Oh Say Can You See–From Below?

Crowds are hard for me.  I have a mild claustrophobia–I need to know I can get out, get to an exit.  I’m short and can’t stand on my tiptoes anymore, so I can’t ever see much beyond my body space.

When we went to Washington, DC, in January, 1993, for Bill Clinton’s Pre-Inauguration, I upset my family when I refused to push up into the crowd to get closer to the concert and speeches.  I told them to go ahead and I would wait by the big tree and they could find me afterward.  My daughters, 12 and 14, started walking off.  (Surprise.) My husband called them back, asking me if I was sure I couldn’t go closer.  He told them we all needed to stay together.  The girls glared at me.  We could kind of see everything on one of the big screens.

My friend Sarah asked me to go see Michelle Obama at UNC-Greensboro.  She lives within walking distance (for her not me) of Fleming Gym.  After some discussion of my limitations, (we needed to walk about 5 blocks and then stand for several hours) she offered to push me in a wheelchair.  She offered because she wanted me to go.  I was humbled by her generosity.  I really wanted to go so I swallowed my pride and said yes.

Sarah and I started on our Michelle Obama adventure.  The doors opened at 11:00, we got there at 11:10 (she was to speak at 1:15) and got into the line for disabled people.  They let all of us in first and guided us to a section to the right of the stage.  The other line stretched for blocks in the hot sun. Sarah and I ended up in the front row. She sat in a chair beside my wheelchair.  A railing, 10 feet of floor and a (female!) Secret Service agent separated us from the stage.  All the people outside our “fence” had to stand crowded together and many couldn’t see well.

I felt guilty.  I knew I couldn’t walk 5 blocks and then stand on my own for several hours. But I don’t usually think of myself as disabled so I felt like a cheater.  Until the end.

After her speech, Michelle Obama came down from the stage and started working her way around, shaking hands with the volunteers who had special tickets to be up close.  When people figured out she was headed for our section, they slipped under the little barrier and filled in the small open space in front of the wheelchairs.  Four rows of people slid in front of me.

I felt my mild claustrophobia stirring– I sat in my wheelchair, completely surrounded by standing people.  They stepped over my foot rests (almost falling on me) and rarely even looked down at me or spoke.  A few said “I’m sorry” but they still stood in front of me.  Rude.  I saw the top of Michelle Obama’s hair and her bald Secret Service agent’s head.

Ride in a wheelchair sometime in a public place.  You’ll see our world in a very different way–from below.  You will be invisible to many other people.

I learned curb cuts and level sidewalks and automatic door openers matter.  A lot.

So do compassion and courtesy and genuine concern for others.

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10 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Thank you for this reminder that our sensitivity and compassion need to be activated, always.

  2. Robin, I am a short one as well. Two summers ago I had surgery on my foot and last summer I had surgery on my knee. When I went to the store I had to ride one of the battery operated carts. People seemed angry and annoyed at time that I was in their way or going to slow. I was confused by the treatment. After all those huge triple sized shopping carts made to look like a kid is driving a car around the store take much more space and are more annoying ( at least I don’t cry and scream) than my buggy.
    Thanks for sharing this.

    • This is great–I love “I was confused by the treatment.”

  3. Well said, Robin.

  4. My two months in a wheelchair showed me how inaccessible the world can be. It was a great lesson in the difficulties others face–and I had the reprieve of getting out of the chair and walking again. Most are not that lucky.

    • I am very grateful I could stand up when I got home from our adventure. I think everyone should spend one day riding in and then one day pushing a wheelchair. And I’m very glad for your recovery.

  5. It’s amazing that at times it takes measures such as utilizing a wheelchair to remind us of what should come so natural to us like compassion, respect, sensitivy to others situations, disabled or not… thanks for sharing Robin.

    • I’m thankful I don’t need the wheelchair all the time. And, with rheumatoid arthritis, I’m well aware that not all disabilities (or pain) are visible. One more reason not to judge or limit our compassion, huh?


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