Living with the daily physical struggles of being disabled is enough for anyone to deal with. When I became officially disabled in 2002 I had already been sick for five years and was becoming more and more accustomed to the physical and mental stress of my situation. I thought when I won my fight for permanent disability with Social Security that somehow things would be easier to deal with. Sadly, I was in no way prepared for the reactions John Q. Public had to my being disabled.
I knew that being forty and physically challenged would be difficult, but I never realized how often I would deal with other’s ignorance of my situation. For example, something as simple as a trip to the grocery store turns into an exercise in turning the other cheek. I have a rare disease that has greatly affected my ability to stand or walk for any length of time. I can walk from my car into the store, but once I’m inside I need to ride in one of the motorized carts to do my shopping. That sounds completely logical I’m sure and it is. Unfortunately, the general public just can’t seem to understand that a fairly young woman should be riding in “one of those carts”. Fueling the general public’s opinion is the fact that I’m not only disabled, but I’m overweight. My disease has limited my ability to exercise tremendously and as a result I’ve gained weight. Certain medications has added to the weight gain. Subsequently, I’ve been in the grocery store shopping and actually had people comment to one another that the only reason I’m using “one of those carts” is because I’m fat. It is probably hard for some people to believe that a complete stranger could be so insensitive and cruel but trust me, they can be. Not only does it happen, but it happens on a regular basis. I honestly can’t tell you when the last time I went shopping was that I didn’t hear a negative comment or get disapproving stares down each and every isle.
I’ve been trying to think of ways to deal with this issue without being bitter and believe me it has not been an easy task. At first I thought maybe I should print up some business cards with my name on them, and instead of a job title it could say “Disabled Person”. Then I could list all my diseases on the back of the card for the reader’s reference. For the last diagnosis I would list “clinically obese, but that’s not why I’m riding in this cart”. Then, whenever I am out shopping and I get the inevitable stare or rude comment I could just pull out one of my business cards, hand it to the offending public citizen and ride away into the sunset on my motorized cart. I’ve often wondered what their reaction would be to such a gesture. I may never know. I also applied the same concept to having a T-shirt made with the same general information on it. That way I wouldn’t even have to exert myself by pulling a card out of my purse, thus saving my ever dwindling energy. The thought of actually acting upon either of the above ideas was very appealing until I realized that I would have to be doing that for the rest of my life. There would always be someone who had not previously received my card, or read my T-shirt. I now realize that they key to dealing with this issue isn’t in informing others of their ignorance, but helping myself to deal with it.
The following are tips on how to effectively deal with the emotional roller coaster being a disabled person in public can put you on.
1. If you’re being stared at in public remember that most people cannot relate to your situation unless they have lived through it themselves. We may think and hope that we would react differently if the tables were turned, but ultimately we should give others the benefit of the doubt in this situation.
2. If you hear someone make a rude or inappropriate comment about you to someone their with because they don’t think you should be using a motorized cart, the best thing to do is ignore it and chalk it up to their own ignorance. Trying to educate someone who is rude enough to make such a comment is futile. Their lack of knowledge, understanding or manners does not make you less of a person.
3. If someone has the nerve to make a rude comment directly to you or stare directly at then shake their head, you have two choices. You can be the bigger person and just ride off into the sunset without any comment, which is definitely taking the high road. Sometimes this is just impossible to do if your feelings are deeply hurt by their comments. If that is the case, then I’d suggest calmly responding by stating that you have a disabling disease hopefully they won’t ever have to know what it feels like to hear such comments. Then you can ride off into the sunset.
4. If you have a handicapped parking placard and people think you are using it illegally or don’t deserve it unless you are elderly and permanently in a wheelchair, you can calmly explain to them that not all people with disabilities are elderly paraplegics and walk away. People don’t realize that there are many illnesses and conditions that require people to park close in to their locations. Chances are that, again, unless these people experience these conditions themselves they’ll never understand.
5. Finally, when all else fails there is one thought that I carry with me always. I may be disabled and in pain 24 hours a day, but at least I know that I have the class and respect for others that the offending public in question will never have. I can die happy knowing that.
As a final thought, there are many message boards on the internet that offer support for disabled citizens. If you want to seek support from others that know what it’s like to live with your particular medical condition you can simply type the name of your condition and the words “message board” into any search engine and you will find many communities to choose from. Sometimes just being able to vent to others who know what you’re going through can help you get through anything. I know it’s helped me.