The parking lot is full. Thankfully, I am in my car by myself, so I don’t have to try to look for a handicapped parking space. That doesn’t mean that I don’t hear Matthew’s voice in my head, making fun of me for wanting to come to this store. I kind of smile a little. He doesn’t know this, but even though he is at home with the caregiver, I can still imagine his comments or what he would say to me when I am running my errands.
As I go another round through the overly cramped parking lot, a car pulls out in the front row.
I pull my car forward slowly and try not to get too close to the overly large van parked illegally in the spot right in front. Irritating, but not impossible, I inch as close as I can, while still allowing whoever parked like that to be able to get in to their vehicle. I notice the handicapped sticker hanging from the rear-view mirror.
As I approach the front of the store, I notice that there are no handicapped spots available.
The van stands out, not only because it is parked in a no parking spot, but because of its size. It is the older version, a 1980’s heavy, over-sized and two toned blue. Newer vans are sleek and blend in with other mini-vans. It is hard to tell the difference between a mom or dad with small children in their car versus a person driving someone who is handicapped these days. I smirk as I see this van sitting there, obtrusive and large. It is how I would have wanted to park if I had been in a bad mood. I can hear Matthew’s voice again in my mind telling me to have some patience, and to keep driving till a spot became available. I would listen to him, but inside my head I would want to park exactly like that giant dark blue van, as if to say to the people who designed the parking lot that they planned poorly, and I would shove the stick into the P position as if I were parking with a middle finger in the air.
Inside, I grab my cart and head straight for the produce. I love grocery shopping. It is the only shopping that I love to do. To see all the brightly colored fruits and vegetables, and to smell and touch, and pick out each piece. I can feel myself relax. If I don’t have children or am not rushed, I will linger in this area longer, often buying much more than I need to.
As I am picking out my oranges, I see him. It’s not hard to figure out that he is the owner of the big blue van.
He has a Vietnam Veteran Hat on, his pants are saggy on legs that have no muscle left, but his forearms are strong from pushing his wheelchair where ever he needs to go. I am several rows back, so I can observe him without seeming rude. I notice how some people take up a wide berth around him, as if their body language suggests that his handicap is contagious. They don’t make eye contact with him. They shove their carts quickly away. Others pretend not to see him and stop right in his way, looking intently at what they are grabbing, trying to act as if he doesn’t exist.
I often wonder if people are really that obtuse, or if they really aren’t aware of what is happening around them. I can see the flicker of irritation on his face, as he has to maneuver his chair around them, while balancing his small basket of produce on his lap. We eventually end up in the same area together. I make eye contact and smile. He gives a small smile in return, intent on his mission to get in and out as quickly as possible.
I continue on my way throughout the store. I buy more than I need, which happens when I don’t have a list to follow or a menu for the week.
That man and I cross paths several more times, both smiling and nodding as we grab what we need.
It must be so frustrating to be so limited. I have a cart that I can fill to the top with items, most of which are probably not necessary for the next week, while he has no choice but to only get what he needs because he can’t push a cart and operate his wheelchair at the same time. While I can easily walk up to the check out and unload my purchases, and chat with the cashier, he has to navigate and maneuver, and scheme to do his errands. It must be so difficult for him to do things that I take for granted.
As I push my cart outside, he is there, next to the big over-sized van. The lift is being lowered for him to be able to wheel inside and drive away. I ask him if he likes his van.
Not the most intelligent of questions, I know, but I wanted to strike up a conversation with him. I could sense that he was shocked that I had stopped to talk to him. I walk closer, so he can hear me better and repeat my question, asking him if he liked his van or if he would prefer to have a newer one.
It is amazing when we allow others to talk, and we engage with them. People want to be heard. They want to be seen. I also think, we all just want to be recognized and accepted for who we are.
He tells me he is a Vietnam Veteran and he spends his time between here and a small town in Montana. I am familiar with the area, as it is twenty miles from my home town. We talk property prices, and how the area is getting crowded. We complain about the people moving here from California, and how this town is changing so fast. We both agree that having a cabin in woods, far away from people seems more and more appealing. He has been paralyzed for over 40 years. He was in the Army. I tell him about my husband, a former Marine. We talk wheelchairs and vans. I tell him about our non-profit foundation and home automation. His eyes light up and he wants to know more. I hand him my card and he promises to keep in touch.
He is flirting with me the way older gentlemen do. I smile, and flirt back. I don’t get compliments often these days, and it is nice to be told I am beautiful, and I imagine that he doesn’t get many women who smile and giggle with him as well. He is old enough to be my father, but it is still nice to feel a connection with someone.
We say our goodbyes, and he loads himself up into his van, starts the loud engine that gives a puff of black smoke. As he drives away, he gives me one last smile and a wave.
I haven’t seen or heard from him since.
Many people believe they are inclusive and accepting, but I see their actions as otherwise. It is human nature to turn away from that which makes us uncomfortable, or from those who are different. Those who are handicapped live with the struggle of simply living every day in a world that does not accept them or want them.
When is the last time you made eye contact with someone, simply acknowledging them with a nod and a smile? When is the last time you chose to have patience instead of irritation at someone driving slower than you, or who accidentally cut you off in traffic?
Can you say, with absolute honesty, that you have looked at those around you, and made sure to accommodate them first, even if it meant waiting a few extra moments for them to maneuver or navigate the same area as you?
Look around you.
What does it take for a person who is in a wheelchair, or who may not be able to open a door, or speak with clarity to move in a world that does nothing to accept them? The elderly move at a slower pace yet feel ostracized for their lack of ability to keep up. Often being almost pushed to the side to make room for those who are younger and more agile.
Hotel rooms advertise handicapped accessibility, but really, all that means is that they have installed a handrail next to the toilet and shower.
Parking spaces are few, and are open for all with a handicapped sticker, leaving those who are really in need of a closer space to wait or go to the very back.
Aisles are not open enough, and checkouts are ridiculously narrow. Have you ever noticed the handicapped stalls in the restroom? Can you imagine trying to move from a chair to the toilet with so little room?
This is what I see everywhere I go.
A world that does little to accommodate or make it easy for those who are different. The actions of the people around them prove to them every day that they must change, adapt, or stay home, because the majority will not notice or care.
Next time you are in a crowd, stop and look around you.
Notice what others take for granted…