Saturday, August 16, 2008

Some Consideration, Please?

This Is NOT Jesse “Doc” Wendel Pictured Above...But That Damn Sure Looks Like His Cane...

It was a little over a month ago when I got the call from my brother. He was at the hospital emergency room after badly—really, really badly turning his ankle in a pick-up basketball game on East 21st Street. He'd for an instant folded the foot so far inward that his instep managed to almost kiss his inner ankle. The sucker had now blown up with swelling, near-radiant heat and of course, pain and immobility. He just knew he'd broken something. But, it turns out he didn't—although the doctor told him he'd have been better off if he had. Grade 3 sprain high and low on the ankle, and a clutter of bone chips discovered via X-Ray and MRIs. Soft cast for two-plus weeks, but no surgery. Just lots and lots of physical therapy and the doc said, “You'll be laying off the basketball from here on out with those chips floating around—unless you want surgery.” Being forty-plus like me, little brother weighed living without basketball—which he only played maybe three times a year these days—or going through the surgery and the longer rehab behind it.

B-ball was ditched, and the therapy and healing was begun. was going to be crutches for the immediate time he could put NO support on the foot, and after that for a few weeks, he would require a cane for extra support once the swelling had subsided a bit. The crutches were one thing in getting about. They signaled injury. The cane that came later however, was a much different story.

The doctor wrote him up for the standard, hospital-issue-grey number. Metal-reinforced, with the matte black rubber end.

I got a call from him one night near the time he normally leaves work, asking me to meet him there. So I did, figuring he wanted to talk, and I was right. But my assumption about the talk's subject was, shall we say...unexpected.

We sat down and he talked about how getting around on the cane had altered his perceptions of things. That cane signaled not “injury” to folks, but “infirmed”, and worse yet, “being unable to handle his business” to random people he'd been running across in recent days. Folks who would walk right by a fully-healthy him or not bother him at all he felt were looking at him differently. The unspoken, usual personal space he commanded without so much as a blink was now being challenged because he was moving slower and with less ease. People's patience was shorter as they moved around him with audible sighs and grunts of frustration. “How dare he impede their way and their day?” And then, there were the ne'er do wells who wouldn't think for a second about messing with the fully-able six-foot-three him, folks who now seemed a little more snarly and ready to pounce. He lives in a rough neighborhood, and getting home late a night—never a big deal before, was now an issue for him.

He wanted me to walk him home from the bus stop.

He called the hospital-issued cane a “vic stick”—meaning that to those inclined to do harm and take liberties, that cane screamed “victim” to them. Ouch. So, he posed a question as we traveled. Through my years in TV and theatre, I've accumulated a trove of odd props and things. He remembered I had a couple of really nice canes—in particular, a polished, tapered, cherry-wood one with a horse's head carved out of the curl at the top. “I need something that looks know, like I have a problem.” So, the next day, I brought him the cherry-wood jobbie and he was ecstatic. “They'll think twice about being stupid, now.”, he said.

“You don't know,” he continued. “I'm only gonna be using this thing for a couple a' months. I wonder how people who have to use a cane all the time deal with the fucked-up way people treat 'em. 'Cause people ARE fucked up when you can't get around well. Believe that shit.”

Fast forward a couple of weeks to Netroots Nation. A thing I noticed was that there were a number of folks in attendance who were disabled to varying degrees, whether they were in wheelchairs, or on scooters, or using canes or walkers. You may have read Maggie's tale of getting about with me helping out a bit in her piece, “The Chair Whisperer”. Austin, for all of it's wonderfulness—and it is a wonderful city—is going through all manner of urban infra-and-outer-structural work. A lot of it on the city's streets, which made it a challenge for disabled folks navigating the downtown section without assistance. Curb-cuts gone wild. Ending in drops, or steep, newly-tarred and graveled mini-berms screaming “thou shalt not pass”. Steep inclines—some temporary, and others always there, with not enough care taken as to who might find themselves facing them. Maggie and I managed it, but it was challenging at moments, to say the least. There were no ill words from folks—at least none that I heard—or to me, any evident negativity or stupidness directed our way, as I piloted, balanced and scouted while Maggie rolled proud. But still there was that uncaring insofar as the plotting and implementation of the work around town. Every pedestrian wasn't going to be Bob-fucking-Beamon in 1968 and be able to long-jump a chasm of loose gravel and rocky terrain to cross the damned street.

Yet, there it was. Roadblocks of un-feeling, and a lack of consideration that probably keeps a lot of folks who the world is better for when they can get out among us easily, hemmed up in their homes where we'd never get to actually meet them. Bluntly, that blows.

And what happened to Jesse while we were down there blew like a hurricane roaring up from Galveston Bay.

