Crossing the Street

I'm in a bad mood. It's been the kind of day that makes you wish you had never gotten out of bed. And the day is not over. I'm now trying to get to a 6:30 meeting and it's already 6:35. As I wait at the corner for a light that's taking forever to turn green, I hear a man's voice asking: "Can I help you cross the street?"
I know that, in the mood I'm in, even if I manage to produce the required "No, thank you," it would not sound very polite. So I just don't bother answering. I choose to assume that the question is not directed at me. After all, why would anyone ask me if I need help crossing the street? Isn't it obvious that in my sleek Quickie wheelchair I can get to the other corner faster than anyone on foot? If only the damn light would turn green.
But the good Samaritan is not discouraged by my unresponsiveness. “I'll be very glad to help you cross the street,” he says.
I just move my head from side to side in the universal gesture meaning “no” and manage to produce a hint of a forced smile. I always try to be polite to self-appointed good Samaritans. There may be a disabled person who could use and would welcome some help, and I wouldn't want, with my rudeness, to stop anyone from providing help, when help is needed. But, because I'm in such a hurry, I'm now finding this man's insistence really annoying.
Maybe interpreting my annoyed silence as evidence of mental incompetence, the man decides to get in front of me to make sure I don't move. I try to get around him, since I really need to take off the minute the light changes, but he's quick to stop me. "Not yet, not yet!" he yells. “Don't worry, I'll tell you when you can cross!”
Should I tell this man that I'm not at all worried? Just in a rush and at this point, feeling a bit harassed? Should I tell him that I've crossed many roads in my life, that I've gotten very far in my wheelchair, fighting many battles, getting around many obstacles, always trying not to let ignorance, prejudice nor patronizing attitudes stop me?
The man is relentless. "Don't move yet!"
I'm afraid if I open my mouth an obscenity may spurt out of it. I keep trying to ignore him and stare at the light wishing it would turn green.
As the light finally changes, the man shouts: "OK, now, follow me!"
Still ignoring him, I manage to get past him and, giving my wheels a few strong turns, I get across the street, hoping to make the next light and not be more than 15 minutes late for my meeting.
"Hey, take it easy! You're going to get a speeding ticket!" the man yells after me.

