Special Treatment… and Prejudice

The theme of my blog has mostly been, and will continue to be, to truly celebrate our differences and weave them into our daily lives. I hope I am showing how we all are unique, beautiful snowflakes and all that crap… but we’re also really much more similar than we think. While most of my readers might have perfectly usable thumbs, I heard many personal stories of others hating spherical doorknobs as much as I do. Many don’t have the bony shoulders and visible perceived disability like I do, but nearly everyone has struggled with attraction at some point in his or her life.

As I write this first draft in May 2020, I am also texting with a good friend and blogging buddy, lamenting how much the world has changed in three months and how we both struggle to find the motivation we once had to write. He and I are not the only ones who have more things in common than we realize, especially now, and we all benefit from trying our best to remain positive with our outlook and working with the hands we were dealt.

I am grateful for my family treating me as if I was as capable as anyone else. Even when I wasn’t as capable, I seem to have done a pretty good job of tricking people into thinking I am! This might have become the most epic example of fake it ’til you make it I’ve ever heard. But to be serious, this is a part of the near daily battle. Part of what encouraged me to start writing this blog. Sometimes a part of how I really see people’s true character in how they react to me upon first meeting.

I learned to go out of my way to be able to do things by myself. I can open the door. I can carry the packages and books. I don’t need help moving the heavy furniture. By myself, I can put together the 2-person-required IKEA furniture. I admit that I absolutely overcompensate (yet another future post in the works) for my abilities. I’m not sure what else I have to prove to the world at this point, but I continue to make my case!

As a child, I remember a neighbor almost aggressively suggesting to my mom that we collect Social Security Disability. He had Multiple Sclerosis and was collecting SSDI himself, so he was familiar with the process. Even at 12 years old I felt offended at the suggestion. We didn’t apply. We didn’t even consider it. I didn’t need it. It’s meant for people who can’t work. Or would never be able to work. That wasn’t me.

As I progressed through my teens into the driving years, I had trouble getting my learner’s permit. The doctor performing my physical was obligated to check the box that said I had a disability that could interfere with the safe operation of a motor vehicle. Right under that box, however, she also checked the box saying that in her medical opinion, I would be able to operate a motor vehicle with no special equipment just fine. After passing my written test with a near perfect score, my paperwork “got lost” in the bureaucracy trying to figure out if I should get a learner’s permit or not. Three months, a single trip to my state senator’s office, and a valuable lesson in local politics later, I had the paperwork and could get my license.

Separately, there were several times I was asked:

“Are you going to get a handicapped license plate?”

What? Are you kidding me?? Why would I? I can walk just fine. I don’t need to park closer to where I’m going. At the time, I found the question to be ignorant or insensitive. Part of that might have been the chip on my shoulder, but I truly could not fathom why anyone (especially someone who really knew me) would ask me such a question.

As I grew older, I did see some merit to that perk. If I’m carrying heavy or awkward things, it would help to be closer to the car. But ya know what? That’s applicable to physically-typical people too. Uhm… sometimes it might be cool to park closer to an event or something? Yeah… that’s not really an appropriate use of the placard either. I can’t think of why I would deserve VIP parking because of what I look like. Still, it’s one of those accommodations that would be easily given to me if I wanted to accept it.

When I moved out on my own and did my own grocery shopping, it was a common occurrence to be asked if I wanted the Helping Hands to put the groceries in my car for me. I eventually grew to appreciate the kind gesture and honestly maybe I should have taken them up on it. It’s a service offered by the store for a reason… after fighting with spherical doorknobs and other inconveniences, maybe I’d earned that! But nah… if taking advantage of that service took it away from someone who actually needed it I would feel terrible. We should save the help for people who truly need it.

In another amazing show of good timing as I was thinking of how to transition to the next part of this post (toward the end of May at this point), a song I’ve heard a couple dozen times came up on the speaker and I actually listened to it. A beautiful, recurring lyric in the song is the perfect bridge to the next part…

Stand proud, stand strong,
And allow the love and help that comes along.

The Head and the Heart

It’s not an either-or situation here. I can be strong and proud. I can also accept the love, kindness, generosity, and help that comes along. I am allowed to sometimes accept the help that is afforded to people with disabilities. While I’ve never had to deal with navigating a wheelchair through busy city streets looking for access to the sidewalk, I’ve certainly battled my share of evil doorknobs, child-proof caps & lighters, and awkwardly climbing the shelves at the grocery store to get items from the top-shelf.

The first time I actually thought that maybe it was ok to occasionally accept the love the universe sends my way was quite accidental. While standing in line for a ride at an amusement park, I happened to be queueing behind a group with a person who was in a wheelchair. After a certain point in the line, she was fast-tracked (along with the rest of her group) to the front of the line. I’m not sure if it was for logistical reasons or a courtesy but because I was immediately behind them, the gate attendant motioned for me to follow with them. I clarified that I was not with them and gestured to my own group behind me but that made no difference. Gate attendant pushed us all through! Not one to make a scene, I quietly obliged and my group enjoyed the VIP treatment as well.

