Observations on Wheels - part 2 - 6/16/05
The reason I bring up Brian's story is because it provides the background for an interesting social observation made by Brian and our mutual friend Sean a couple weeks ago. Brian and Sean were at a bar together, and for one reason or another (possibly involving dark humor), Sean and Brian decided to switch chairs - Brian in Sean's seat, and Sean in Brian's wheelchair. All was fine and good until an old college friend of Sean's entered the bar.

Now, Sean hadn't seen this girl in several years, and in light of the couple of beers he'd just had, he decided it would make a solid prank to wheel himself up to his old friend and see how she reacted. He did, and her reaction was one of immediate shock, followed by uncomfortably avoiding the subject, until Sean explained that he'd been in a car accident since college and could no longer walk. Then the reaction shifted to one of embarrassment and masked pity, until Sean rose from the wheel chair and admitted that he'd just been making the whole thing up, at which point the reaction shifted to stunned amazement, followed by livid offense, followed eventually by laughter. It's amazing what a variety of responses you can manufacture with a simple wheelchair.

The experiment gained another dimension as Sean returned to the wheelchair and, for the next couple of hours, wheeled himself around the bar to accomplish ordinary tasks such as using the bathroom and ordering a drink. To get through crowded areas, Sean would have to tap people's legs to get them to move, since he couldn't reach their shoulders. This produced an interesting phenomenon. Upon getting touched on the leg in a crowded bar, most people will immediately whirl around angrily to see who would dare act so improperly. Upon discovering that the tapper is someone in a wheelchair, most people's ire will then abruptly shift to a mixture of surprise and guilt, generally followed by an overstated effort to get out of the way, and move every other person and obstacle in the area out of the way as well, often much further out of the way than necessary. Sean would then proceed through the wide berth, bombarded from all sides by profuse apologies from people who would have, if Sean had not been in a wheelchair, merely snorted their annoyance and moved as little as possible to let him squeeze through.

We treat disabled people differently, then feel guilty about it. We also pity disabled people, and then feel guilty about this, too, as if it's going to make us treat them even more differently. So generally we just try to avoid this dissonance by pretending the disability isn't there at all. Clearly, people who are disabled don't want pity, and don't want to be treated differently. But I don't think they want their situation totally ignored, either. There's a fine line, and perhaps that's where Brian's humor comes in. By taking a subject like this head on, you bring it to its necessary light and diffuse this dissonance before it begins. There's nothing wrong with supporting a sensitive subject with a platform that brings us all together - humor - instead of looking at it as something that keeps us all apart.

The only thing wrong is Sean pretending to be handicapped and getting to cut in line for the bathroom.

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