He uses a cane. But not a so-called “vic stick” like my brother got, nor a carved, polished one that powerful men of the gilded age would thrash a “lesser” with should one offend them. Jesse's cane is a long, knurled, natural wonder—fallen from some huge tree, its edges softened by time and usage, and resembling not a little bit, the staff Charlton Heston's Moses used in “The Ten Commandments”. It ain't a vanity piece, as years of hard physical activity, injuries and the vagaries of the human body have taken their toll on Doc. Lugging a heavy computer bag around Austin, and to and from an airport, along with secondary luggage with a knee screaming “Hi, there's no cartilage here anymore—pay no attention to that grinding bone-on-bone feel / sound you're experiencing now buddy.”, is a bitch-and-a-half. Let me say right here that he and I don't share a nervous system, but I know Goddamned well he was in a world of pain. When you see a guy squinting hard and suddenly with every left-footfall after a certain point in a series of days, or stopping at the bottom of a staircase he'll have to ascend as you hear a barely audible “Fuck.”, that person is hurting. It ain't pretty.

And you might think folks'd be if not considerate, at least not totally fucking stupid when they come across someone who's clearly in more difficulty than most folks. Maybe they wouldn't say patently dumb-ass things, or put the challenged person in the unenviable position of having to defend themselves verbally.

But my God...they do.

It's me and Jesse riding down in the elevator alone for a few floors. Been a long, hard day. From the 26th floor to about the 18th, we're alone—me against the back wall, him bracing himself on his cane, just looking forward. Elevator stops and a few people get on. Young and old. But there's a woman, no identifying tag / lanyard, and clearly not a Netroots-er—in maybe her mid-to-late twenties who gets on with a friend, and as we begin to to move down the floors to the lobby, there's the usual murmuring amongst the various groups. She however, looks at Jesse, looks at his cane, looks at Jesse again, and then with not a shred of shame or a moment's consideration, points at the cane and asks as bluntly as you please...

“Hey...what's that for?”

It was hot in Austin over those days. And plenty warm in that elevator. But son-of-a-bitch if the temperature in that sucker didn't drop fifty fucking degrees when she let fly with that bit of unfeeling stupid. All murmuring stopped. You could almost hear the subtle sound of seven people's lower lips “thwupping” against their chins as their jaws dropped open. I slumped back in the cab, silently screaming at this woman, “What the fuck-what the fuck-what the fuck-what the fucking-fuckity-fuck were you thinking?” Dead silence in the elevator. I don't think Jesse even blinked. Or breathed. He said, in a flat monotone...

“It helps me to walk.”

No yelling. No snarl. Just a flat-ass reply designed to hang in the air as simple words that would point out to all present how the ones that preceded them were so mind-numbingly dumb.

No one else said a mumbling word as the floors ticked by. It was uncomfortable to say the least. The temperature continued to seem to drop as we descended. I looked down at the floor, thinking how the seconds were stretching into what felt like hours and how if we took any longer, Jesse would eventually show this dolt another capacity of a gnurled, wooden cane—namely, its amazing knock-her-watery-seven-ounces-of-brain-clear-out-her-right-earhole feature. But thankfully, it never got to that. The elevator “dinged”, and we were in the lobby—still no one speaking as we went our separate ways, until we were all about forty feet away. I could see stupid-head talking to her friend now, probably asking “Wha' hoppen?”, but I was alongside Jesse twenty feet away and frankly, I didn't know what to say. He sighed. Long and loud as he walked now.

“I cannot believe how fucking stupid that was. I'm!

It was okay to share now, so I chimed in about how the elevator temperature plunged to “Ice Station Zebra” levels. But Jesse was just getting warmed up. He was shaking his head and his cane was “thoomping” noticeably louder than normal with the woman's offense driving the stabs to the floor that much harder.

“If I'd been as rude to her, and said something really fucked-up about her appearance, do you know...the hell I would have caught? Do you know the hell I would have caught? Jesus! But as far as she's concerned, what she did was her just being inquisitive. Do people even think?”

No. We all too often don't.

