I was sobered by a conversation I had a few weeks ago with a lady behind me in a line at a pastry shop in Cambridge, Mass. Ok, ‘sobered’ isn’t quite the right word (sleep deprivation has been proven to negatively affect word choice) because I’ve never taken disability or inaccessibility lightly. The talk was transformative. At once I felt a bond with this complete stranger and an eery loneliness.
The bond was fueled by an acute awareness of the inaccessibility of the built environment (disability rights jargon for infrastructure and architectural layout) and a sense of futility within a society that has struggled to allow equal rights for all — wheelchair/cane/scooter/crutches or not.
I was visting friends at Harvard and they were pushing me in my transport chair as we explored Cambridge and Boston. After a long day of hard work on the part of my friends (wheelchair and cobblestone are incompatible), we stopped at the aforementioned pastry shop to get a birthday cake.
Yes, we stopped…right outside of the store…because there was no way to enter with the wheelchair. In an awkward moment in which I felt both grateful that I could get up from the chair and enter the store and appalled that people with completely limited mobility could not do so, I “outted” myself as a person with an invisible disability (or a potential malingerer).
In line and back in the chair (apparently it takes one of my friends 25 minutes to pick out a birthday cake, so sitting was necessary), a middle-aged woman said she was impressed that I was managing Beantown in a wheelchair. I explained that I have a decent amount of mobility but can’t walk or stand for long periods of time; I could get by and walk when necessary. Her response upset me: “Yeah, we’re on vacation here from Florida and we had to leave our older daughter at home with a caretaker because we couldn’t imagine navigating this area with a power chair.”
A deep sense of empathy, combined with an unhealthy dose of guilt about my “shade-of-grey” disability (you’re welcome, E. L. James) and an anger at the somewhat nebulous concept of society and the minds and bodies that comprise it, led to an instant connection.
A connection forged by exclusion.