Monday, August 22, 2011

I'm in a wheelchair, I must be homeless

A number of times when I was on my home at night,  some drunk college kids attempted to give me money. It didn't matter how well dressed I was, how fashionable was the haircut I was sporting at the time. My friends laugh it up and say I should've just taken the cash people are throwing at me. But it became more and more annoying over time when it was obvious that no matter how I looked in people's minds I have to be in trouble or lost or homeless especially if you try to establish yourself as professional in the field of law. A profession that requires respect. If I can't get it from strangers that don't know the first thing about me, how will I get it from my peers in the courtroom if that is all they see, how will my clients trust me with their livelihoods? Once I even had money pushed at me in the middle of the dancefloor by middle-aged men that barely spoke English. "That's all I have" said one fratboy when attempting to give me five dollars. "You need it more than I do, get home safe" I replied. It's offensive and it's hurtful, it ruins my night. It makes me think of things I don't want to think about. What have I done to appear as a bum? I second guess myself. I've had a top of the line, airlight carbon fiber and titanium chair in a very modern reflective yellow color, but to those people all that matters just that I'm in a wheelchair. I can't blame those kids, obviously they mean well that's why they were concerned. But it hurts. Because as everybody else I'm driven, I want to be successful and achieve things, when in people's minds there's quick  a connection that they make. You're disabled, you're poor, you must be  unhappy and probably you have a disease or two. This is particularly disappointing because I live in Gainesville, a University city where people are believed to be smart, accepting and progressive. But then again, can you really blame them? What positive examples of well adjusted people with disabilities do you see in mass media? Most literature examples of a characters in wheelchairs I recall are extremely depressing. Is it surprising that this attitude carried over to television? Disability becomes a central plot element for them and their dream and story revolves around them wanting to get out of that wheelchair. For that reason even to me when I was a child a wheelchair felt like giving up, like despair, sadness and resignation.

We don't have celebrities in wheelchairs and that's where most of the problems today are stemming from I guess. We have characters in wheelchairs played by able-bodied actors that can get out of the chair if the role so requires. It's not that I believe that disabled characters should only be played by disabled actors and yes talent and fitness for the role matters, but it does give the role a little more authenticity when you can't just magically spring out of the chair when it's convenient. We're underestimating the power of the media and how it shapes our perception. The more the American public got to see people of different ethnicities dominating the screen, the more proud gay people showed up at red carpet events, the more normal it became. I do think it speaks volumes when it's not something you can just turn off after the work day's done. If it's something you lived. I'm still waiting for a tv character that just happens to be in a wheelchair, rather than having "a very special episode" built around them. Do they even have wheelchair ramps at red carpet events anyway? I want to see an actor trying to get up those stairs with E! cameras watching. Because to me, to many more the wheelchair is not a big thing. It's a part of life. A life that's busy, challenging, fulfilling and fun.

On Fox' dramedy Glee, there's a character in a wheelchair played by a physically abled actor. All he dreams about is getting to walk again complete with a "Safety Dance" fantasy dream sequence  routine. Many of the show's fans demand he conquers his paraplegia, because he "had a hard life" and the performer is actually an excellent dancer. I don't really believe that the role of entertainment is to send out public awareness messages, but I hope he never gets to walk again. Not only would that be a cop out, insulting to a lot of viewers with disabilities, but it would remove the purpose the character's existence on the show. The more people in wheelchairs you see, living "normally", being "normal",  the more normal it becomes. Perhaps one day I will not have a perfect stranger who doesn't even know my name think it's perfectly acceptable to come up and ask "What's wrong with you" or "What happened to you". Because to me a disability is something I live with, I don't consider it a personal flaw. It is however something that helped shape who I am, what my goals are and I how I go about it.


  1. wow. damn. crazy. really? wow. crazy. Sorry. I am rambling, but I do like your insight. I am trying to think of something to add, but nothing comes to mind. However, I do remember feeling peeved when someone thinks they are being nice/caring when they single you out because of something and make you feel very "you v. us." And then portray you based on that single piece of information/observation/how they perceive a single fragment of what makes you, you.

  2. Thats what I call "Ignorance", and its everywhere!!

  3. Hey Ralph. Very surprised to hear it, actually. Why would someone throw money at a nice young guy that happens to be on the wheelchair? To comfort you, many times I have heard something very unpleasant from a random person. It would pierce my soul, but... we need to try to get over it and see ourselves through the eyes of people that know us, not someone randomly encountered.

  4. It's too bad that this has happened to you... Funny thing is, it has never happened to me, and I'm using a motorized wheelchair. Maybe people think because I use a motorized wheelchair, I have money. Wish that were true...

    I have had people come up to me and say they are "sorry" that I am in a wheelchair. HUH? I chose to use a wheelchair when I was 21 because it hurt too much to walk due to Cerebral Palsy. First a manual wheelchair (which I still have), then a motorized wheelchair, when I got diagnosed with carpel tunnel.

    Hang in there, and just smile when it happens. As you can see from my name (DanaWheels) I embraced the wheelchair long ago...