Last week I went to a fabric store in Berkeley. It was the kind of local, organic, hippy experience that I love. A space crowded (with objects) and holding secrets and surprises. The kind of place I worry isn’t for me, any more. The wilderness equivalent of retail. And I’ve had to stick to the paved options.
Well, I managed to thread my way through it. Like a corn maze, I could only take one path to get to many of the shelves. And I found a beautiful print that will be laminated into my new leg brace. After my purchase I needed to use the restroom before driving home. A quick check up and down the street did not reveal any other promising businesses. I asked for their bathroom key and was directed to the back. I joined another woman waiting. We chatted for a bit, laughed together about the very obvious cloud of pot smoke coming from that room. I was eyeing the door, which was partially blocked, like many of the other things in the store, by a shelf of fabric.
With my companion watching I measured myself against the entrance. Wheelchair definitely doesn’t fit. She wanted to know if she could help. Something about her demeanor disarmed me. I have trouble letting most people hold the door for me. But she was looking at me like at a fellow human. There was no sign of pity and the usual barrier. I let her give me a piggy back ride into the bathroom. We were so happy afterward. Like we won a game together. She awkwardly said “thank you” to me and we both laughed. I know she felt thankful that I let her help.
Last week I was also searching for a place to stay on Maui using AirBnb. Usually I carefully look through the photos, pick a place that meets my needs, and then message the host to explain my situation and ask additional questions if I need more information about access. This time my top two choices denied my request and changed their availability when I told them I was in a wheelchair. In response to my question about beach driving distance, one woman simply said her place was not for me (it seemed perfect). A second gentleman said he just realized he was missing some paperwork. Another host said the shared kitchen would be too crowded with a wheelchair. Poor excuses. It felt like a slap in the face. My agency was taken away. All because of their anxiety over hosting somebody with a disability.
At it’s best the wheelchair is a shortcut to the kinds of genuine interactions that bring me joy. Most commonly, though, it puts up a barrier that squarely places me in “the other” category, making real interactions with strangers impossible.