REALITY CHECK: If you see me in a wheelchair, then see me

Reality Check | Mike Taylor

Don’t you hate it when there’s something you’ve always wanted to do, and then, when you finally do it, the experience turns out to be not so great after all? I’m dealing with just that sort of disappointment right now.

It’s because of my foot troubles, which I’ve been having for the past week or so. My right foot has an “issue.”

There was a time my feet were just something I walked on, usually to and from somewhere fun, like the beach or a nice, quiet pub. They didn’t bother me and — aside from making them carry me around — I didn’t bother them.

But now that I’m a geezer, my feet, along with other parts of my wrinkly, sagging excuse for a body, are turning against me. After decades of being taken for granted, they now command attention, consideration, special care.

My extremities are turning into the physiological equivalent of a needy girlfriend. Soon they’ll be demanding flowers and late night “watcha dooooin’?” phone calls.

At any rate, it’s my right foot that’s currently giving me all the grief. I spent the holidays on the sofa with my bothersome foot propped on a pillow, praying to all that’s holy that no rampaging grandkid would drop a new Tonka truck on my throbbing tootsie.

Because I’ve had this problem before — though never this severely — I own an inflatable boot/cast thingy. I’ve been wearing this more or less nonstop since the foot began hurting again. It helps, but there’s no way I can walk unassisted.

My neighbor loaned me some crutches, which are very helpful over short distances. Anything more than a brisk strut around the living room, however, requires more creative mobility options.

So it was that I found myself this past weekend at a major shopping establishment. I live alone and I HAD to be there; if I don’t pick up wrapping paper and Scotch tape, the presents remain unwrapped, and I take Christmas very seriously.

This particular store, I knew, provides electric wheelchair shopping carts. I have ALWAYS wanted to play with one of these. I mean, I know they’re intended for folks with real mobility issues, but they LOOK like little go carts, the sort my parents could never afford when I was a kid.

Though I’m fairly agile on the crutches, I made a big, clumsy show of hobbling into the store, the look of abject pain on my face more than enough, I thought, to convince the greeter lady I needed to borrow a set of electric wheels. I added a few moans, groans and breathless grunts to the effort, just in case.

The greeter may have rolled her eyes a bit, I can’t be sure, but she let me take one of the electric carts.

The first thing I noticed: They don’t go fast enough. Not by a long shot.

I could WALK faster than one of those carts. Or rather, I could, before my foot decided to go rogue on me.

Still, I decided to make the best of it. Humming “Born to be Wild” under my breath, I cruised past the tomatoes and deli cookies. I dodged toddling kids and soccer moms, little old ladies squeezing cantaloupe, young marrieds trying to decide between the good whiskey and the cheap stuff for their holiday festivities.

The next thing I noticed: People don’t look at you when you’re in a wheelchair. It’s like their eyes just sort of glide past the space you’re in without registering your presence.

Now, being new to gimp-dom, I understand what’s going on here. People don’t want to offend by staring. They are naturally curious as to why an otherwise strapping example of virile masculinity is driving a cart more commonly associated with octogenarian widows who own too many cats.

But they can’t ask. It’s rude. So, instead, they just don’t see you. It’s unnerving, like being a ghost.

Also, from chair-level, belt buckles become a big part of your life. You’re shorter than everyone. It’s uncomfortably like being a kid again.

It took about 10 minutes in that chair before I began feeling insecure, vulnerable and left out, separated from that portion of society capable of maintaining a vertical orientation.

I don’t know how guys like Stephen Hawking and Franklin Roosevelt do it; maintain their sense of self-worth, I mean.

By the time I finished shopping and returned my chair to the front of the store, where an octogenarian with too many cats (probably) was waiting to take possession, I felt invisible and unimportant.

This, then, I thought, is what it’s like to be handicapped; what it’s like to drive the electric shopping cart. Not only NOT fun, but quite the opposite.

Then, as I remounted my crutches and hobbled back to my waiting car, I realized I don’t know AT ALL what it’s like to be handicapped. In a few days, a week at most, my foot will be healed. I’ll be able to jog, go snow-shoeing, run, if I want to.

I’ll be able to walk.

Most of the folks with cars parked in the handicap spaces can’t say that.

So. I will not complain when you wheelchair guys get all the good parking spots. I will not listen kindly to business owners who gripe about the cost of putting in wheelchair ramps. I will not sigh loudly when your chair momentarily gets between me and the beer aisle.

What I WILL do is this: When we pass on the street, in the grocery, wherever … when we do that, I will see you.

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