“You’re such an angel,” the woman said to me.

What had I done to earn such a compliment?

And why did her compliment make me so angry? Outraged.

I had arrived at work that morning and let myself into the residence where my five clients lived. I waved hello to my coworkers, busy with paperwork and other chores, and the clients, sitting in the living room. The notes from our program director said that two of the clients were planning to go to Dunkin’ Donuts for breakfast that morning. It was one of my favorite things to do with the clients: go out for meals and just hang out together.

My coworker and I got the two clients into the wheelchair van and down to the local Dunkin’ Donuts. Other customers kindly held the doors for us as we maneuvered the wheelchairs into the restaurant. We got the food and money all figured out and arranged the chairs (two restaurant chairs for my coworker and me; two empty spots at the table for the clients’ wheelchairs) so we could all enjoy our breakfasts.

I bit into an egg-and-cheese sandwich. My coworker spread cream cheese on a bagel. One client ate a donut. The other tried to lift a cup of lukewarm coffee to her lips and spilled it all down her shirtfront.

It happened sometimes; her hands weren’t always steady enough to hold drinks level. I was ready. I jumped up with napkins in hand.

I was helping her get cleaned up when the woman at the next table over spoke. “You’re such an angel,” she said to me.

At the time, I was simply confused. An angel? For not making my client sit in a puddle of coffee? For having breakfast with her? Or was this woman saying that my choice of profession somehow made me an angel?

I think I muttered, “Um, thank you,” avoided eye contact, and wondered why her well-meaning compliment made me feel angry.

That was over a year ago, and I have had a lot of time to ponder the possible meaning of that brief statement. Is there something angelic about helping someone drink a cup of coffee when that person is unable to manage the cup on her own? Is there something angelic about deigning to hang out with a disabled individual? Does doing my job (for which I do get paid, after all) make me an angel?

It’s the second possibility that makes me angry. It’s as if that woman implied that disabled folks are so difficult, even unpleasant, to be around, that anyone who sits with them and munches on an egg sandwich must be of a higher order.

And she implied this right in front of them, as if they couldn’t hear, or understand, or feel insulted.

And apparently thought she was paying me a compliment, performing a good deed, by doing so.

I was outraged on my client’s behalf.

Months after this event, I developed a health problem and had to take medical leave from work. In accordance with the federal Family and Medical Leave Act, I arranged to leave work for three months, after which I hoped to return with a doctor’s note saying I was fit to resume work.

It was a hard three months. I was used to taking clients to doctor’s offices; I was not used to being in a doctor’s care myself. Gradually I got used to the idea that I now had a disability. I endured tests, medications, and a hospitalization. A family member had to take FMLA from her job to help care for me, for which I was grateful and ashamed. Every day was a struggle, medically and emotionally.

After three months, I returned to work, note in hand. It said that I was fit to resume, but cautioned that due to a medical reason I should not do the overnight shifts I had been doing previously.

A coworker welcomed me back and asked if I would be doing all my old shifts again.

“No; my doctor says I shouldn’t do overnights any more.”

She threw her head back and laughed. “Doctor?! You’re not sick!”

Again, I was confused and not quite sure why I felt angry. I immediately invented an excuse to leave the room.

This time I was offended personally.

So. We have people in our society who are obviously, visibly disabled, and some people seem to think they can’t hear or understand what is said around them. And we have people like me who, while following doctor’s orders and trying to act “normal” in public, are outright laughed at when they share that they have medical limitations.

Where do you fall? Are you visibly disabled? Or perhaps you look “normal,” but some things are hard or even impossible for you: walking up steep stairs, seeing things in your peripheral vision, eating nuts. Or perhaps you are one of the lucky few who is able to do everything you choose to do, and struggle to understand the rest of us.

If we stumble along together, without drawing lines and ostracizing people, does that make us all angels? If so, there are an awful lot of angelic people.

Or maybe treating a differently-abled fellow human with decency should be simply required, part of being a member of the human race, and the word “angel” should be reserved for those who have in fact done something special. Which I have not, that woman’s well-meaning compliment to the contrary.


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