Updated: Sep 1, 2020
Ableism is insidious. It’s one of those things you don’t necessarily give much thought to until you have to and it shows up in sneaky ways.
Do you ever get annoyed at all the handicap parking spots taking up all the “prime” parking? Ableist.
Have you ever opted not to shovel your sidewalk because you just couldn’t be bothered? Fuck all those people with mobility issues who use that sidewalk… amiright?
These are only small examples of physical ableism. They don’t touch on mental ableism or cultural ableism and they certainly don’t even scratch the surface of how intensely all 3 types show up in our society, but for the purpose of this blog, I’ll leave it there for now.
I was well aware that walking was becoming increasingly difficult and my ability to use momentum to get me through was running thin. I could “walk” for quite some time, but once I stopped, it was anybody’s guess what would happen when I stood back up again. It was becoming more and more frequent for my hips to buckle underneath me. Things were getting more turbulent by the day.
I’ll never forget the day I was leaving Florence, Italy to head up to Bressanone to move in with that family I connected with on Workaway.
I had to walk all over creation, with my luggage, to drop off my AirBnB key. Of course my cellular service wasn’t ideal and it was rather early morning, so I was struggling to connect with an Uber, which meant my option was to keep walking until the stars aligned and I could find a cab, which I
eventually did. But every step I put on my hips was mileage felt for the day. It counted.
I can’t remember how many train transfers I had that day. Probably 2 or 3, but one of them I remember distinctly because I had to "run" to make it. Running involved hauling ass down a hefty flight of stairs, down a lengthy hallway, up another hefty flight of stairs to another platform, and stumbling onto what was hopefully the correct train. I had to do all of this with a rolling suitcase, my book bag and a tote bag.
I was physically incapable of running (I still mostly am). It was more or less me leaning heavily on my rolling suitcase, doing something reminiscent of a gallop. Then there was the point when I had to heave all my shit up that steep flight of stairs to get up to the train platform. I couldn’t go up any flight of stairs without hanging onto the railing for my life, with or without luggage in tow. So I grasped the handrail with one hand and my suitcase with the other and somehow drug us both up those stairs. There was a lot of panting, a fair amount of sweating despite the cold temperatures, but we made it.
Can a girl get a fucking elevator?
I took this video after my gallop. Trying to play it cool.
When I arrived in Bressanone it was a snowing mightily. I got off the train apprehensively as I looked around at all the snow, ice, people and stairs. This was my literal nightmare. My hips were done for the day, but I still had miles to go before I could rest, and I was about to meet the total strangers I was going to be living with, so ideally, I needed to be at my best. Good thing I had a lot of practice putting on a brave face.
They were waiting for me at the top of another large set of stairs. Stairs. Always with the stairs.
I sucked in a deep breath, grasped yet another handrail and as gracefully as I possibly could, drug myself and my bag up them one by one. I swallowed the pain like a giant lump in my throat, smiled big, and gave hugs to my new host family. I matched their energy. The last thing I wanted was for my host to know she was bringing some stranger with unknown mobility issues home. That’s not what she signed up for.
Italy is not a friendly place for people with mobility issues. I’m just gonna go ahead and say it. There are stairs everywhere. There aren’t many ramps. There’s a lot of cobblestone and uneven pavement, narrow sidewalks, entryways, you name it. It’s ancient. It is what it is.
My new home for the next 7 weeks was a lovely 3rd floor walk up. Aah yes, more stairs. Grin and bear it. Grin and bear it.
Of course I couldn’t hide my limp from people I was living with 24/7. When my host asked after me I told her it was arthritis and made light of it. “No big deal!” Again, if I say it’s not a thing, it’s not a thing and again, I didn’t want to be a burden on other people.
Let’s pause right there and address that line of thinking. “I don’t want to be a burden on other people.” Never in my life would I think someone with mobility issues is a burden. Never. And yet, when it came to myself being the one with mobility issues, I was overcome with fear about putting other people out. It was fine for other people to not be able-bodied. It wasn’t fine for me.
So, fast forward about 2 months later, I was trekking down the eastern coast of Spain with my friend Erin when my resolve finally dissipated.
Step one of this dissipation was finding out I needed my left hip replaced. Okay, so now I at least knew there was a legitimate problem. That gave me some small sense of validation. Step two happened on our first full day in Valencia, Spain. We set out on foot to explore and wound up wandering much farther than either of us anticipated.
I have no regrets about that day because we ended up discovering this incredible little town right on the water that felt like something right out of a storybook. We chatted and strolled and strolled and chatted. We got lost, but blissfully so. Eventually though, we were very off the beaten path and very far from our hostel.
The next day, things weren’t looking good. I wanted to go exploring again, but I was barely walking. Had the time finally come? Was this it? I’d finally cashed in my final “momentum will get me through” ticket and I was going to have to face it.
