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

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