Lately, as my wife recovers from knee replacement surgery, she’s been taking advantage of motorized carts in the grocery store. As I walk beside her, I notice the way people react. Some of them treat Cathy as if she’s invisible, going to great pains not to look at her. Others give her smiles that I’m sure they don’t intend to infantilize her, but still, there they are, those sweet, sad smiles that say, “Look at what you can do, bless your heart.” Then there are the people who truly don’t notice her because. . .well. . .because they never really notice anyone. They’re too self-centered, too caught up in worlds where they’re the only ones who exist. They stand in the middle of an aisle when Cathy is trying to get through, or they bump their carts into hers. Oh, so sorry. I didn’t see you.
Perhaps I’m being harsh, and just to be clear, Cathy has never said a word about any of this. When she’s driving that cart, she’s patient, careful, polite. I hesitate, then, to speak of this because I’m not sure, as an able-bodied person, that I have the right. I do know, however, that this experience with Cathy has reminded me of how it felt to be a young boy in the company of my father and his prosthetic hands. People’s reactions to him were pretty much as I describe in the above paragraph. When I was with him, I sensed that something wasn’t quite right about the way people treated him. I couldn’t articulate it then, but now I believe that very few were reacting to the person my father was. They were instead seeing only those prostheses, just as now I believe most people only see the motorized cart and not the woman who sits in it.
I suspect I’ve been guilty of the same sort of behavior in the past even when I haven’t meant to be. Have I been too quick to offer assistance? Have I made assumptions based on one’s disability? Have I looked away because confronting the imperfect body has been too difficult to face? I remember an experience from my childhood that should serve as an example of how to consider the person and not the disability.
One hot summer day, my father and I had just finished mowing my grandmother’s yard. She lived catty-cornered from a small general store in a rural community that consisted of that store, two churches, a closed-down school which had been turned into a community center, and a handful of houses.
At the store, some men and boys were sitting on its porch, just shooting the breeze. My father called to them. “Someone bring me a Pepsi,” he said. This was the kind of community where one could say a thing like that, and sure enough, someone would tote that bottle across the gravel road to where my father and I were sitting in lawn chairs.
A friend of mine was the one to bring it. As he neared, I stood up and stuck out my hand to take the bottle from him. I assumed he’d feel uncomfortable holding it while my father opened the prongs of his prosthetic hand to take it. But my friend wouldn’t give me the bottle. “I can do it,” he said, and just like that he was giving the bottle to my father, who thanked him, and then told me to give him the money to take back to the store. I remember how my friend called my father by his first name and how he looked him straight in the eye, and how he didn’t seem to give those prostheses any notice at all. This was a man he’d known all his life—this was Roy—and my friend was doing him a favor just as he would have done for anyone who would have asked.
I still feel ashamed that I assumed my friend would be uncomfortable. I wish I’d given him more credit just as I wish I’d done the same for my father and for myself.
We do ourselves, and one another, a disservice when we fail to see the individual through the circumstances of disability. Such failure of recognition leads to a lack of empathy, disregard, insensitivity, ignorant assumptions, and, in the worse cases, stereotyping that becomes dangerous not only to the welfare of the one but also of the many. We cheapen ourselves as a society when we fail to see one another fully enough. My father was a man who happened to wear prosthetic hands, but he was so much more than the contraption of steel and cables and canvas harness and plastic holsters that those hands required him to wear. My friend knew that, and I was ashamed because I’d temporally forgotten it.
I’m writing this because I want to always remember to see the person, to remind myself that when it comes to our talents and our shortcomings we share a common lot. We’re a combination of strengths and weaknesses, and that’s what makes us human, no matter the circumstances of how we physically move through our days.