In the past few weeks, I’ve been walking with a cane. After about three weeks of painful back spasms in April, everything has calmed down except for my right hip. I’m not in any pain, but my hip aches on and off, and there are times that my right leg feels very unstable. So, instead of walking around gingerly and being fearful of falling, I use a shiny black cane for extra support. The impact on my confidence, my energy level, and my ability to navigate has been immeasurable. I’m taking long walks again, I walk much more energetically, and I come home far less tired than before.
And there is an added bonus: I am relieved beyond words to have a visible marker of disability. There is something that feels seamless about my life now. For my invisible disabilities, I have a series of invisible canes; strategies, adaptations, and self-talk that I use to give myself extra support and confidence in a world that is not made for my body. But no one sees them. Now the cane is on the outside, and I have a visible indicator of what I’ve been doing all my life. Despite the aches and the fact that walking is harder work these days, the visible indicator is a blessed relief.
In the light of all this, I’ve been watching the ways in which I’m interacting with people, and there are some interesting differences. In the past, I’d see a person using a wheelchair and I’d want to somehow communicate that I’m disabled as well, but really, what am I supposed to say? Hi, I’m Rachel and I’m disabled? People just want to get on with their shopping, you know? But now, I notice that I can sink into those interactions in way I couldn’t before. There is a marker that says we share something in common. Not everything. But something. No words are needed. For a moment, there is a glance of recognition, and if you have invisible disabilities, that recognition is a significant experience.
And then there are the stares from nondisabled folk. Oddly enough, I’m getting past my natural shyness. Today I was out walking by the ocean, and a little girl, about ten years old, came by on the back of a tandem bike with her dad. As they passed me on the sidewalk, she turned all the way around to stare — first at me, then at my cane, then at me again, with a look of perplexity verging almost on alarm, as though my cane were a bit scary. I generally don’t like people staring at me; in the past, my response has almost always been defensiveness.
Today, I watched that defensiveness come over me for a moment and then I thought, “No. This is a opportunity to break down this barrier.” So I smiled and waved.
The effect was immediate. Her face completely relaxed and she waved back. And then even after she’d turned around, she kept her arm out to the side and kept on waving at me.
It was a lovely moment to step into.
And then, I was walking back to our apartment, thinking about this interaction, when I saw another little girl of about ten. As the girl and her family were walking down the street, a woman using a wheelchair came toward them and then turned right to go down the sidewalk to Walgreen’s. The little girl craned her neck to watch the woman and her wheelchair roll down the sidewalk. I thought to myself, “How odd! Another little girl staring.” What I didn’t notice until I got closer that the little girl’s legs were bowed and she was walking with a great deal of effort. So what at first glance had looked like a stare of an able-bodied child was the stare of a disabled child watching a disabled adult just go about her life and get things done. There was something lovely about that, too.
For me, at least as far as children are concerned, it’s all right to stare. I’m not sure how I’d feel if I saw adults staring at me, but kids have a natural curiosity and it doesn’t offend me. Of course, I’m new to all of this, and in six months, I might feel differently. But at this point, I’m looking for a bright red cane to go with my bright red Converse High-Tops. I might even find myself a red beret or put red highlights in my hair.
Because I want to make visible what has been invisible all my life. And for now, if people stare, it’s worth it.
© 2013 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg