had one thing in common: We were in wheelchairs.

As part of our rehabilitation at TIRR Memorial Hermann, we had been bused to the restaurant to give us experience in dealing with real-world challenges that might arise after discharge from the hospital.

It was, for most of us, our first time in public since becoming disabled.

I will never forget one young man in our group. A horrific accident while driving a truck in the West Texas oilfields had left him a quadriplegic. A therapist fed him that night at the restaurant.

On the way back to the hospital, the young trucker confided in me that he felt humiliated because of the stares. He vowed he would never again venture out in public. I lost track of the young man after I left TIRR, but I hope he was able to break his promise.

Don’t stare.

I couldn’t begin to count the number of times my mother scolded me about that.

Now, decades later, I am on the receiving end of stares. After seven years in a wheelchair, I am pretty much accustomed to people staring, except when the stares come from children.

Adults and children stare differently, in my opinion.

Most adults stop staring relatively quickly or stare when they don’t think you can see them. And then there are the overly polite adults who are conditioned to look away from disabled people because they fear doing or saying the wrong thing. I am invisible to them, but that is a column for another day.

Kids, on the other hand, stare and stare and keep staring.

Intellectually, I know children are just being curious, not judgmental. Emotionally, it is a different story. As hard as I try, children’s stares still irritate me. My go-to response is to stare the kids down until they look away. That works, but I am ashamed I resort to that.

After all, it’s not as if I never stared as a kid.

Kids, quite innocently, also are prone to making loud remarks like “why is that man in a chair,” or “why isn’t he walking?” I was in the neighborhood pool one day with my flotation device, and a youngster turned to his mother and said, “Is that how grandpas learn to swim?” I could only laugh, that time.

I also use the Pearland Natatorium for therapy. The pool has a lift that lowers me into the pool and raises me out. Children will stop what they are doing to watch. I am sure it is quite a sight for children to see a 6’ 5’’ senior citizen with a flotation device around his neck being lowered by machine into the pool.

In this case I realize the children are probably staring because they think riding on the lift would be cool.

Staring also affects those with the disabled person. My wife notices it when we dine out.

The stares remind her how hard it is to escape the impact of my disability. It’s another burden for her.

The best advice I have heard for those with a visible disability is not to take it personally when someone stares.

Remember that you are not in control of the staring, but you are in control of how the staring affects you.

My advice for people who make eye contact with a disabled person you were staring at is to smile.

It eases the awkwardness. And you may even gain a friend.

(Ernie Williamson welcomes reader input. Please contact Ernie at williamsonernie@gmail.com)