When out winery hopping with physically-typical friends, I’m often the one leaving with a case of wine and they offer to carry the case out to my car (not parked in a disabled parking spot). Nearly always I respond with my typical, “I can do it…” It took me years to realize that I wasn’t responding to the question asked. Few people are actually questioning if I am able to do something, but instead offering to do that thing because a minor inconvenience for them could be a struggle for me. No question I could actually do it … but was it worth my somewhat significant struggle if it was no big deal for someone else?

Another time I gladly accepted special treatment was when traveling with my folks. Now I’m not going to point any fingers, but someone who happened to have given birth to me wasn’t enthused about getting to the airport super early. So by the time we got there, checked bags, and made our way to security we saw an hour long line with 30 minutes left until departure. Wanting to get all of our butts on a beach, I was determined to not miss this flight.

Boarding pass in hand and rollaboard bag awkwardly in tow, I walked toward a TSA agent not currently working a station, but just watching the crowd. My intent was to ask if she knew if another line would be shorter or see if I could beg for special consideration to not miss the flight. When I was about fifteen feet away from her, she just opened the wheelchair accessible entrypoint she was standing next to for me to come through! I was surprised how much easier than expected that had been until it hit me that she opened up the entrance for people with disabilities because of how I looked. For an instant I was taken aback at this blatant prejudice, but the prospect of missing this flight made me quickly come to my senses so I gestured for my folks to follow and there we were; quickly through security and waiting to board with time to spare.

I initially thought of writing this post to share my thoughts around special treatment and how awkward it was to infrequently accept it. (Because I almost always self-advocate for my own normalcy, it seems hypocritical to then accept special treatment due to this “condition” that I so almost always say doesn’t make me any different from anyone else.) But I’ve struggled to finish the post. I’ve had the draft open in a browser tab that I refuse to close for well over a month. I shared early drafts with a few confidants to see if I was even making any sense… because while I knew it was something worth sharing, I couldn’t figure out where it was going. It’s hard to finish or follow a story that doesn’t go anywhere!

And then George Floyd died.

Now it’s been two months since I started drafting this post, and I had no idea it would journey beyond my own personal, moral dilemma of accepting help or special treatment. That special consideration I might not actually need, even though it absolutely makes things easier. I didn’t expect to eventually see it as a form of prejudice.

The narrative taking place in the world has changed. As I make the current edits in mid-June (and more again in July), things are still changing. But it remains pretty clear to me that I’ve got a chip on my shoulder about being treated differently. Even though most of the special treatment is a net positive for me, except for being thought of as needy or incapable. So while a positive one, this is still a textbook demonstration of prejudice in that some people look at me and immediately have a preconceived notion of what I can and cannot do. Even of who I am. They’re often wrong.

I do not intend to go down the rabbit hole of the Black Lives Matter movement in a single post, or at all really because it’s not something to which I can fully speak. I don’t have that experience. I am not equating my experiences to the long-standing history of racism, discrimination, and hatred toward communities of color nor do I want to diminish the existence and experience of police brutality which I am so HURTangrySADashamed at seeing so damned often.

But in absorbing the news over the past few weeks while trying to formulate my thoughts on being treated differently, I saw there was definitely a connection. The struggles are nowhere near identical, but when I made the connection I was fascinated because it came back to the purpose for my writing in the first place: to show that we have more similarities than we realize.

I’ve gone through life with people often pitying me. Assuming that I can’t perform basic tasks. They watch in amazement when I tie my shoes or touch-type significantly faster than they do. Then there’s the sizeable group who is shocked when they realize I am somewhat articulate and can hear them speak even if they don’t shout and speak very slowly.

For most of my life I’ve despised the unwanted pity and shunned special treatment. Only in recent years have I accepted special help; and often just as a matter of convenience rather than a deliberate effort to take advantage of a system intended to help those truly in need. This form of prejudice, though, is a far cry from actually being despised or looked down upon. Immediately distrusted. Thought of as a menace. Considered a suspect. All because of what you look like.

So many of us… too many of us go through life approaching situations with a predisposed perspective on how things are. But how often do we know what another human being has actually gone through? How often are we actually quite wrong our assumptions?

The commonality between my story and theirs (or maybe yours) relates to prejudice and how we view certain groups of people, often unfavorably. I am so fortunate to not have the prejudice of being a suspect. Of being a burden. Of being undesirable in society. But you know, it wasn’t terribly long ago when people with physical and intellectual differences were ostracized. We were looked at as inferior. We were considered an embarrassment and hidden from the rest of society. We were less than what society wanted from us. There are people only a few generations older than I am who might remember a friend who had a “special” sibling who didn’t go to school. Instead they were kept at home and out of sight. They were an embarrassment.

I don’t have a lot of answers with this post… but I think the point has become to trigger some questions for all of us to consider. How many bright minds are lost to prejudice? They didn’t even get a chance to be able to thrive. How many people are immediately classified into predetermined class because of how they look? How many other souls are still kept out of public sight to avoid an embarrassing outburst or the stares at the grocery store or a restaurant?

And what can we do to change this?

Do you enjoy what you’re reading? Please consider sharing with your social network. Are there any topics on which you would like to hear my experience or perspective? Leave a comment below, or follow me with the link(s) to the left!

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