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    19th February 2007

    On Being Disabled (part 2): Doors

    (I started this last night and then finished it this morning)

    When I got home from church this afternoon I read the newspaper, threw about an hour and a half away, played guitar for about 3 hours (think how good I would be if I actually structured my practice time instead of creating various droning tones and rhythms and zoning out!), and then ate dinner and watched Sportscenter. Yesterday I wasted some time, went to the rec center to work out, played guitar for several hours, and watched Band of Brothers with my brother. You can tell my commitment to my schoolwork by noting that I really haven’t done any in the last two days and that even now, when I most certainly need to be catching up in my Hebrew workbook and preparing for the 15 page paper that I have to present next Tuesday (as in 9 days, not 2…) that I haven’t even started, I am instead writing on this website. This can be ascribed to the way that I am currently a creature of impulse, without having trained or disciplined myself in any significant manner for several months. And thus, when I think of something that I want to do, I do it. – provided that it isn’t way outside my comfort level and is within the ballpark of morally acceptable behavior.

    And since there hasn’t been anything particularly noteworthy in my life this last week (I went to school, I came back to Loveland, I planned and led worship for Revolution…) it seems like a good time to make another entry in the “On Being Disabled” series (especially considering the interesting discussion that happened in the comments section after last weeks entry – and for those who might wonder, I think that there will be two more entries in this series in the next month or so).

    I’ve titled this entry “Doors”, and if you’ve spent much time around me in the last two years – or if you’ve spent much time around wheelchair users – you might have a good guess as to why. Doors are an everflowing source of awkward situations and irritations for me. They sometimes bring out the worst in me and have brought me into several conversations that I would rather not have had at the time I had them. They cause me to have feelings of humiliation, anger, pride, relief, and frustration, among other feelings. And doors are everywhere I go.

    See, getting through doors can be rather difficult in a wheelchair. I’m mostly talking about the type of doors that swing shut on their own and are found in the entrances of most public buildings. Although I can get through these doors without much of a problem, and even occasionally carry awkward loads through them, like my guitars or suitcases, I know that there are many wheelchair users who either have difficulty getting through doors or are entirely incapable of getting through them on their own.

    There are many reasons why this might be so. Certainly anyone using a power wheelchair is going to have a difficult time with doors – but then again, (not to stereotype, but) most folks using powerchairs have less physical mobility, hence the powerchair. Quadriplegics with less function in their arms or folks with advanced degenerative nerve disorders like MS or CP often fit in this category.

    Additionally, there are a couple of other categories of wheelchair users who shift the public understanding of what folks in wheelchairs are capable of. The two main categories that I’m thinking of are 1) older folks and 2) folks with developmental disabilities/serious MR – mental retardation. These are probably the most visible of all categories of wheelchair users, and they – along with high-profile wheelchair users like the late Christopher Reeves or Stephen Hawking – strongly color the public’s perception of what wheelchair users can and can’t do. Many people haven’t been exposed to other and more capable wheelchair users – and few people have had significant interaction with a relatively healthy, fit, and active paraplegic like myself. It is understandable why most people feel the need to “get the door” for me and other wheelchair users. Currently popular etiquette is to always wait for a person with a disability to ask for help before helping; but most people haven’t been taught this etiquette.

    But back to why this is one of my least favorite situations:

    To begin, the mechanics of the door holding process can be awkward. Sometimes when a person tries to get the door, they stand on the inside of the doorway, with their back against the door. Given that I have a 27 inch wide wheelbase, this arrangement sometimes leaves me with less than enough room to actually get through the doorway. My options are then 1) run over the door-holder’s foot; 2) create a “dance” of sort as the door-holder has to move out of the way for me to get through; or 3) if this is a double-door we are talking about, I can open the other door myself and go through. I once chose “Option 3” going into the science building at Calvin, not at all thinking of how this option might make someone feel. Deliberately going through the other door is, I suppose, a deliberate communication of sorts, telling that person that you would rather do something on your own than accept their help – no matter how well-intended.

    Now, in this particular instance of selecting “Option 3” at the science building, the door-holder had been talking on her cell phone inside the door and continued to talk on her cell phone as she held the door as I approached – I really wasn’t sure what she was up to. However, this person was a friend of a friend and was personally hurt when I didn’t accept her help; and several weeks later I found out about this as she really wanted to know why I would do what I did. Caught at that moment, I was baffled by this person, but it has proved to be and important learning experience for me – and an important reminder for me to check my motives in doing such a thing.