These events, my brother's eye-opening injury, getting around with Maggie, and the dunder-headed diss on Jesse all happened within a couple of weeks of each other. And their coming so close together made me think about something that I, as a relatively fully able-bodied person in spite of my trying to be sensitive to people have tended to overlook—namely the way the greater society, those of us able to easily get from one place to another pain-and-disability free make this world an immensely harder place for our challenged fellow citizens. We are too often not patient, and treat these folks like annoying, inanimate speed bumps in our path between here and the places we want to get to. These are people—not potholes or barricades to be growled at and brushed past crudely. And they are NOT hyper-potential marks to lick our chops over and kick in the teeth because they may be less able to defend themselves. Anyone is one step away from being less-abled. Our last night in Austin, I spoke to one of my favorite commenters Preznitgivmeturkee and he told me of a single casual misstep on a ladder causing him to blow out his ACL and MCL in about...oh a second and a half. Depending on your age and physical condition when something like that goes down, you could rebound fully, but you could also find yourself in constant pain, and your mobility lessened because of the physical limitations of the damage. Steps can be a nightmare. High curbs and inclines too. You may need a brace, or a cane—or perhaps a brace and a cane. And if you're under-insured as many Americans are...well, you get my point. The person you chuckle at as slow-moving, or pick on because their self-defense might be hampered could be you with one bad step.

We're also unthinking as a nation in how we plan, renew and re-build our cities. We tear up streets and sidewalks, and callously build anew without thinking about the breadth of who will be traveling said streets and using said buildings and facilities. There was a time when disabled Americans either stayed exclusively at home because of the stigma of not being classically-able was overwhelming or got around in the shadows so as to not draw undue attention. And those well-off and well-connected less-able like FDR had the rare opportunity to cow the powers-that-be into never citing their disability publicly, which helped them in the short run, but damaged their fellow challenged citizens by denying the reality that one could serve the public, or live an open public life while disabled. These days, people with disabilities don't shut themselves away, thank God. They work alongside us in the greater population, traveling, contributing and enriching us all. But we don't make that any easier when we throw literal roadblocks before them via unthinking infrastructure work and after-the-horse-is-out-of-the-barn, slap-dash retro-fitting of structures and thoroughfares. It's stupidly selfish and short-siighted. And yeah...any way you slice it—flat-out discriminatory. It needs to stop.

Lastly, we need to take a minute to put ourselves in the other person's shoes when it comes to simple courtesy and compassion. When you see someone who may even only appear to be disabled, a moment's thought should be enough to figure out whether it's kosher or not to ask odd questions about their wheelchair, or scooter, crutches or cane. If it looks like it might be one of those things, saying dopey shit like “Hey, can you do a wheelie in that?” (I've heard this actually said), or “Shit. I've been walkin' all day. I could use one of those.” (Said to a scooter-user), goofing about “A Christmas Carol's” Tiny Tim, or yes, asking idiotic questions about a device someone is using to support themselves is pretty much fucking with people's dignity. Would you ask a person with vitiligo callous questions about their complexion? Or a woman with a large facial scar about whether she gets dates with that on her face? “Just askin' lady.” No. You wouldn't. Because that kind of shit is not just stupid, but kind of evil when you think about it. And asking people to answer for physical infirmities they have no control over is to put them in an absurdly untenable position, as well as an unfairly defensive one.

But still...people do it. I see 'em do it. I saw 'em do it. And Jesse felt 'em do it. The experience of which just kicks my seeing it happen dead in the ass.

So I ask you the readers of this to have some consideration...please. And as I think the vast majority of you are pretty sensitive to the feelings of your fellow man and are already considering of folks, it wouldn't hurt to expand that circle of consideration beyond yourselves to people you see being less so. Don't prompt confrontations...but do remind those who overlook things that we're all people here, with equal value on this planet. If you see a curb-cut the city has chopped up beyond recognition through street repairs, a call to said city's agencies in charge of that with a well-worded complaint and request to fix it is helping someone out—trust me. If you spot someone singling out a disabled person to be picked on or potentially “jacked”, call for help proactively. And if the situation is already in progress, do what you can to defuse it by calling out or even yelling “Five-O's comin'!”—anything you can to stop the attack.

And lastly, teach your kids, and yes—even your ill-informed adult friends who have no tact—that there are out of bounds questions and statements one should not direct willy-nilly towards disabled people. Jesse half-joked about a thing called “Gimp Etiquette”—where you help a disabled person as much as they request or need, not as much as you deem necessary. You don't touch their cane or wheelchair without permission. When those things are in use, or really, even nearby, they're sort of extensions of their bodies. It's personal space. You ask if a person needs assistance, and if they say “yes”, ask what they want you to do. This etiquette extends to what you may ask them about their issue. If it's not about assistance and is snarky or a pun, or just on the level of “Duh? What's that?”, it's probably an offensive statement—end of discussion. Better to go home and crack wise as you pass by mirrors in the house if you must say something stupid to someone.

Because it beats the holy hell out of finding out “up close and personal” about the amazing knock-the-watery-seven-ounces-of-brain-clear-out-your-right-earhole feature of a briskly swung cane. Which can happen to a person when they think it's okay to insult a disabled person in a crowded elevator—and if said elevator is maybe just a little less crowded.

Take my word for it.