While waiting for my for my mum outside the hairdresser, one of those oversized pickup trucks pulls in beside me. The guy driving is bearded, tanned, leathery skin, the rugged outdoorsy type; six foot something probably, built like a brick shi— Well, you get the idea.
When he opens the door he’s holding a block of wood on a string… I see hardware that converts the foot pedals to hand operated ones and I see that the man himself, while rugged indeed, is closer to three foot nothing. He lowers the wooden block to the pavement, slides down to the running board, onto the block, hops off, and places it back on the floor of the truck—all in one smooth movement.
Then he slams the door shut and makes his way toward the bank.
Ten or so minutes later he comes back out and at the same moment my mum emerges from the salon. The guy gets to his car first, opens his door, reverses the wooden block process, and drives away.
Meanwhile my mother is settling into the passenger seat beside me and says, “Did you see that poor handicapped man…?”
And I think: no, I didn’t.
The word handicapped just didn’t apply.
What I saw, I realize, was a short man making adjustments for himself in a world designed for five and six-footers. Anyone paying attention to his actions rather than his size, would see him as resourceful not handicapped.
It’s a matter of perspective.
Let’s say that every vehicle, house, appliance and shopping cart in the world is designed for people three feet tall. Newspapers and labels on food are printed only in Braille. Lectures and plays are conducted only in sign language. If that were the case it would be us—the so-called able-bodied—that would be unable to function. We would be handicapped by a mere change in the design of things around us.
It seems we’ve merrily built a world suited only to one type of person, to one idea of normal—then allowed ourselves to judge those who can’t easily function in it as abnormal. It’s like greasing the dance floor and standing aside, clucking our sympathy for those who fall.
I think about all this during the meagre coverage of the recent Paralympics—and how those events are seen as secondary to the ‘other’ Olympics—how the athletes are referred to as dis-abled. And why that is.
Because the guy in the truck wasn’t dis-abled.
And the athletes in the Paralympics certainly aren’t.
There are, of course, the truly dis-abled, those who can’t function due to physical or other limitations—
—and then there’s those of disabled through ignorance, who define ‘normal’ in relative terms…perpetuating the views of a society whose perverse logic once deemed the left-handed next to useless.