He knows about teeth, but…

When my grandmother Agnes, whom I called Nana, was in her 90s, she developed a dental problem that required surgery. She found a dental surgeon near her home who accepted her insurance and arranged for my mom to drive her to the appointment. On the day of the appointment Mom helped Nana down the hall and out the front door of her assisted living complex, got her and her walker into Mom’s car, and took her to the doctor’s office. There they found that at this doctor’s office, teeth would be the least of Nana’s problems.

Mom tells me about it: “We went up the elevator and then into the office, and there were two wide steps down. When we turned the corner, there were two more steps down.” For Nana this was a huge obstacle. She had had both hips and both knees replaced and walked with difficulty, even with the help of her walker. Mom remembers those four steps vividly: “She was not about to change her plans and see another doctor. She was moving forward! I just kind of held her around the waist while she went down. It was scary. She could have fallen. We both could have fallen! If she was in a wheelchair, we wouldn’t have been able to get to the doctor” at all.

“I asked the receptionist about another way to get to the doctor’s office,” Mom tells me. “I was greeted with a blank look—‘Huh?’—and then a strong answer, ‘Oh, there is no other way!’”

Once inside the examination room, Nana faced a different obstacle. After the doctor examined her, Mom remembers, he “looked at me and started telling me all about her mouth.” Nana was perfectly capable of conversing with and understanding the doctor; more importantly, she was a human being entitled to respect. White in her wavy hair and arthritis in her knees and hips had affected neither of those facts one bit. “I tried to redirect him,” Mom says. “I’m kicking myself now that I didn’t say forcefully, ‘Talk to Agnes. She’s your patient.’”

But Mom didn’t say that, and the doctor kept talking to her rather than Nana. Nana didn’t ‘fuss’ either. The surgery went forward, and Nana had her dental problem fixed. The other issues were never addressed.

Mom sighs with shame and defeat. “I guess he was a good dental surgeon, and he was in [her area].”

I want to believe society is changing. Nana is gone now and will never see it. But I want to believe that when Mom is in her 90s, she will be able to go to a doctor that sees her as a whole person, not just a broken body part.


Restores your faith in humanity, doesn’t it?

It’s a Friday in summer, and time for the weekly free concert on the local town green. The green is full of people bustling around, throwing frisbees for their dogs and playing with their children. The seven of us are making our way through the crowd, heading for our favorite tree to sit under.

I have both my hands on the handles of R’s wheelchair. She sits quietly, smiling her shy smile and watching the busy green in front of us. My right arm is hooked through M’s left arm, helping him balance as he walks with me. He’s fingering the knotted end of his hoodie’s drawstring with intense interest, and is looking at it rather than the terrain as we walk; occasionally he stumbles and needs the support of my arm. My co-worker is pushing P’s wheelchair one-handed, no easy task. P is leaning back in her wheelchair, facing the sky with her sightless eyes wide open and an ecstatic smile on her face, whether from the cheerful crowd noise she hears or from something in her own head I can’t tell. My co-worker is using his other hand to help C push the joystick on his electric wheelchair to make it move forwards. (C has limited use of his hand and has trouble pushing the joystick on his own.) C is frowning slightly as his wheelchair bumps along over the green; this outing interrupted his favorite TV show.

With both my co-worker and me helping two people each, we have no hands to spare to help L as he uses his walker to walk along with us, somewhat unsteadily, over the bumpy grass, frowning in concentration. His gait isn’t smooth; sometimes he has trouble making his muscles do what he wants them to. His eyes are focused on the wheels on the front of his walker, and he’s not looking ahead to see possible obstacles.

The wheels on the front of L’s walker hit a small dip. He pitches forwards, and I watch helpless as he starts to fall.

Immediately, the three strangers nearest L rush in to grab his forearms and elbows and pull him up, helping him regain his balance and his grip on his walker. It happens so quickly he never has time to reach the ground and hurt himself. A fourth stranger steadies the walker and re-establishes its wheels on firm ground. When L is again safely upright with a firm grip on his walker, the strangers merge back into the crowd.

They saw someone needing help, gave it instantly and without question, and then went their own ways without waiting for thanks.

We live among good people.

She can hear you, you know

We stood in line in front of the desk at the hospital, my elderly client leaning heavily on my arm and on her cane. We waited patiently for her turn to check in and see her doctor. When the line moved forward, she walked with pain, labored but determined.

A man saw us and came over. He addressed me. “Would your mother like a wheelchair?”

It was a She can hear you, you know moment. The contrast between his obvious kind-hearted desire to help, and the amazing rudeness of not addressing my client herself, left me breathless. I had no idea how to react.

I am sorry to say, I snapped at him. “She’s not my mother, and she doesn’t need a wheelchair.”

Looking back, I wish I had gently thanked him and invited him to ask the same question of my client. That would have been a more appropriate and politic response. But really, why would someone be kind enough to offer a stranger a wheelchair, but not kind enough to dignify her by addressing her directly, person to person?

Maybe that man felt that those who can’t walk easily also can’t understand, or can’t answer a question.


“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.