My Day in a Wheelchair
As most of you probably remember, when I was in Australia I tore a calf muscle and spent several days on crutches and have since been using a cane to get about. The good news is that everything’s healing as it should — at this point I’m keeping the cane around as a precautionary measure — so as far as Adventures in Temporary Disability go, this has been likely a best-case scenario.
That said, I did have one relatively brief moment where I got the smallest of glimpses of what I suspect mobility-impared people go through on a regular basis. It happened when I was traveling back from Australia to the US, and I, in an overabundance of caution, asked for (and got) wheelchair assistance to get around the two airports I was going to be in: Melbourne and Los Angeles.
I will note that initially, I felt weird about asking for a wheelchair at all — my self-image is as an able-bodied person, so even though I was literally hobbling my way around, some part of my brain was “you can totally walk around this airport with several heavy bags and a leg injury!” But I decided not to listen to that voice, because that voice was stupid, as reasonable-sounding as it was inside my brain at the time.
And a good thing, because in the case of both Melbourne and Los Angeles, a) the airports are huge, and b) in LA there was the additional hurdle of customs to go through. If I had had to walk it, I suspect I would still be in Melbourne’s airport, subsisting on free wifi and Violet Crumbles. I needed the wheelchair, self-image be damned.
For the record, the first part of the wheelchair experience was pretty sweet and exactly what able-bodied people think when they think disabled people get some sort of awesome superpower: I zipped through security and customs lines super-fast, faster than I had ever done so under my own steam. Also, the Melbourne wheelchair was modern and electric powered and I felt vaguely like Professor X being carted around on it (the Los Angeles wheelchair was probably older than I am and the poor woman they assigned to it could barely push me up ramps. I tipped her hugely at the end). It was just like being a first-class passenger! Only cheaper and I didn’t even have to get up!
But then — well. So, in Los Angeles I’m at the baggage carousel and my wheelchair is parked so I can point out my bags to the woman helping me. And of course bags are coming round and people are grabbing them, anxious to get them and get the hell out of the airport, which I can totally understand, since LAX is a terrible airport all the way around.
The thing is, when they’re grabbing them, the conveyor belt is still moving, and the people tugging at them are starting to cross into my personal space, shoving into my wheelchair and pushing it around to get at their bags, rather than, say, letting go of the goddamned piece of luggage for just a second to go around me and grab it on the other side. And when they did haul the luggage off the carousel, they managed to smack it across my wheelchair, knocking me about.
The first time it happened, I was, like, whatever. The second time I got annoyed. The third time, the guy hauling the piece of luggage off the carousel actually clocked me in the head with it, at which point I stopped being patient and said “Are you actually fucking kidding me?” to him.
At which point the man was entirely mortified and abjectly apologized, because in fact he was probably not a horrible person. He just didn’t seem to notice that as a guy in a wheelchair, I was mobility-impaired and couldn’t move out of his way like an able-bodied person could. He just didn’t factor me into his worldview, which at the time was laser-focused on getting his luggage and getting the hell out of Dodge. As a result, he literally battered me. Quite unintentionally, to be clear. But that didn’t make my head feel any better in the moment.
I should note that my half hour being shoved about at the baggage carousel (my bags were pretty much the last ones off the plane) does not give me any authority to speak to disabled issues at all. What I am saying, again, is that for a very brief and limited slice of time, I got to experience what it’s like to be someone who is disabled and how people — normal, presumably not terrible people — deal with them in their world. It wasn’t, shall we say, an entirely positive experience.
It is something, however, I’ll remember when I am fully able-bodied again.