    One more note on the mechanics: Many doors now come equipped with door-opening buttons. Sometimes people will press this button for me. The problem with door-openers is that I can open doors faster than they can. There is a definite use for these devices, but they don’t really change the dynamics of the door situation for me – if anything, they make it a little more awkward at times.

    So, why is it that when I have the opportunity to do so I prefer to open doors for myself? It is mechanically simpler in many respects, but this doesn’t fully explain my actions or feelings.

    A big factor is how I want to be perceived. After my last entry, there were a few comments about how being disabled is, in many respects, a label that we put on ourselves – and I think that this is – again, in some respects – true (I think I’ll talk about this issue of personal identity more in another post). But I also think that we’d be lying to ourselves if we said that we didn’t ever let the labels of other people creep in and inform who we are (here’s a good touchpoint between this topic and the Christian life).

    So I fight to not be labeled as “disabled”, especially by people whom I would consider to be my peers. There is a certain sense of embarrassment in having a female of my own age category hold the door for me – an action that I would rather be taking on her behalf. And if it is a guy my own age, a desire to prove my own manhood (or something like that…) comes in and makes me want to open doors for myself. If it is someone that I don’t know at all it is easier to say, “Thank you,” and be on your way – if it is someone that I do know, it’s like I want to impress them. And if it’s someone who smiles at me like they’re doing me a favor of some sort, there’s Pride…

    Pride. There’s something inside of me that wants to stick it to every person who “presumptuously” holds a door for me. I want to show them that I can do it on my own and that it really was presumptuous of them to assume that I could not. Of course, this is ridiculous – no person holding a door for a person in a wheelchair is thinking to themselves, “What could I do that would really offend that wheelchair jockey?…” People want to be helpful for the most part. And yet, when someone opens a door for me, I find myself thinking something like, “What – you think I need your help?!!! Using me to make yourself feel good, now, are you?!!!”

    Accepting help can be hard for people, whether they need it or not. Pride kicks in in my situation where I don’t need help, but being in a situation where we desperately need help doesn’t do much to eliminate that pride. We still want to do it on our own. The spinal cord injury experience has been humbling from the start: At first I was unable to sit up on my own, put on my clothes, clean myself, talk for myself (unable to talk, period...); I was completely dependant upon others. I celebrated every freedom that I gained, every ability to do something on my own. I wanted, and still want, to show people how much I can do.

    But none of us are entirely independent. We all need help with different things. Sometimes we need help with things we don’t want to ask for help with; and sometimes we need to accept help when we neither want it nor think that we need it. This is both for our own sake and for the sake of the helper. Accepting help when I don’t need it helps me to humbly ask for and accept help when I do need it. And in graciously accepting help, I can bless the helper – and have a better platform to tell him or her if I do or don’t want that sort of help in the future. (And, as a side note, since I really do believe that life is better lived around people and in relationships, shouldn’t this symbiosis be my goal? Maybe I/we should be asking for help on all kinds of things that we don’t necessarily need help for…)

    For me, the experience of going through a door is an opportunity to practice humility and patience or pride and bitterness. It can be an opportunity to allow someone to serve; and it can be an opportunity to teach a lesson – both in the positive and negative connotations of this phrase. In the positive sense if it opens a persons eyes to the amazing ways that people can adapt and get through life – or if it allows them to see the hurt that they cause another. In the negative sense if the lesson is taught in a self-satisfying, self-justifying way – or out of spite and in order to hurt the other.

    May you and I both have the grace to navigate the doors we face today.

    2 comments

    2 Responses to “On Being Disabled (part 2): Doors”

    1. Kimmy says:

      You know, sometimes I get frustrated going through doors too? So often guys open doors for me and its nice. I like it when guys hold open doors for me don’t get me wrong. I also like to open the door for myself. I once was told by a guy friend that holding the door open for a women is showing respect to them. I get that, its a good reason. Now, sometimes, in that same line of thought I like to hold open the doors for people (of both genders). Its awkward when guys absolutly refuse to let me show that kindness to them. Then I have to step back and let them get the door for me. It also can be awkward when I think someone is holding the door open for me and then about half way through the doorway I think oh, maybe they weren’t opening the door for me and thats awkward. So my situation is not yours but I think doors are weird for everyone.

    2. sister says:

      Actually, I always hold doors for whomever is coming in that same door or going out around the same reasonable time. I don’t usually ask those folks if they would like me to hold it for them or not. The awkward part comes in judging who coming toward the door will make it in a reasonable amount of time and who is just going to have to open it for themselves 6 seconds later!

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