Several years ago I was picking my mum up from the hairdresser and as I waited in the parking lot of a small plaza, a huge green pick-up truck pulled in beside me. The window was open and the guy driving was heavily bearded, ruddy-faced, plaid-shirted, the kind of guy you just know spends a lot of time outdoors; you could almost smell the pine boughs and bait—I guessed fisherman, hunter, lumberjack. Maybe all three. When he opened the door I expected a giant to emerge but what happened was he lowered a tiny step-stool attached to a rope, then turned and slid himself off the seat and onto the running board and, with a cane for balance, hopped down to the step stool and onto the pavement. Then he tossed the stool back into the truck, shut the door and made his way into the plaza.
He was maybe three feet something tall.
A few minutes later he was back, walking just ahead of my mum and her fresh perm. He reversed the stool routine and got into his truck as my mum sat down beside me.
Poor man, she said. It must be terrible to be handicapped.
Had I just glanced at him I might have agreed, but I’d had time to watch, time to think what it means to be handicapped, because this man certainly wasn’t. He was a short man functioning very well in a world designed for people who fall into certain categories, certain heights.
I wondered how well I’d do in a world designed for his height. A whole world where everything, everything, was way too low. My back aches just thinking of it.
The word handicapped just doesn’t seem right somehow, the way we use it, except to suggest that anyone could be handicapped in a situation not ideally suited; we, who thrive in this world, would be handicapped in a world not constructed for us—not by our limitations, but by the limitations imposed on us by awkward ‘constructions’.
It seems that in our narrow view of what’s ‘normal’ we’ve built a rather limited world, one for sighted, right-handed, hearing people of a certain size. I suppose it’s a ‘majority rules’ kind of thing, which really isn’t a good answer but if that’s the best we’ve got then you’d think at least we could get our perceptions straight and see things for what they are—that very normal people who happen to be blind or smaller than the ‘majority’ are seriously inconvenienced as a result of those ‘majority’ rules.
They are not handicapped.
If anything, our thinking is.
I’ve been meaning to write about this guy ever since I saw him. He came to mind again when, the other morning, I heard about Oscar Pistorius qualifying for the Summer Olympics.
“My disability is that I can’t use my legs. My handicap is your negative perception of that disability and thus of me.” – Rick Hansen, Man in Motion, 1987