Saturday, April 18, 2015

Annoyance, Identification and Empathy


It's part of the experience of daily living for everyone. Everyone. And in many cases the annoyance is understood, people around are empathic, compassionate and supportive. I remember being in a store hearing a woman, upset that she had driven into the city to find that the section of the store she wanted to visit was under renovation, express herself and her annoyance clearly. The staff were apologetic, they made it known that they would feel that way too. In the end they all agreed that the situation was unfair. One clerk called around to where the customer could find similar products in a store nearby. It was resolved.

It wasn't resolved because of the store nearby but because the clerks there understood the frustration, identified with the woman's situation and communicated their acceptance of her annoyance as being real and the situation frustrating. It began with affirmation.


The other day Joe and I decided that we wanted to go to a particular store to do some shopping on our drive from one city to the next. It was only a wee bit out of our way and I began my work day with the idea that I'd be doing something fun and relaxing before doing the drive to the next city. When the day was over, I got into the van, and we headed to the store. When I rolled in, I could see immediately that the section of the store that I wanted to shop in was the only section of the store that was up a flight of stairs. I could see that there was no elevator. I was disappointed. I had really looked forward to this.

I expressed my frustration, politely, to the clerk. She looked at me and said, "Yeah, well, that's the way it is." I felt slapped. No compassion. No empathy. No understanding. She stood there with her arms crossed looking from me to the stairs with a 'aren't you used to this by now,' look. Joe went upstairs, after hearing what I was looking for, and he and another, nicer, clerk, brought things down to me. This is not how I shop. I like to browse. Neither Joe or the woman helping really understood what I wanted, so I thanked the clerk who'd helped and we left.

At no point did either clerk show an understanding and appreciation for the source of my annoyance. At no point did they validate that, yeah, coming to a store, indeed coming out of my way to a store, and having the section be inaccessible would be annoying. More than annoying, it was isolating. Sitting at the bottom of stairs while people ran up and down bringing me what I didn't want. Sitting there feeling the mounting frustration of the clerk who brought me a selection of things I didn't want, like she expected me to buy something because she brought them. I work too hard for my money to be buying things to make clerks happy.

I sometimes wonder if people get annoyed with my annoyance because they can't, or won't , use empathy as part of their process of understanding. They could identify with a woman, who was 'like' them. Here the clerk couldn't identify with a person 'different' from them.

I wonder if a large part of prejudice is the inability or unwillingness to be empathic with a class of people that someone devalues. I wonder if the idea of empathy, which requires a degree of emotional identification, is terrifying at the least or sullying at the worst, is actually eschewed by those who simply can't accept the essential unifying humanity of an other, a lesser.

I don't know.

But, it would have gone a long way for me and my experience of the store.

Friday, April 17, 2015


There is a certain kind of stamina required if you are going to lecture, travel, lecture, travel. I've been off the road for a few months, presenting only the occasional 'one off' conference here and there locally. Nebraska is breaking me in for the next few months when I'm travelling and speaking a lot. But YOWZA it's been a workout. Don't get me wrong, I'm loving every minute of it. I've had lovely audiences, great questions and terrific support, but YOWZA.

My blog hasn't been updated for a few days because when we finish a day, we get in a car and drive and by the time we get into the hotel, get food ordered, I'm just whacked. This isn't a bad thing though, in fact it feels very, very, good. It's that good tired that you get when you've worked hard, concentrated intensely and given it your all. So. I've been sleeping well.

On our way down, we drove so I could have my power chair, we stopped at a hotel and on checking in I was chatting with folks also in the line. They asked if I was going to the casino, I told them that I was getting to bed because I had to be up for a long drive the next day. One of them asked why I was going to Omaha, did I have family there? I said, that I was gong there for work.

A guy said, "Wow, good for you."

It seemed silly at the time. I knew he was being nice, but all the same it seemed silly.

But not now.

After all the YOWZA involved in a lecture tour, I take his comment as a compliment.

I always have a bit of a worry when I've not lectured like this for a couple of months. I worry that I won't have the energy, or the stamina, or the ability to do it. It's a deep worry. It's a worry that brings along with it a premonition of pain.


I'm here.

I've one day to go.

Then I go home.

I'm tired. Good tired. And now the worry is gone, bring on Calgary, bring on Vancouver ... in fact bring 'em all on, I'm good to go.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Where Joe Gets Goosed!

Photo Description: A blue statue of a man's face with two hands, one on either side of the face forming chairs. Set in a park. Joe is sitting on one of the hands.
Joe and I spent a day in Omaha, We'd driven from Toronto to Omaha in two days, which is a gruelling drive and needed a day to relax before beginning work. We stayed right down town in Omaha and right next, or nearly next, to a wonderful walk along the water. It was shirtsleeve weather. The walk was made accessible by a set of switchback ramps on both ends. We strolled along the water, Joe stopping to rest on an odd statue. It looked like, I told him in a huff, the statue was grabbing his butt! And he liked it!

