I was happy when I got my wheelchair. After having been cooped up in my house for a year, unable to join my family in leisurely walks or trips to stores that didn’t provide their own wheelchairs, I was finally getting out again.
My mother wasn’t so happy. In my otherwise invisible illness, the wheelchair was something tangible she could see. The pain I had been experiencing was suddenly visible, and she didn’t like accepting that her daughter was sick.
I understood how she felt when I made my first outings. “What did you do to yourself?” People I sort-of knew, would approach me expecting some I-fell-off-a-roof type story.
“Well, uh,” I would stutter, “I have a rare condition...” I never knew how to explain my need for a wheelchair succinctly enough to be polite. And I always felt bad for them that they weren’t getting the blood-and-gore story they were hoping for, just a depressing story of a young-looking woman with a rare condition that no one really understood.
One day I was feeling particularly bothered, trying to sell books at a used book store with only my young daughter to help me out, when someone I didn’t recognize came up to me and practically shouted, “Are you okay?”
“Yes,” I said briskly, not even looking at her. I stewed as I handed the books over the counter. Why do people have to make a big scene? I wondered.
But she continued lingering nearby. “I’m sorry,” she said, as I turned my chair around to go look for some books. “I just started working at...” As she continued talking I realized with embarrassment that we had briefly worked together on the same campus. She had seen me around but hadn’t known anything about my illness or why I had suddenly disappeared from campus. She was truly concerned about me. Not just curious. Not just looking for a blood-and-gore story. She was concerned.
Since then, I’ve realized that what people want from someone in a wheelchair isn’t just blood and gore. What they really want is inspiration.
See, most everyone is struggling from some sort of invisible ailment. Whether it’s health issues, or relationship issues, problems at work, or problems with money, everybody has something they are trying to overcome--and they want to see others overcoming.
These days, when I’m out in my wheelchair, I try to make eye contact and smile with as many people as possible. It seems to make their day. Though it may seem like a small thing, I may be giving them the inspiration they need to smile and overcome their own ailments.