And Then, p. 37, Volume 18, 2015

Blue Eyes

It's warm for late November. I'm rolling down Seventh Avenue enjoying the mild sun on my face and letting the autumn breeze play with my hair. I may not go bareheaded again until next spring. It will be hats and hoods and scarfs and earmuffs in the months to come. Grateful for this last taste of fair weather, I smile looking up at the pale blue sky.
As I cross 23rd Street I notice a man picking something out of the garbage at the corner. He looks old but is probably in his fifties, his gray hair is shoulder length and in desperate need of a shampoo; his clothes, drab and tattered, hang on his long, bony and very erect body with a strange kind of flair. He carefully pulls out of the garbage can a closed styrofoam container of the kind used in fast food restaurants. With long elegant fingers he brushes the dirt off and gently opens it. He seems pleased with the contents for he smiles as he closes the container again and, holding it in both hands, starts walking up 7th Avenue.
It's at that moment that he notices I'm looking at him. Without realizing it, I have stopped to watch him. Now, embarrassed, I give my wheels a few strong pushes to make a quick getaway. But it's too late - our eyes have met. His are astonishingly blue and clear, in sharp contrast with the deeply lined face which probably has not seen soap and water for months. Another turn of my wheels and I leave him behind, as we head in opposite directions.
Homeless, I'm sure. Lucky the weather is still good. When the temperature drops below freezing, when the snow comes, I find myself wondering, what will this man do? Where will he sleep? On a cot in a city shelter? Or on a bench in the subway? Will he stand on an endless line to get some hot soup at a church? I can't help but wonder what the circumstances of this man's life have been that have led to his rummaging in garbage cans, looking for edible refuse. Is bad luck or bad judgment to blame?  I should have at least given him a dollar, I now reproach myself. But I had felt so embarrassed that I had to get away from his clear blue eyes. Besides, he wasn't begging, just helping himself to someone's leftovers.
"Hey, wait, miss!" I hear a male voice calling behind me. I know that if I stop and turn around, I will be facing those clear blue eyes. Don't ask how I know, I just do. I keep turning my wheels at a steady pace, as if I don't hear him, or don't think it's me he's after. I should have given him a dollar, I tell myself again. Obviously he's following me, because he wants money. Without stopping, with my left hand still on the wheel, I unzip with my right hand the pouch that's tied around my waist.
The action slows me down just enough for him to catch up with me. Before I can get a dollar out of my wallet, his hand is in front of my face. I throw my head back, caught by surprise. There is a dollar bill in his hand. "Here, miss!" he says waving the dollar, almost brushing my cheek with it.
"Nooo!" My voice is so loud it startles us both.
He pulls away for a moment, then he tries again to hand me the dollar. "Take it," he says, bending down so I have to look at his face, "I wanna give it to you."
I have never seen such blue eyes. "I don't need it," I say, "you keep it." And I push on my wheels as hard as I can to get away from him. A few strong turns and I've left him behind.
"Are you sure?" he yells after me.
I don't realize how fast I'm going until I notice the alarmed looks on the faces of people trying to get out of my way. Because my arms are moving in rhythm with my racing heartbeat, slowing down is a real effort.
Why am I so shaken up? It's not like this kind of thing has never happened to me before. Believe me, it's not that unusual for strangers on the street to offer disabled people money. We all have amusing stories to tell of coins dropped in our Starbucks lattes and dollar bills stuffed in the fashionable bags hanging on the backs of our fancy wheelchairs. Thirty some years of fighting for equal rights have earned us ramps and relay and anti-discrimination laws. But stereotypes are hard to eradicate. That of the disabled person as beggar is still alive, and ready to kick in when we least expect it.
Why am I so shaken up? Is it because I realize that I had been stereotyping him just as he was stereotyping me? I had been feeling sorry for him, picturing his life as sad and difficult. I had been ready to hand him a dollar... Is it because I realize that I do not have the luxury of feeling pity for anyone? For no matter how unfortunate I may imagine their plight to be, they are imagining mine to be much worse?
I'm still turning the wheels of my chair with exaggerated energy. Calm down, I tell myself, take some deep breaths. And I stop at the corner of 20th even though the light hasn't turned red yet. I look up at the pale autumn sky trying to feel good again about this last taste of fair weather. But I keep seeing that lined face, those clear blue eyes.

On the Bus

I'm on the bus, my wheelchair locked in place, an open book on my lap, heading uptown for a a disability culture conference at Columbia Univesity. It's September and the temperature outside is still in the high 80s, so I'm grateful for the air conditioning chilling my neck and blending the diverse odors of the New York City bus riders into an amalgamated, homogenized scent.
At 42nd Street, a woman and a young girl get on. The woman is pulling the girl by the hand. The girl is 10 or 11 and disabled. Her movements are spastic. Cerebral Palsy? I wonder. This is one of the older buses where the wheelchair spaces are in the back. From my vantage point, I watch the two making their way through the aisle, luckily not too crowded with standing passengers. Apparently there are no empty seats in front and no passengers are eager to give up their seats.
The girl is wearing braces, the short plastic type meant to stabilize the ankles, but her legs look muscular and strong. Not easy to walk sideways, though, pulled by the hand, through the aisle. Her left foot first kicks outward then ends up hitting her right one. Her left arm, extended to help her balance, is drawing wide motions in the chilled air. The few standing passengers lean in the opposite direction as she goes by them, afraid, I guess, of being hit by her flailing arm. As the two get closer, I realize that the woman is not pulling the girl by the hand but by the arm. The girl's right forearm is securely clasped in her mother's hand.
I assume the woman is her mother. Their skin is the same shade of rich milk chocolate. Not African American, though. Hard to identify their ethnicity. Indian maybe? They both have thick wavy black hair. The mother's hair is long and tied in the back in a low pony tail, the daughter's is chopped at chin length.
I notice that the seat next to the man sitting across from me is empty. It would be nice if he got up, I'm thinking, and, as if reading my mind, he indeed stands and offers the mother and daughter the two seats. The mother pulls the daughter closer to her, turning her around, so she has her facing the front of the bus and pushes her between the rows of seats. She speaks to her in a language I don't recognize. I suppose she's telling her to sit down. The girl answers her in English. “Stop pulling and pushing me and I'll sit down,” she says. Her vowels slope and loop, her consonants come out of her mouth in bursts, her face muscles contract with intense energy. Her mother speaks softly, but forcefully in her language. The girl again answers in English: “I'm not talking too loud.” As she labors to speak her left arm flies up. The mother grabs her arm and pulls it down, then puts her index finger over her mouth in the universal gesture for “silence.”
I feel the anger swell up inside my chest as the dark thought suddenly invades my mind. Is the mother ashamed of her disabled daughter? Together with the dark thought, a crazy feeling overtakes me. The irrational, outrageous desire to take this disabled girl away from her mother and claim her as my own! I feel myself shaking with rage and with longing at the same time.
What the hell is the matter with me? Are these frustrated maternal feelings? My barren menopausal womb crying out in regret? Or is it just my "Proud Disabled Woman Identity” that wants to claim every disabled girl I see as a "Disabled Daughter?"
As if sensing what I'm feeling, the girl turns and looks my way. I smile at her and she smiles back. She seems so beautiful to me this girl with chocolate skin. If only she were my daughter, how I would treasure her, how proud of her I would be! And how I would teach her to be proud, in ways her mother never could.