It’s important to note that Erin and I hadn’t been friends for long at this point. We’d only met once prior to this Spanish adventure, at a halloween party back home. But, she was living in Barcelona at the time and when I decided to come to Spain, we decided to go on an adventure together. Some how, I hit the jackpot of friends because Erin is a fucking trooper, but more on that later.
We managed to find a medical supply store in Valencia and it was there that I acquired my trusty periwinkle crutches for around $50. Just like that, our adventure together began - me and my “purple walking sticks,” as my niece eventually dubbed them.
The first feeling I felt was fraudulent. I felt like an imposter. I felt like people were staring. I felt stupid. I felt dramatic.
I was only right about one of those things and that was the part about people staring. People do stare. It’s not my imagination. They do. I think that’s what I hated the most. Even though I walked with a limp before my crutches, I still felt like I could maintain some sense of anonymity. Once I had those crutches, my disability was out there for people to gawk at as they pleased. Not to mention, doing everything was a pain in the ass once I had them.
Nothing was easy.
Want to go into a little shop and look around? Cool. Oh, look at this cute thing you want to buy! How do you plan to carry it around the store when you’ve got a crutch in each hand? Time to pay for your stuff? Awesome, just gotta balance these crutches somewhere so I can get my bag off my back and fish out my wallet before -- fuck my crutches fell over. More stares.
Want to go out to eat? Awesome! Tables are pretty close together though. Go ahead and wiggle your way between your table and the next one (which is full of people), with your crutches, and then find somewhere to put them that is out of the way, where they won’t fall over, or get tripped over and make sure you don’t accidentally hit anyone while you’re at it.
Walking in a crowd? No one watches where they’re going. Ever. I will say, the crutches were quite advantageous for this. Before the crutches, crowds were dangerous for me. If someone bumped into me too hard, there was a legitimate risk of me falling. With the crutches, if someone bumped into me, there was a legitimate risk I’d take them out with my crutch, on purpose.
The thing I noticed more than anything though, was that once I had my crutches, people felt totally free to ask me what was wrong with me. Total strangers, or close to it. Cashiers at the grocery store, waitstaff, some random person in some random line. It was like people felt my disability gave them some unremunerated access to me.
If they weren’t asking me rude questions like “What’s wrong with you?” they were still staring. None more likely than when I was using the electric carts at the grocery store.
If giving in to needing crutches was a step in the right direction, succumbing to the electric cart at the grocery store was expert level acceptance. Let me tell you, I felt like a tool. By this time I was back in the States, staying with my girlfriend at the time. She and I headed to Kroger one day and we’d already discussed that I needed to use one of the carts. I was apprehensive. She wasn’t having it.
“You need it. You’re using it. End of story,” is what she said. Or, something to that effect.
I was out of control on that thing. I cut several corners too tight, knocking signs out of the way and dragging produce shelves along with me, but after a little bit I started to get the hang of it. My ex made things easier as we laughed and joked our way through the store. She didn’t care at all to be seen with me in an electric cart, it was just another day in the life.
Of course, despite being way out in the suburbs, a solid 25-30 minutes from where I had once lived, I ended up running into someone I used to work with and hadn’t seen for well a year, whose first question was, “WHAT HAPPENED TO YOU?!” upon seeing me driving the cart. Lord have mercy, isn’t that just the way?
I didn’t realize how concerned I was with optics until I could no longer walk on my own. It made me feel like a dick, because as I said, I never considered myself ableist. But realizing how insecure needing mobility help made me, showed me just how ableist I actually was.
Eventually, being on crutches didn’t phase me in terms of other people’s reactions to me. Don’t get me wrong, people are annoying. But the staring, the assumptions, the dirty looks when people assume I shouldn’t need an electric cart at the store, they stopped bothering me, although admittedly, I still made sure my crutches were visible because it rendered less scowls.
I was just trying to live my life like everyone else.
Losing my ability to walk without assistance opened my eyes to things I’d never really taken a close look at -- like sidewalks being properly shoveled and the cement maintained. It also drove home the point of having an awareness of one's personal space and how much space you’re taking up when in public places (like blocking aisles in stores or restaurants).
It forced me to start accepting help, where previously I’d all but refused.
Remember my superstar friend Erin? Once I had those crutches, she took over rolling my suitcase every time we changed cities. She carried my shit when we were in stores. She walked at my pace and never complained about it. She was rock solid and never said or did anything that made me feel like I was a burden. She was everything a friend should be. Everyone should be a little more like Erin. She was there when I finally had to break through the mental barrier that stood between me and my ability to continue walking, and without knowing it, she made it all bearable.
I have my mobility back now. I’m not prideful enough to pretend it can’t be taken from me again and my stamina isn't what it used to be, but you'll have that. I’m grateful beyond measure for my ability to walk without assistance, but I also know, no matter what the future holds, if that ability is taken from me again, I’ll be just fine.
And as a final note -- Stop asking people what’s wrong with them. It’s rude.