We're supposed to help "the handicapped," but sometimes we don't know how.
My mother taught me something about that as she navigated the world in her wheelchair.
She'd landed in that metal chair following a stroke she'd had in her early seventies. On our annual trip to the Gulf of Mexico, a child stood on the wooden steps leading down to the beach and peeped around his father's legs to ask a question.
"What happened?" He was a worried looking boy of six or seven, staring at my mother's chair. A life-long beach walker, she was now content to sit on the wooden deck above the water, watching the waves rather than feeling them wash over her feet.
Though she was tiny and my husband could easily have lifted her, chair and all, and placed her gently on the sand at the edge of the water, she insisted on staying in her perch.
She saw the fear in the child's eyes as he looked at the wheels and handles of her chair. "I had a stoke so I can't walk," she explained to him. "This happens to old people, not children. I can't walk anymore, but I can roll," she told him, and pushed herself a bit to demonstrate.
His parents stood back, seeing that she knew how to handle the situation. And she usually did.
Being handicapped - that was a word my mother railed against - meant that some people shouted at her as though being in a chair meant she could not hear, and some people directed questions meant for her to my sister or me if we were pushing her.
"Where would she like to sit?" a restaurant hostess might ask us, and my mother, usually reticent, would pipe up, "She'd like to sit by the window."
Living in that wheel chair made my ordinarily gentle mother feisty. When one of her home caregivers said she bet my mother could stand up and walk again if she just had enough faith, my mother declared that she did have enough faith - enough to hire a new caregiver who wouldn't blame her for her predicament.
Like the restaurant hostess at the beach, we sometimes assume. We assume that people who are disabled cannot talk, or think, or make decisions. I'm guilty of this, too. A few days ago as I left my gym, an elderly woman weaving on her cane seemed to be having trouble walking in the cement parking lot of a business. I asked her if I could help.
She waved her cane in the air like a saber. "Leave me alone," she snapped in a frustrated tone. "All y'all just need to leave me alone." So I did. And, because of my mother's experiences, I tried to understand that I was assuming some things, like she couldn't get out of the car and navigate on her own, or that she would welcome the help of some able-bodied, though far-pas-young person. She had her dignity. She did not want to be somebody's good deed for the day.
A young friend of mine navigated the streets of New York in her wheel chair for many years. Strangers, most of them well-meaning, would push her across a busy avenue without saying a word, giving her an out-of-control feeling. Others would push her across a street she had no intention of crossing! She sometimes had to shout, "Wrong way!"
There's a right way and a wrong way to help, one of my former students said. She'd been wheelchair-bound since a car wreck that flung her into the roadway. The right way is to wait, watch, and then ask if you can help. The wrong way is to take over. We're never too old to learn from other people, especially when we've never walked in their shoes or ridden in their chairs.