The Evil of Disability

I'm rolling down the sidewalk on 5th Avenue, headed home after a very pleasant lunch date with an old friend.
A man is approaching headed in the opposite direction. Fiftyish, balding, somewhat plump, light blue short-sleeved shirt. Our eyes meet as we near each other. Without taking his eyes off of me, as he passes by me, he quickly crosses himself.
Yes, crosses himself. I was raised catholic, so I wouldn't be mistaken. He definitely was not shooing away a fly. Was he saying a little prayer for me? So that my sins be forgiven and I be cured and walk again? Or was he thanking the sweet lord that it was me and not him in the wheelchair? Was he asking for protection against life's perils, accidents, illnesses, that could result in his becoming disabled? Or anyone in his family becoming disabled? Or any of his friends and acquaintances becoming disabled?
With the sign of the cross was he warding off the evil of disability? The evil of disability personified by none other than unsuspecting, just going about my business, having a nice day, living a normal life lil' ol' me?

Great Muscles

I'm at the Green Market in Union Square with my nondisabled friend Melanie, a longtime feminist. We're checking out the produce: she's fondling the green peppers, while I give the eggplants a squeeze. It's August, midday. I should have remembered to put on the sunblock. I'm wearing a tank top and I feel the sun burning my shoulders.
Suddenly I feel something else. From behind me somebody has grabbed my left arm. Strong fingers are wrapped around my bicep, squeezing rhythmically. I know it's not my friend Melanie touching me, because I can see her a few feet in front of me holding up a shiny pepper.
I turn my head and I'm face to face with a man. He lets go of my arm and, bending down and smiling broadly, holds up his thumb. "Great muscles," he says.
"I don't know you," is my immediate response. But it's sort of half a question. It often happens that I am confronted by someone who seems to know me, who may even know my name, but whom I, for the life of me, cannot recall ever meeting. I've had this problem since my teens. So it's not middle age forgetfulness. It's just that disability is an easy marker that makes us noticeable and memorable. Oh, some nondisabled people will make great efforts not to notice us, of course. But those who have conquered their worst fears are likely to remember us, even after a fleeting chance meeting. Of course, there may be some confusion. Quite a few times, in the past, I've been confused with other wheelchair users, who may have been half or twice my age, and half or twice my size, and Asian or African American. But in spite of the confusion, I realize that most nondisabled people find me easy to remember. I, on the other hand, tend to forget many of the nondisabled people I meet, unless of course there is a reason for me to remember them, or unless they have some memorable characteristic. This man, now smiling broadly at me, has no memorable characteristics, at least not physical ones. Fortyish, average height, average build, average good looks. If, at least, he was bald, or had a big nose.
So to be safe, I now ask the question clearly: "Have we ever met?"
"No, we've never met," he answers. He's still smiling broadly.
"So, what makes you think you have the right to come behind me and squeeze my arm?" I ask.
"Oh, I was just admiring your muscles," he says. "You've developed some muscles pushing that chair!"
"You don't go and touch a woman you don't know just because you admire some of her body parts," I say.
His smile is now a bit strained. "Oh, don't be so touchy, I didn't mean anything by it."
I notice my friend Melanie has put down the green pepper and is looking at us. I'm angry. "Whatever you did or didn't mean, your behavior was inappropriate and offensive," I say brusquely, turning away and picking up an eggplant to put an end to the exchange.
The man is retreating. "Well, you don't have to get mad, I didn't mean anything by it," he repeats as he walks away.
Melanie rushes over to me and, bending down, she puts her hand on my shoulder and whispers: "Calm down."
"I'm calm," I say, and then add: "but I'm angry."
"What happened?" she asks, still whispering. I tell her what happened, though I'm sure she must have heard the entire exchange, since she was only a few feet away.
"Oh," she murmurs, shrugging her shoulders. "Forget about it, it's not worth your getting upset over it."
Her dismissive attitude makes me feel angrier. "Wouldn't you get upset if a strange man grabbed you?" I ask her.
She shrugs her shoulders again. "Well, sure, but..."