We were able to cross over the water via a cute little bridge. It was a really, really, nice way to spend some time. Sometimes, and I'll explain this, I simply feel blessed to be living as a disabled person at a time when public spaces like this are made to be wheelchair accessible. I know that non-disabled people may feel blessed by being able to walk along the water, but they probably don't feel blessed that they have access to it. I keep trying to remind myself to not feel grateful for what I should take for granted. But, I've not conquered that yet.

Later we went over to the Old Market area for lunch. There were several places we could choose, some because they had outdoor patios, some because they were in buildings built with a flat entrance but we chose to go to Stokes simply because of the ramp. The management of the restaurant built a lovely contraption with a terrific ramp up one side and stairs up the other, both leading to the FRONT DOOR. Once inside we were greeted with great decor and a warm welcome:

Photo Description: Reception area of Stokes Restaurant with their name in some of the metal work decorations with flow through the space.
The food was amazing, the staff were great, the environment, including the bathroom, was accessible. At one point I asked to speak to the manager. They always approach with a kind of worried expression, I'm guessing people are ticked more often than they are thankful so they anticipate the worst. I just told the nice man that I chose the restaurant because of the ramp. The ramp spoke of the intentionality of welcome, not the accident of access. I appreciated it, I wanted him to know and to pass it along to the owner.

It was so comfortable there that we lingered a bit over a final pot of tea for me and a beer that was brewed in Nebraska for Joe. It was a nice day. We roamed around a bit more, did some shopping, very little of the shopping was possible because the stores were, by an large, inaccessible. We ended with having a stop at 'The Max' for a drink and we watched Jeopardy with a few others, some surprisingly, and delightfully, competitive.

I'll have 'Nice Day' for a 1000 Alex!

Monday, April 13, 2015


Photo Description: 9 rows of blue children's windmills placed in a park on grass, just coming green, in front of a tree coming into bud.
We checked into our hotel in Omaha and, as it was early enough, and as it was warm enough, went out for a stroll. We were pleasantly surprised that our hotel had a list of pubs in the Old Market area which included one LGBT spot. Right on Marriott! We made our way through town and found the pub which was both physically and attitudinally accessible. Right on 'The Max.' We were there long enough to wind down from the trip and, then, suddenly felt very tired. We said our goodbyes and left heading home a different way.

Joe noticed this glittering, madly whirling, installation of windmills. We crossed the street to see it. It was delightful. Really, really delightful. It was simple. It was joyful. Then I noticed the sign beside it. It said that April was Child Abuse Awareness month and then that powerful slogan, the one that brought me to tears the first time I saw it, "It shouldn't hurt to be a child." I looked back at the rows of windmills and now it seemed that their frenetic spinning might be an attempt to fly up and into the hands of a child who needed, just a little bit of, joy.

We walked the rest of the way back to the hotel quietly. We were tired, we'd done an eight and a half hour drive after all. But I was remembering. Remembering the time that I was called upon to measure and document a child's bruises. She had been beaten by her mother who had flown into a rage because this little girl had woken mom from a nap because she was hungry. I was given calipers so that I could get an exact measure. The child had an intellectual disability but the listlessness with which she greeted me and her frantic compliance to my requests to get a measure of the bruises which covered her arms, her lower legs, her right cheek, told me that she feared me, mistrusted me, and wanted to appease me so that I wouldn't hurt her further.

I took the paper, the one with the outline of the body and with instructions to draw the bruises on the outline indicating where violence had left it's mark. It's silly, I know, but I didn't want to bruise this paper child. I wanted, instead, for the hurt to stop. I've always been good at making up games, on the spot, for children. I didn't want the cold calipers to touch her skin until she saw them as something that could be fun. I managed to get her to measure other things in the room with them. Then, magically, the child began to emerge. She got silly with them, she wanted to measure her fingers, she wanted to measure my big, big nose. She giggled.

When I saw the child. Not the bruised and beaten little girl who had greeted me, but the child. The child who in forgetting the colours of pain on her body became unbruised, I wondered at how anyone could strike her, beat her. After the play, |I set about my work and got the drawing done. I got the bruises measured. The ones on her body, mind, not the ones on her heart, her mind or her soul. As I was leaving she asked if she could keep the toy for awhile, she wanted to measure some more things. I gave it over to her.

It shouldn't hurt to be a child.

It shouldn't hurt to be a child.

But it does sometimes.

And these windmills, twirling furiously in Omaha, are trying to stop it.

Are we?

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Being and Becoming More Careful

It's a bit of comeuppance to be faced with your own biases and prejudices all in the space of a few minutes.

Well, that may be an exaggeration, my bigotry happened, unnoticed, at first and only edged slowly into my conciousness as we drove into the setting sun in Michigan. We'd stopped for a bathroom break somewhere at a Meijers store. After so many miles I can't remember where it was we stopped. But, we'd done our shopping and were in the checkout line up. A young man in his early twenties was shopping with his father. The young man was clearly an athlete, wearing basket ball shorts and an easy grin. As I glanced around we caught each other's gaze and he smiled and nodded. I did too.

I felt his natural superiority in that smile.

