At the age of 39, a car hit me while I walked my dogs in upstate New York. I ended up in a ditch, bleeding and battered. The diagnosis of traumatic brain injury allowed me entry into an exclusive club, one with protections passed by Congress in 1990. I should be grateful but I would rather fight traffic on Interstate 10 like everyone else on my way to work.
Instead, I rely on Social Security disability. I use a motorized scooter because walking is difficult. My memory is about as porous as the U.S. borders. Minor seizures are controlled with daily medication. Such pre-existing conditions render me uninsurable and unemployable.
Lingering problems from the accident fourteen years ago prevented my return to social work, so I re-invented myself as a writer, animal shelter volunteer and pet therapist. It’s not as thrilling as arguing a landmark case before the Supreme Court or performing at the Herberger Theatre to a sell-out crowd, but I’m satisfied. At least I’m not stuck at home.
Adjusting to life as a disabled person was a cinch compared to dealing with able-bodied people’s snippy attitude towards me. I lived in New York City for 35 years, jogged in Central Park, and worked in the South Bronx. I thought I could handle anything.
In line at a Tempe supermarket one day, a woman turned around, glanced at my scooter, and said, “I’d rather walk. Wouldn’t you?”
“I use the scooter to get a seat on the bus,” I retorted.
On the second floor of a building, a woman stared at my scooter. Approaching me, she asked, “How’d you get that thing up here?”
Flabbergasted, I couldn’t believe she asked me such a ridiculous question. “I hauled it on my back.” Then, I nodded at the elevator.
A man saw me browsing in a sporting goods shop on my scooter. I had gone in for a pair of sneakers. “What would your kind be doing in here?” he asked.
“For skis, boots and poles,” I said. “I’m headed to Vail next weekend for a race.”
If anyone else pats me on the head, I swear I’ll roll over and beg.
Inside a San Francisco gift shop, deciding what to buy for a friend, a woman with a gnarled face told me I had no business in that store. “You’re taking up too much room,” she said.
“My money is as green as yours,” I replied.
I now confront able-bodied people who park in spaces reserved for disabled drivers.
One day, I noticed a car illegally parked in a strip mall on Southern Avenue. Ready to leave her a note about parking decorum, a voice called out, “I’ll be right there. I’m disabled, too.”
I watched the supposedly impaired woman run towards her car, juggling several packages. “What doctor do you see? I want some of what you take,” I said.
I waited to try on clothing at Mervyn’s. All ten stalls were empty, except for the larger one clearly marked for disabled shoppers. I waited for a few minutes when an able-bodied shopper walked out.
“If all the other stalls were empty, why would you take this one?”
“I like this one,” she said.
“My chair doesn’t fit inside the others.”
“Get over it,” she said, spinning around on her way out.
Attitudes are the real disabilities, not my physical or cognitive impairments that shut me out of the work place. My injuries limit me so I need access to ramps, reserved parking spaces, and extra-wide bathroom stalls. I deal with my life since the accident of Jan. 6, 1994, but the ignorant remarks I’m confronted with continue to amaze me. Bad attitudes are far more disabling than my injuries.
Debra J. White is a Tempe resident.