I give her a puzzled look, "But what?"
"Oh, I believe that he didn't mean anything by it," she says.
I'm flabbergasted. Is this Melanie, the longtime feminist, refusing to give validity to a sister's righteous indignation and totally condoning a strange man's objectionable behavior?
"I can't believe I'm hearing this from you!" I mutter.
She gives my shoulder a little squeeze. "Well, it's not like he pinched your butt," she says with a little laugh.
"He couldn't. I'm sitting on it," I say. I'm really pissed. At Melanie now more than at the strange man. But she takes my remark to be an example of my usual crip humor and laughs heartily.
"Well, I have to agree with the guy, you do have great muscles, and you're really showing them off in that top."
"And you do have a great ass, and you're sure showing it off in those pants," I rebut. "So would it be okay for some strange man to give it a squeeze?"
She stops laughing. "I just think you're overreacting," she says. "He looked like a nice man. He wasn't making sexual advances. I'm sure he really did admire your strength."
He admired my strength, yes, nothing sexual. A nice man, yes, average height, average build, average good looks. The kind that would never go sneaking up on unsuspecting women. He would never have pinched Melanie's round buttock, no matter how much he might have admired it. But he felt free to come up behind me and squeeze my arm. Because he admired my biceps. Because I'm not just a woman, I'm a disabled woman.
"Melanie," I say, "what made me angry is that the man felt it was perfectly alright to touch me. And what's making me even angrier is that you think that it was alright for him to touch me, while it would not have been alright for him to touch you."
I know I have at other times talked to Melanie about the way nondisabled people take unbridled liberties with disabled people, especially disabled women. They'll grab us and force their help on us, ask the most personal questions, make the most offensive remarks. They feel they can, because our disabilities put us at the bottom of the social ladder.
"Oh, no," Melanie objects, "I never said it was alright for that man to touch you. I just didn't think his intentions were sexual. But, all the same, he should not have touched you."
Why is it so important to her to establish that the man's intentions weren't sexual? If I didn't know her, I'd think that she was seeing me in the stereotypical way disabled women are seen: as asexual and devoid of sex appeal. But Melanie has known me for years and I have talked with her about these things. Maybe she's insisting on the absence of a sexual motive to make it clear that, if I have been wronged, it's not in the same way other women are wronged. To make it clear that the issue here is not gender, it's disability. Best not confuse the issues. The guy was unenlightened, he obviously had never attended a disability awareness workshop, but he was no sexist pig. So my outrage is uncalled for. Let more deserving women, who suffer real sexual harassment, feel outrage. I realize that, with her insistence on the absence of sexual motives, she's denying me membership in the sisterhood of nondisabled women. I should be used to it. Always being relegated to the "special category." Our issues always being considered less important.
"Melanie," I say, "that man obviously thought my being a disabled woman made me so powerless that it was okay for him to grab me. He would not have grabbed you. He grabbed me because my wheelchair signaled to him that rules of conduct could be ignored. His intentions may or may not have been sexual. It doesn't even matter. The real issue is power. Who has it, who doesn't. Who will claim it over whom and for what reasons."
She's staring at me, while holding in her hands two green peppers. Finally she says: "Sure, you're right, of course. I'm sorry if I didn't seem sympathetic." But before I can think I've gotten across to her, she adds: "I just didn't want you to get so upset over it, that's all."
Her tone is so condescending that I want to throw the eggplant I have in my hands right at her. "Well, you're sure succeeding in getting me more and more upset," I almost say. But I realize I'm not going to get any solidarity from this nondisabled sister, no matter what I say or do. She has obviously decided that, at least for the moment, her alliance with nondisabled people is stronger than any kinship she may feel towards me as a woman. I suddenly feel very tired. Of being in the hot sun. And of always having to argue with strangers and friends, of always having to explain myself.
I pay for my eggplant while she pays for her green peppers.

