Winter 2001 #12
I DETEST the use of capital letters to add emphasis. And I LOATHE!! the inane habit of doubling or tripling exclamation marks to further exclaim their exclamity. But what I ABHOR is the way people invariably direct their questions and comments to the taller, walking person when I am out with an able-bodied companion. Their (perfectly reasonable) assumption that I can’t fend for myself DRIVES ME NUTS !!!
I was slow to notice how frequently this happens; and I had well-developed defensive mechanisms in place long before I consciously identified the ‘Walkie Talkie Effect’. For example, in able-bodied company I would race to be first at a counter; I would prepare all my typed messages in advance; and I would always keep my computer on standby, ready for action should anything need to be communicated to anyone! Over time, however, I have learned that my defenses are ineffective against the powerful Walkie Talkie paradigm: people will chat over my head, and there is little I can do to stop it. I am hypersensitive to an ironic cruelty that occurs with regularity: while I am the one with no voice, the able-bods above me instinctively revert to non-verbal communication to mutely discuss my competence. I have seen this a hundred times: in a furtive glance away from me and up to the Walkie Talkie, the person I am attempting to engage will search my companion’s face for some clue as to my fitness to conduct business in public. I can read it in their eyes, “Is it OK to talk to this man, or should I talk to you instead? Are you his carer? How handicapped is he? Can you rescue me?” GOSH I hate THAT.
Recently I was travelling by train with a cherished (nameless) family member, and the Walkie Talkie Effect was in full swing! On this occasion I was definitely the ‘expedition leader’; my companion having considerably less rail experience, and none whatsoever with a wheelchair. But do you think anyone believed that? Not for a moment. CRIKEY!! It was on for young and old (there is a tiny clue there) with railway staff almost oblivious to my presence, let alone my consummate ability as a locomotive pilgrim. My DISPLEASURE reached a crescendo when a passenger standing onboard our carriage (my unnamed relative has rather a penchant for engaging complete strangers in jovial banter) said, about me, verbatim: “And doesn’t he look smart too, nicely turned out in his cap and scarf”. AARGH!!! How DEMEANING!! The memory makes my skin crawl.
I understand the Walkie Talkie effect, and I’m certain that if I were either one of the walking persons, instead of being the odd-bod in the wheelchair, I would do just the same. I probably have done. Most folks genuinely want to help, after all; and how are they to guess the degree of my ability? I suppose it’s reasonable for anyone to conclude that my difficulties are due to some sort of brain damage; or a mental handicap. I sometimes get the feeling that is what people are thinking, and I have a little card in my collection that I flash now and then:
It HURTS! In the same way that we often feel much younger than our years, I am inclined to forget starkness of my circumstance until something or someone reminds me. These moments can be tipping points for many collected emotions: ANNOYANCE, FRUSTRATION, JEALOUSY, EMBARASEMENT, FEAR, UNCERTAINTY – you name it.
But mostly, it pains me to say, it’s sheer pride. Few of these feelings are any different in nature or intensity from those I felt in different circumstances as a ‘normal’ person throughout my life. It’s so tempting to make excuses. It’s all too easy to indulge the feeling of being wronged. Attribution is a delicate matter: a wheelchair can be a great pretext for making one’s own issues everyone else’s problem. I have had a long attraction to the ‘quieted soul’ that King David describes in Psalm 131:
My heart is not proud, LORD,
my eyes are not haughty;
I do not concern myself with great matters
or things too wonderful for me.
But I have calmed and quieted myself,
I am like a weaned child with its mother;
like a weaned child I am content.