Labels--Part I

As soon as Sarah and I rounded the corner, we saw Olivier reclining on the sofa facing us, a cup of coffee in his hand. Sarah, about four years old at the time, glanced up at me and smiled. I nodded and we walked across the room together. We were a few feet away from him when Sarah stopped and stared. Olivier and I glanced at each other, then turned towards her and waited for her reaction—this was the first time she’d seen him since he had his leg amputated.

After a long moment, she looked up at me, frowning. “Mummy, where’s his other shoe?”

I was not appalled or embarrassed. In fact, like Olivier, I was amused.

Olivier’s amputation was recent, and he was still adjusting to it physically and emotionally. When we’d discussed this type of situation the previous week, he’d told me, “I’d much rather people stare at me than pretend I’m invisible.” He was more disturbed by the parents who tried to avoid looking at him than by their kids who could not look away. “They tell their kids off for being rude, when they are the rude ones.”

On one of my trips to Colorado, the Denver Airport was much more crowded than I’d ever seen it; I overloaded the instant I entered the terminal building. My spatial awareness disintegrated and with it, my balance.

When I reached my gate, all the seats were taken, including those reserved for the handicapped. Leaning heavily on my cane, hunting for a seat, I weaved my way among the benches, struggling to avoid tripping over luggage and hastily retreating feet.

Every single person in the gate area saw me coming; not a one could have been completely oblivious to my presence. Yet each and every one avoided making eye contact with me, rendering me invisible, denying my existence, my humanity.

By denying me, they were in fact denying their own humanity. Their own vulnerability. Their own responsibility. And every time their eyes slid off me, they made that same decision to deny, not once, not over a split second of uneasiness, but over and over again throughout the entire thirty minute wait for boarding.

I know that if the bloody brain hadn’t betrayed me, perhaps their eyes would have flickered past me absentmindedly, perhaps not even noticing me. But they would not have shunned me so deliberately, their eyes shying away from me as soon as I entered their visual field.

Unlike Olivier and others with noticeable disabilities, I can typically pass as part of mainstream society. Most of the time, people don’t try to deny my existence at first sight. Unless the bloody brain acts up and gives me away, I can choose when and where to enlighten them, when and where to don my cloak of disability. I can decide whether I feel up to dealing with the possibility that they will pretend I don’t exist. I can decide if I want to cope with the likelihood that in their mind, I will lose my identity and become only the label, “handicapped.”