My Situation

I'm going down in the elevator. I'm on my way to Hudson River Park with my notebook computer, to do some writing on a nice summer day. The elevator door opens and I back up in my wheelchair to let a man get in - a neighbor that I've seen many times before. Maybe a little older, maybe a little younger than me, pleasant enough face, pleasant enough manner, no interesting characteristics, not the type I'd want to put in a story and describe in detail. I don't know the man's name, since we've never bothered to introduce ourselves. We might have said the customary “good morning” to each other or “isn't it a nice day;” never more than that. I now give him an absent-minded neighborly smile. I expect the same in return. I'm a little surprised when he speaks, a whole sentence.
“It's so amazing to me that someone in your situation can have such a smile on her face.”
I give him a puzzled look. “In my situation? What do you mean?”
He doesn't respond.
Does he think my using a wheelchair is a painful, sad situation, maybe even a tragic one? Does he visualize a dreary life full of constant sorrow, dark gloomy days, a dismal future? Does he imagine I've never known happiness and never will? Does he assume I'm just covering up my great suffering with a brave smile?
Were he to find himself in a similar situation, would he despair? Would he be so depressed that he would never again smile? Does he believe he would never be able to endure such a situation, maybe even that, in such a situation, he would not want to live? Does he believe that's how I should feel?
As the doors of the elevator open, I let my smile grow wider. “My situation is a very good one,” I say. “I'm very happy with my situation.”
He walks away without another word.

Get Rid of My Wheelchair?

It’s one of those perfect May days when not a cloud is in the sky, and the temperature is so mild, it makes every joint and every muscle in my body feel happy that winter is far behind. I’m glad I decided not to take the bus to go up to Times Square where I’m meeting some friends from out of town. I turn the wheels of my wheelchair with my leather gloved hands, in rhythmic motions, so carefree I’m enjoying every crack and every bump on the 8th Avenue sidewalk.
The light turns red, and I have to stop at 34th Street. I stretch my arms, straighten my shoulders and take a deep breath of wonderful May air, deliberately oblivious of pollution and car exhaust.
Suddenly I hear a man say: “I hope you soon get rid of that wheelchair.”
He must be talking to me. There are no other wheelchair users around. Without even looking at him I say: “I have no intention of getting rid of this wheelchair.” Why would I, I love it and, though I've had it for a number of years, it's still in great shape.
“You mean your condition cannot be cured?” the man asks.
I don't answer him.
“What is you condition, may I ask?”
Now I wish the light would change. “You may not,” I say.
“Well, whatever your condition is, I’ll pray for you to be cured.”
The light is about to change and I grab my wheels ready to take off. “I don't need to be cured,” I say.
“Very brave of you to say that,” the man says as the light changes.
I give my wheels a few strong turns and leave him behind. “I'll pray for you anyway!” he yells.