I caught the, intended or not, attitude of condescension

I resented him for it.

On the way out of the store, I caught the gaze of another fellow. He was sitting on a bench waiting for someone. He wore beige pants that had seen better decades, a tight white tee shirt stretched over his belly, and big, big, boots. His face was grizzled and his shock of white hair needed taming. He gave me a quick nod and smile. I noted and smiled back.

I felt the friendliness in his gesture.

I caught the, intended or not, attitude of welcome.

I was grateful to him for it.

These interactions were so natural and so simple that I never thought of them. But, as the drive wore on and I had nothing else to think about, we weren't chatting because the van was too full of the cries of Madama Butterfly, I began to think about the old fella in the store. As it happens my mind then flipped over to the same kind of greeting given to me by the handsome young athlete.

I judged them differently.

Because of what they looked like.

That's wrong. If anyone knows that it's wrong, it's me. My thoughts about that young man are mine, they do not have a direct impact on his life. Yeah, right. Bigots say things like that don't they?

I need to be careful.

I don't want to be, I don't want to become, someone I can't respect.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

A Letter

Photo Description: Ink pen laying on papers filled with script.

Note To The Freaking World (and especially the guy yesterday who yelled at me because I was in the liquor store):

I am a stranger to you.

My disability does not give you permission to enter into my space.

Or permission to touch me.

Or permission to inform me of your opinion about me, my disability or my life.

My disability does not equal your stereotypes, there is not just one way to be disabled.

I don't care that you have a friend who's brother's cousin knew someone who knew someone who once (choose one) took a herbal remedy to cure disability; submitted their life to prayer and were healed; developed a positive attitude and miraculously walked again. I don't care, so shut up.

What I buy is not up for public scrutiny and I do not need to explain. Telling me that I don't have a right to buy beer because it's taxpayers dollars I'm wasting demonstrates not only your prejudice and your ignorance but also your comfort with your seat on the hierarchy, built by bigots, which you presume to be above me. From that vantage point you believe you have a right, as all who combine ignorance, privilege and a need to feel superior do, to comment on what I'm buying, what I'd doing, and how you perceive the decisions I make. Do you realize how small that makes you? Really, really, small.

I have the right to space.

I have a right to the space around me.

I have a right to determine if I need held and ask for it.

I don't exist for your benefit.

The fact that I can back on to an elevator, or any number of mundane skills, is not extraordinary, so you don't need to be in awe and you sure as hell don't need to compliment me on it.

If you'd rather be dead than in a wheelchair, you're wrong, you have no idea how permanent death is and how mobile a wheelchair is, so shut up.

I'm not your friend, I don't know you, so, please don't presume a familiarity that's not there.

I don't care if you are a nurse, you are off duty, so shut up.

That's all I have time for today. Yes, I have a life, I have other things to do than think about you.


Thursday, April 09, 2015

Second Time Around

A couple of years ago I made a complaint regarding accessibility with a theatre and, surprisingly, got immediate action. They called me, asked me to make a visit. When I was there they took down notes on a clip board. They asked me intelligent questions about disability and accessibility and how they could create a culture of 'welcome.' I was impressed.


Nothing happened.

My last contact with them was a phone call explaining why they couldn't do what they'd said was possible. The reason for not doing it was complicated and though I listened hard I couldn't understand what they were saying. I asked for a letter outlining the reasons for inaction, I never got one.

Then a few days ago, I got a call from a new person, from the same company, who had just started in her job, which is to ensure customer satisfaction, and she wanted to talk to me more about the complaint I had made earlier. She'd read my letter, informed herself of the request and had had a few changes made. Would I come to take a look. I was sceptical, because of the last visit but agreed to go. We set a date.

On Tuesday, Joe and I went to meet her and the fellow who had acted upon the suggestions I had made. We were warmly greeted. I saw, from the outset, that changes had been made. The accessible door, which is not visible at the entry way, now had clearly visible signage indicating where the door was. That was one of two major suggestions I had made. OK, one for one.

We went to the area where my main concern was and there, right there, the big change was made. The change made all the difference in the world. There was accessible seating where there hadn't been any before. Or, more precisely, there was seating for those of us in power chairs. I backed into space and had to hide the tears in my eyes. In my mind came this whisper: they listened. The reason that I tear up when I hear that whisper is that it's followed swiftly by a clarifier: The listened - they care.

I know that often we disabled people, and our parents and allies, complain about inspiration porn, but I have to admit that I get really inspired by those without disabilities who do things that demonstrate that they can hear, actually hear, our voices, as if we are important and equal citizens. As I then listened to the two people as they spoke about their commitment to ensure that, in essence, all means all.

I left thinking.

It's all about 'getting it.' It's all about ensuring that those who have decision making power, making decisions based on the idea that a complaint or concern raised by someone with a disability is equal in importance and holds equal value as those concerns raised by other patrons. It's about understanding that adaptions and adaptations that make a space accessible aren't gifts given to whiners but, instead, are actions towards inclusivity and therefore are the soul of welcome.

I am thankful.