Walkie Talkies

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.


5 thoughts on “Walkie Talkies

  1. Wow ! I have never really thought about this before.

    But after reading this post, I am has reminded of a situation I was in a couple of months ago where I got chatting with a lovely elderly lady in a food court.

    She was friendly but cautious and she actually remarked how lovely it was that I took the time to chat to her.

    I thought at the time that it was an odd comment to make because I chat to a lot of people but most people don’t act as surprised as she did!

    And it wasn’t until I got up to leave that I noticed that she was in a wheelchair and now I’m wondering if maybe she was so cautious because she has had similar experiences to what you just described?

    I hope not because she was a beautifully articulate and intelligent lady who I often see around the shopping centre and wave to all the time 🙂

    Great thought provoking post!

  2. Lorna

    Excellent writing Rod, you are a great advocate for people in wheel chairs -whatever the reason. I take your comments on board and I too will try to be a better person when dealing with people with physical disabilities.
    Thanks for your honesty, it’s empowering! (Please note I really wanted to add more exclamation marks to that, but I will try to be good.)
    Lorna xo

  3. Ann

    Roderick, Psalm 131 is also one of my long-time favorites. Yes, how about that pride, lol–what great opportunities to admit to it, and see ourselves as we are.


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