 Crossing 14th Street at Sixth Avenue, I'm heading south on my way to the New School building at 66 W. 12th, where the classes I teach are held. I notice that alongside me is a woman holding a 5 or 6-year-old girl by the hand. The woman is smiling broadly at me. I'm sure I've never seen her before, but I give her half a smile as I aim for the curb cut.
I'm in a hurry, as is often the case when I'm going to work. When I drove to Fordham University in the Bronx, or took the bus uptown to Hunter College, I would always be early for class, sometimes as much as an hour early. I gave myself plenty of time, then, in case I had trouble finding a parking spot, or got stuck in traffic, or, worse, got stuck on the bus if the wheelchair lift broke down. I don't need to worry about such things now, since all I have to do to get to work is roll down a few blocks. So I don't bother to give myself extra time. But that means I can't afford to stop and chat, if I happen to run into a friend or acquaintance. Today I'm already a few minutes behind schedule because a phone call delayed me. My class is set to start in exactly twelve minutes. So I hope this smiling woman is not someone who will claim to know me and expect me to try and remember her name.
I give my wheels two strong turns and easily get ahead of her. But the sidewalk is crowded, I can't go fast.
I hear the woman right behind me talking to her little girl. "That lady is disabled," she's telling her. "She's in a wheelchair. Look how she turns the wheels to make it go!"
Isn't that interesting? Usually mothers tell their children not to look. "Don't embarrass the lady by staring, darling. She doesn't need to be reminded of her misfortune." That's how the scene usually unfolds. That's the script we've all gotten used to. This must be an enlightened new version. This woman must have read the articles that say it is better to explain disability to children, rather than create fears by making it a taboo subject. I give her credit for using the word “disabled” and not some ridiculous euphemism, such as “physically challenged.” Many who consider themselves enlightened seem to think euphemisms are more politically correct. She has also learned that the trick is to accentuate the positive, focusing on those aspects a child can relate to. That's not hard to do with a wheelchair, since children are naturally attracted to anything with wheels.
"It really does look like fun, doesn't it?" I hear her saying right behind me. "I bet it can go really fast, don't you think?"
I really would love to take off and show them how fast I can go. But I'm now at the corner of 13th Street and have to stop for a red light.
The woman comes up alongside me and again smiles at me. I make believe I don't notice her and, my hands on the wheels, I stare at the traffic light, ready to take off the moment it turns green. "Would you like to say hello to the lady?" the woman is now asking the little girl. Oh, no. I can't very well refuse to say hello to a child, can I? Luckily, the light changes right at that moment. So I give the little girl a quick smile and I take off, hoping they'll go left on 13th.
But no such luck. They're right behind me again. Encouraged by my smile, the woman is now determined to stop me. "Excuse me, excuse me," she's calling as she tries to catch up with me, pulling, I imagine, the little girl by the hand. "Would you mind if my daughter takes a look at your wheelchair?"
Hasn't she looked enough? I want to complain. But I do slow down which encourages the woman more.
“Would you mind if she pushes you down the block?" she asks.
I can't believe this. Just what I need when I'm running late - to have a 5 year old push me. Now, I'm no scrooge. I like children. I've had children push my chair, ride on my lap, stand on my footrests, hang on my backpack countless times. But I look at my watch and I only have 7 minutes to get to the classroom. "Yes, I would mind," I say trying not to sound cross. "I'm sorry, but I'm in an awful hurry."
The smile freezes on the woman's face. She pulls the little girl closer to her, as if to protect her from the aura of bitterness suddenly emanating from me and my wheelchair. But then she decides to give it another try. "We're going the same way," she mutters. "My daughter was admiring your wheelchair. I didn't think you'd mind..."
"It's just that I'm in a hurry," I say. "I teach at the New School and I'm due in class in a few minutes." And I point towards 12th Street as I start moving again.
"Oh!" the woman stares at me, apparently surprised by the revelation that I have a life, I don't exist solely for her child's entertainment. Then she bends down to make sure her daughter shares her amazement. "The lady is a teacher!" she exclaims. But the little girl doesn't seem at all impressed. Suddenly the woman's face lights up: "Just let her push you to the end of the block," she says. "It would be so educational for her!"
Isn't that brilliant? To appeal to my sense of duty as a teacher? How can I pass up the opportunity to educate a child on the fine art of being disabled? After all, aren't we supposed to be "educational" these days? That's the progress we've made. No longer will we allow them to think we're "pitiful!" Piss on pity! And oh, no! we don't want help, we're not "helpless!" Nor will we let them call us "heroic," or "inspirational" when we're just living our lives. But we'll agree to be "educational." We'll even run workshops to teach the nondisabled about us, teach them not to be afraid of us...
But I don't want to educate, not today, not on this 6th Avenue sidewalk, not for free, not when I'm in a hurry. I want to save my teaching for the classroom, and I want to get to that classroom on time. "I'm sorry," I say, as I start moving faster, "you're really making me late now."
I'm almost at the corner and I can see the light is still green but starting to flash. I make a run for it leaving the mother and daughter behind. Turning east on 12th Street, I quickly make my way to the New School building, hoping I'll get an elevator immediately. My class starts in three minutes. As I turn to enter the building, I look back towards 6th Avenue, and I see the woman and the little girl just starting to cross the street.
So, the little girl didn't get to learn what it feels like to push a wheelchair. Good! Let her lesson be not to bother a busy woman on her way to work.


