You are out at Wal-Mart doing your grocery shopping, and down the aisle a ways you see a young man in a power wheelchair. He is extremely thin, sitting hunched over in his seat, and struggling to drive. His companion frequently has to help him steer, as well as push the shopping cart. If you are completely honest with yourself, what would you think about this person? Would you think he was intelligent? Employed? Does he still live at home? In a facility? Can he even speak? This is exactly what I would look like if you ran into me at Wal-Mart, and it is in public places like this that I have to face being judged by others. This is something that I will always have to deal with, but by learning how to handle these situations in the most productive way possible, I will have a happier life.
People make all kinds of assumptions about physically disabled people, but the most common one is that since I am in a wheelchair this means that I am also mentally challenged. There are some disabilities that effect the person both mentally and physically, but the vast majority of people in wheelchairs have complete control of their cognitive functions, so I am not sure where this stereotype even came from. Regardless of how it started though, it is the accepted stereotype, so I have to deal with it. Even after more than 2 decades of experiencing this judgment being placed upon me, I still feel a tiny amount of anger when this happens. I just want to yell, “I am not retarded! I have two college degrees and my own speaking program. What have you done lately?” This would only create a different, negative stereotype though, and I would be surrendering more of my power to my disability and anger, so I contain myself. I remember one such occasion that was extremely trying, and it is a great example of how to handle these assumptions people make about you.
A couple of summers ago, my nurse and I were at the mall. I needed a suit for some teaching event, so we went to Macy’s to try to find one. Now, when you have a body like mine, finding any clothes that fit, but especially dress clothes, is next to impossible. I have no torso or neck, and my arms are long but skinny. On top of that, all the clothes I wear have to be light weight so I can move my arms. We definitely had our work cut out for us, but I was confident that we could piece a shirt, vest, and tie together that was both stylish and functional if we looked hard enough. Things were going alright, as we had found a shirt that I liked and fit me, when a saleswoman came over. Remember, we are in the men’s section, shopping for a suit, and my female nurse and I are right next to each other, as she walks over to us. The saleswoman without even looking at me says, “Hello miss. What can I help you find today?” My nurse replied that I was the one shopping, and I was trying to piece together a suit. The saleswoman gave me a smile and a wink that said, “Oh, bless your heart. You want a big boy suit.” Then she looked back to my nurse and said, “So, what color vest do you want for him?” I knew right then that this woman was going to try my patience.
She continued “helping” us and hawking her commission for probably 30 minutes, while we looked high and low for a vest and tie. The entire time, even after my nurse had started deferring to me when asked a question, the saleswoman never said one word to me. Even though I was making the decisions, I was the one wearing the clothes, and I was the one that paid for everything (I did find a suit, and I looked fly), she kept to her assumption that I was about as mentally developed as a 3 year old. As we shopped, she would even say things like, “I think it’s so great that you take this big guy out.” and “You be sure to bring him back to see us.” It didn’t matter what I said or did, her preconceived ideas about my disability being mental as well as physical were not going to change. Sure, I could have shown my anger and embarrassed her by giving her a proper tongue lashing, but what good would that do? I feel better for a few minutes, and then feel guilty for days, and in the end chances are her assumptions about disabled people would be no different. I had no choice but to accept that this was her opinion, right or wrong, and to move on and go about my business.
I say this like it is a piece of cake, and that I can just flip a switch and have my anger and frustration just disappear. I assure you though that this is not the case. It took me years to be able to react in a productive way, and even now it is something I have to work at sometimes. Although for the most part I think that it just took a lot of practice and cultivating my willpower, confidence, and patience to get to this point, there are a few things that help me with these feelings. The first is keeping in perspective which things in my life I can control, and more importantly, which things I can’t. I do not have control over their assumptions or beliefs, but I do have control over my actions, so I focus on that. Another thing I try to remember is that this is a trigger for my “emotional hijack,” so when I am in a situation where someone starts to place judgments on me, I am prepared to stop my emotions from taking over my thinking. This is another way for me to maintain as much control as I can. I also remind myself that the only way to eliminate this stereotype is by replacing it with a better one. If I carry myself as I normally would, despite their false assumptions, I can help to change the way people see the disabled for future generations.
There is one other little caveat that makes the assumptions people make about me easier to deal with, and I touched on this in my post about the “wheelchair card.” There are occasions when it works in my favor to let people set their expectations extremely low for me, because then as they get to know me and what I have accomplished, I look that much more impressive. I competed in interview competitions in high school, and I nearly always won. I was pretty good, but the thing that put me over the top was that as soon as the judges saw me, they were often impressed that I could just put a sentence together. It’s sad but true. They would set the bar so low, that as I shared my accomplishments everything seemed that much better. Once I figured this out, and played it up a bit for the judges, winning these contests was like fishing with dynamite.
I have gotten to experience the effects of making assumptions about people based on how they look from both sides of the coin thanks to my disability. I was shown how much you can miss out on in life and how wrong your stereotypes can be thanks to some leather clad individuals with hearts of gold. I have also learned how much these judgments can hurt the people you make them about, as I have spent my entire life trying to overcome people’s misconceptions about me. I have found that the best course of action is to not make any assumptions about someone until you get to know them. Judge each person you meet on their own merits, not the traits of some group they may belong to. It sounds simple, and it is in theory, but in practice it is anything but. If you practice enough though, you will have better relationships, enjoy life more, and add happiness to your life.