Nine tenths of the way through the Tchaikovsky Polonaise an usher at Melbourne’s Music Bowl tapped me on the shoulder.
“Can we move your wheel chair please?” she whispered over the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. I was sitting in a row of seats with a good friend from school days on my left, and Bugger, the power chair, parked in a designated space on my right.
Requests stated in the plural, ‘we’, are often suspicious; don’t you agree? Something about the looming situation was making the official reluctant to take responsibility. The blame for whatever was about to interrupt Tchaikovsky was obviously being dispersed.
“We have two more wheelchair patrons who have to stay together, and we would like to move your chair away if you wouldn’t mind”.
And so ‘we’ missed the climactic bars of the Polonaise, (as did a dozen more patrons around us), while I supervised Bugger’s relocation and we all shuffled one seat to our left to accommodate a carer for the two new arrivals. Happily, everything was completely sorted out just in time for the announcement of a 25 minute interval. I’m glad we didn’t miss that!
I wondered if any of our neighboring concertgoers were completely free of disparaging thoughts about the two newcomers and their carer. I certainly wasn’t. If there were any pure souls among us I suspect they, too, fell into our communal moral crevasse during Rachmaninov’s third and final Symphonic Dance, the concert’s showpiece that followed interval. During the opening bars we overheard whispered deliberations about departure, and then the exit maneuvers of the two recently arrived power chairs began. While not entirely out of step with the orchestra, one felt it was not quite the dance that Rachmaninov had in mind.
It’s unusual for me to be amongst other wheelchairs, and I couldn’t help wondering if the audience made any distinction between me and the other two. I doubt very much that the patrons looking on in distracted annoyance saw us as anything other than an amorphous clump of the disabled. Goodness, they probably thought my school mate was my carer! (actually, he was …sort of). I doubt the patrons realized that while those two had special needs, I was actually special! You see, I like to remind myself that my challenges are only physical, not like some people. And I relish the superior knowledge that I wasn’t born disabled, thank God! No, my disability is more like a soldier’s battle scars, the unfortunate byproduct of a life bravely lived!
Such odious rubbish is – I hate to admit – actually in my head from time to time. And I’m not trying to disperse the blame, but aren’t ‘we’ all much the same? How many of us are innocent of those snap judgments we make of people time and again every day? Those stereotypes we immediately form, based purely on a person’s bulging waistline, or the thickness of their spectacle lens? I see a person with a particular hair style in combination with certain tattoos, and I know I have their measure. An accent that I consider uncouth, or perhaps affected, is enough evidence for me to lock a person squarely in their pigeonhole. And when it comes to dress-sense, well, the game is over right there!
I think I know how other people sometimes see me. The clues are hard to miss. Staring, for example, leaves little doubt. Then there is the seemingly ubiquitous raise-your-voice-for-the-person-in-the-wheelchair phenomenon. There is also the infuriating deference paid to the normal person walking beside me: every comment goes straight to them! It extends occasionally to questions such as, “Can he hear me?” All of which is probably quite reasonable.
What is utterly unreasonable is the way I see others. I’m surprised by the depth of character people turn out to have when I have labeled them shallow. I’m embarrassed to discover intelligence and wit in the person I had catalogued as a moron. The ones I think are super-spiritual are actually attuned and sensitive; and the facile prove to be real people, after all.
Am I alone? Or is it a universal law that there is more than meets the eye in everyone we meet. Non modo sed etiam, “not only but also”. I am thinking again of my two fellow travelers at last week’s concert: I do hope they are surrounded by people who listen, and who engage, and who value them; because I know it won’t always be their lot.
One thought on “Non Modo Sed Etiam”
Hey, we nearly crossed paths quite randomly. I was at the first two of the MSO’s music bowl concerts (in the big smoke for a training course). If I’d been there a week later I would have seen you. 🙂 Hope you enjoyed the concert despite the inconvenient disturbance. I did.