I'm pushing down the bike path along the Hudson River on a beautiful spring day. At a nice steady pace, arms pumping, wheels turning, savoring every ray of the April sun, enjoying the gentle breeze, delighting in the sudden burst of brilliant colors here and there along the way. Tulips and daffodils have bloomed, it seems to me, overnight. Arms pumping, wheels turning, in smooth even motions, I roll almost effortlessly, my body and my wheelchair in tune with the springtime, rejoicing in this season of rebirth and of overwhelming beauty. Bicycle riders pass me by, skaters and joggers run alongside me. I am one with all who are moving in tune with the springtime, with all who are rejoicing on this glorious day.
A woman is approaching, on the opposite side of the path, jogging with what seems to me a great deal of effort. She is not young, a bit older than I am, and she is quite a bit overweight. As she gets closer to me I can see that she's breathing heavily and there are beads of perspiration on her forehead. I'm looking at her thinking she should slow down, walk the path rather than jog, enjoy the day. She looks straight at me, and she does slow down. She slows down so she can say to me, with feeling and sincere admiration: "You are an inspiration!"
I am an inspiration to her. I guess she thinks what I'm doing is incredibly courageous. She thinks pushing a wheelchair must be a thousand times harder than jogging when you're out of shape. She thinks if I'm out on this bike path, then certainly she should sweat and huff and puff and be grateful. Be grateful that, though she's getting older, though the battle of the bulge is getting harder to win every day, though life might not be fair, though troubles may abound, at least she's not a cripple like me.
Lady, I'm sure I've done things in my life that could be considered inspirational, as I'm sure you have. But going down this nice smooth path in my wonderful, ultra-light, ultra-maneuverable wheelchair on this glorious spring day is nothing but a great joy. See? Almost no effort at all. Beats jumping curbs and watching out for potholes; sure beats trying to get to work when mountains of snow block the curb cuts. Life can be hard for us all, lady, but springtime comes, time for us all to be inspired and to rejoice.
On this beautiful spring day, with so much inspiration all around us, why do you need to be inspired by me and my wheelchair? Why must you rejoice in what you think is my misfortune, when we can both equally rejoice in this so clear so blue sky? Why must you find comfort in thinking my plight worse than yours? Aren't we both infinitely worse off than this magnolia tree that blooms with such an incredible explosion of beauty every spring? Why must you feel grateful that you're not like me? Why can't we both be happy to be exactly who we are? And be grateful to meet on this bike path, both alive on this wonderful earth, both rejoicing in the overwhelming beauty of this glorious spring day?

