Lying in bed the other night, after a day that wasn’t unlike any other, I found myself suddenly apologizing. “I’m sorry I’m paralyzed”. My husband looked at me in that way he looks at me when I’ve said something completely unreasonable (I’m unreasonable fairly often so I know the look well). He jokingly told me to shut-up and we moved on. But as he drifted off to sleep I started to think about the kind of attention I bring to my injury. In many cases it is a joke or a comment to employ a sort of pre-emptive form of damage control. As though if I mention what I feel is the elephant in the room, I then take control over any obstacles that may arise because of said elephant. But I often also find myself apologizing for things that probably don’t require an apology. These are things that stem from the fact that I’m paralyzed. And paralysis, to be clear, is beyond my control (I triple-checked). So instead of falling asleep that night, I contemplated my approach. Why do I bring attention to my differences and apologize for my limitations? And should I stop?
I feel like I am fighting a constant battle to be seen as a complete person. I have to work a little bit harder than your average able-bodied human to be taken just as seriously in my role as a woman/wife/mother/daughter/sister/aunt/friend. As a woman in a wheelchair it feels like no matter how much I prove myself, any mistake or slip-up will shine a spotlight on my disability and make me appear as less. Not only that, it then feels like I have done a disservice to the entire disabled community because I didn’t keep up my façade that I can still do it all. Rebekah Taussig (@sitting_pretty on Instagram) writes “In my head, I feel like the Representative of Disability. It’s a heavy weight”. I imagine there is no better way to describe it. When you are out in the world as a wheelchair user you are often the only wheelchair user around. You are single-handedly – in those moments – representing an entire community who are fighting to be seen as equals. No pressure there at all.
I often think how I would have felt in the presence of a wheelchair user when I was still able-bodied. It is not an answer I have to do a lot of soul searching for. I would have been curious, uncomfortable and unsure of how to act. I’m not proud of it, but it’s an obvious truth for me. I know I would have had so many questions which would have rendered me unable to see past the chair to the person. Because of that knowledge, I choose to do what I feel eases tensions. I open my trench coat of disability and expose the curiosities hiding underneath.
Of course, I hope this helps people to be free of their questions and misconceptions and see me for who I am. It’s my way of saying that I’m aware I’m a little bit different and I’m also aware that you may have noticed. For me, the sooner the differences are acknowledged, the sooner you can start to recognize all of the similarities, all of the abilities and all of the reasons why the differences don’t really matter. However, I suppose that then begs the question, if the differences don’t matter than what am I constantly apologizing for?
I’m pretty sure apologizing is my own personal defence mechanism. I find myself out in the world attempting confidence and taking risks in order to live a full life but, truthfully, everywhere I go I still feel different. I still feel noticed and awkward and self-conscious. But most of all, I feel like I’m in the way! Yes, I would say that 9 times out of 10 I am apologizing simply because I take up more surface area on this earth than I used to. But I have this feeling that if I apologize quickly for any little inconvenience I take the power away from anyone who may feel frustrated with me. How can you get angry with someone who has already apologized?
I apologize to hostesses at restaurants when they struggle to know where to seat us. I apologize when people have to stand up and move their chairs so I can get past. I’m always sorry we don’t have more options for seating at movie theatres or that someone has to go out of their way to answer one of my questions on the accessible nature of their establishment. If I feel like my wheelchair has caused the situation to be different than it would have been without it, then I apologize. And that is something that I think needs to stop.
I need to stop apologizing to my friends when plans shift because of my wheelchair. If they were worried about it, they wouldn’t invite me.
I need to stop apologizing to my husband for becoming a version of myself we never would have anticipated. He has made it very clear he loves me regardless so I should probably run roll with that.
I need to stop apologizing to every person who moves over so I can get by. People are kind and probably don’t want their toes run over.
And I definitely need to stop apologizing to every establishment that isn’t accessible in nature. Because that is just backwards.
While I need to figure out how to reign in all of those apologizes, I don’t see anything wrong with bringing attention to my disability by making comments or jokes about it. If I feel obvious in a situation because of my disability I would rather confront it. As soon as I acknowledge it I can feel tensions dissipate. It is also usually a great way to alter people’s perspectives. It is amazing to feel that shift from pity to respect or understanding after engaging someone in a lighthearted way.
Bringing attention to myself in this way has been far more positive than negative and isn’t something I imagine I will stop doing. And while I do feel like that Representative for Disability a lot of the time, in the end I am living this life for me. I have to live my life with this injury and this wheelchair. I’m not going to have the same ideas on how to do that as every other person with an injury and a wheelchair. Sometimes you just have to be in it for yourself. And this works for me. But I’ll try to keep the unnecessary apologies to a minimum.