Adam: What it means to be Physically Disabled

On a recent visit to a café, I was deep in conversation with a friend when without warning our talk was interrupted by a child of about 6 years old. Filled with a lack of hesitation, the young boy stated emphatically, “That’s a really cool wheelchair!”, eyes wide, near maniacal grin in tow. I smiled, happy to reply. “It’s pretty cool, right?” He scurried off without so much as another word, back to his parents, no doubt with a new toy to add to his Christmas list. As the conversation with my friend neared its end the little boy popped back into my peripheral view with new questions, curiosities, and comments. “How do you make it go?”, “What’s this button for?”, and my personal favorite “Sooo that’s how you turn it on!” Reflecting his excitement, I answered in kind. I caught a glimpse of his parents waiting for him to conclude his interview. “Come on Max”, they said, coaxing him towards the door. As the family began to leave the café his parents smiled at me as if to say something I couldn’t quite infer. Potentially a “Thank you”, or a “Sorry about that”, as if all the respect for boundaries they have yet to impart will cure social improprieties, but just not today.

In the end, after Max and I bumped fists in light of an all too rare exchange and the family walked out of the café, I was left to contemplate the potential of our brief encounter. As a person living with a physical disability, using a power wheelchair has been a tool in my ever expanding quest toward a deeper independence. However, in this case I was reminded of the double edge a person in my position tends to discover. That despite being a barrier to the freedom I long to hold, it too creates opportunities to connect with others in profoundly unique and unexpected ways.

I chose to volunteer for the Human Library Chicago to provide a (hopefully) fresh perspective on what it means to be physically disabled and, in my case, use a power wheelchair on a daily basis. I have found there are such wild variations between individuals on what they have come to see as the “correct” way to converse and interact with a person in a wheelchair. My life has proven to me that often all it can take is a sense of curiosity, deference, and a genuine desire to understand another person’s experiences to weather many well-meaning, but improper assertions. With that in mind, the biggest misconception about having a physical disability is that it’s unacceptable to ask me about my disability. I want you to ask questions, but from a place of mutual respect, not condescension or sympathy. In the end, its people with a genuine interest and questions which reflect that interest that help me to feel heard and, most importantly, accepted. My book title can feel like a heavy rock holding me down at times, but also as a path to growth and insight at other times. I hope others will come to realize through my participation in the Human Library Chicago, that their interest in and willingness to forego social convention in an effort to talk about our differences is not only acceptable, it’s encouraged.