I Do Not Allow Myself to Be Carried

I do not allow myself to be carried.
Oh, I know, it would be no problem - for you. I'm sure you could get two strong men (they don't even have to be that strong) to carry my ultra-light wheelchair up the stairs with me in it. Light enough, too, my body, especially if I choose not to wear my artificial legs.
You say you really want me to speak at your event. You never thought there would be a problem when you thought of asking me. Not something one thinks of, accessibility, is it?
Unfortunately, it is impossible to move the event to an accessible location, you say. Unfortunately, the project has so little money, barely enough to survive. Not a cent can be spared for accessibility.
I do not allow myself to be carried.
You do not understand why I'd refuse the help you offer with such kindness.
Would you be as kind if I didn't come alone? My life partner, you know, is a wheelchair user also. He'd want to hear me speak. And I'd want him in the audience. He can be carried too, you say? You should know, though, his is not an ultra-light manual chair but a 500-pound motorized one.
And would it be OK if I bring a few friends along? Yes, wheelchair users. I like the feeling of support I get from having a few friends in the audience when I speak, don't you?
I do not allow myself to be carried.
I only go to places where I can roll in on my own. You walk and I roll. We go in together as equals. If I’m carried, we stop being equals. I become the unfortunate one who needs help. You may not have been paying attention, but we’ve been fighting for about forty years now to change this society which would rather give us charity than equal rights.
But what better way is there to call attention to the lack of accessibility than having people see me being carried? you ask.
Oh, I could think of a few ways. I could sit with my friends in front of the building holding signs and giving out flyers to those who go in. That would get their attention, don’t you think? If we really got angry, we could block the doors. Wheelchairs are great for blocking doors. “I can’t get in, so neither will you.”
Oh, that would turn people against us, you say.
Some people, for sure. But it would get us attention, universally craved media attention. Especially if the police were called. Especially if there were some arrests. Another way to go, of course, would be the courts. We could file a lawsuit under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Oh, please, don’t get nervous! I was only speaking hypothetically. I know that your project has barely enough money to survive.
I do not allow myself to be carried.
Oh, yes, I have been carried in my life.
As a child in Sicily, I didn’t have a wheelchair. I had to be carried everywhere. My mother would carry me: “I have to pee, mamma." "Oh, please, my back is killing me, can't you hold it?"
As I got too heavy for my mother, my father would carry me. And if my father wasn’t there, an uncle, or any male teenage cousin would do. "You got nice titties, little cousin." "Don't touch!" "How can I carry you without touching?"
Later, on the new continent, I had a wheelchair, but so many places where my wheelchair couldn't go. A boyfriend would carry me. Maybe one I did not much care for, but who could get me where I wanted to go. Compromises all of us women have made sometime in our lives. The price always our dignity, our self-respect.
Yes, I have been carried in my life.
I’ve been carried, when visiting countries where accessibility is a luxury unheard of. Where disabled people get carried customarily and routinely, much as I did as a child in Sicily.
I remember sitting in my fancy American wheelchair in Nairobi and watching disabled people crawling on the sidewalks. Ashamed of my being privileged, unable to show my solidarity by getting out of my chair and crawling with them, I allowed myself to be carried there.
I don’t travel to many far-away places anymore. But if I should in the future, I may be carried again.
Many times the police have carried me, when they arrested me for civil disobedience. At times they carried me in my chair, other times I was taken out of my chair. A few years ago, in Albany, when 8 of us were arrested after sitting-in in the governor’s office, the police pushed me in my chair outside and had me sitting at the top of the steps of one of the inaccessible entrances to the Capitol building. Only for a few minutes. But it was February, after midnight, and I didn’t have a coat. The day had started with a demonstration at the Department of Health, and that’s where I had left my coat. When I was taken out of my chair and carried down the steps into the police car, I was thankful. The policeman’s arms felt warm and strong around my shaking body.
Though I keep saying I’m getting too old, I know my activist days are not over. Many battles remain to be fought. And unfortunately not many of us are able and willing to go all the way and get arrested when necessary. Chances are I’ll get carried again by the police.
I don’t know under what other circumstances I would allow myself to be carried.
After September 11, there was talk of a disabled woman carried down to safety, and of a quadriplegic man who perished together with a nondisabled colleague, waiting for help to arrive. I started wondering: what would I do if I found myself trapped in an office in a burning 110-story tower? And what if I had a quadriplegic colleague in a heavy power chair? Would I sit in solidarity with my colleague, who could not be carried down thousands of stairs? Would I sit breathing in smoke till the tower went down? Or would I cry helplessly, would I beg any strong man to carry me down, would I make any deal, any compromise, would I forget all about the quadriplegic colleague, my dignity, my pride, to save my life?

And Then, p. 11, Volume 12, 2004