Image description: A drawing of a finger pointing to the letter ‘C’ on an alphabet communication board.
She watched as the driver went through the procedure to strap my chair down on the bus. She had greeted me with a big smile in answer to my ‘Hello’ when I got on the bus. She was a woman with cerebral palsy who was also in a power wheelchair and I noticed that beside her, tucked away within reach, was an old alphabet communication board. It looked well used and well loved. How did I know it was well loved? It’s a guess, but I saw her right hand resting comfortably along the topside of the board and her fingers occasionally stroking the top corner. There was an ease in contact, like the one I have with all three of the wheelchairs I use regularly.
Once done and paid, the driver returned to his seat and we were off. I like chatting on the bus. I do. But a lot of others don’t. So I am careful when trying to engage someone in conversation. It’s easy with those who have buds in their ears and eyes on their phone. That’s a world I daren’t disturb. I asked her if she, like me, was going home. She shook her head and then made motions in front of her. “Ah, you are going swimming,” I said. She nodded. I asked her if she was going to the Y downtown. It’s near me and it made sense that as she was headed in my direction that might be her destination. She shook her head. I thought of other places downtown for a second and then realized I knew no other places. “Where are you going then?” I asked.
She looked down at the communication board. It struck me at first that she was asking permission to use it, but she wasn’t, she was indicating that the answer would require the communication board and the question was about me – am I going to accept her way of communicating. I’m guessing she’s asking because she gets the answer ‘no’ a bit. I just nodded. She pulled it out. She pointed to three letters and I knew immediately where she was going. It’s 14 letters if you count the space between the words, so I guessed she wouldn’t mind me stating the name of the pool. She nodded.
From there I learned her name, and she mine, we talked about how long each of us had been in the city and where we were from originally. I learned that she is very proud of her Canadian provincial identity and that, while she loves Toronto, she needs to go back home regularly. We talked, back and forth, right up till I arrived home. The trip flew by, as it always does when in conversation with another passenger. That’s my selfish reason for WANTING to have a chat – I get home quicker.
I said goodbye and wished her a nice swim. She said goodbye and wished me a nice evening.
Nothing really remarkable happened.
That was until I was telling someone about the trip and meeting her, I had mentioned it to this person because she was from the same province had the same kind of provincial pride about her heritage as did the woman on the bus. I made some joke about the province and the people. But instead of, as she would normally do, brushing the joke aside, she did something different that I found very odd. She told me that it was really, really, nice of me to have had the conversation on the bus. Somehow the woman’s use of a communication board made the conversation extraordinary and that it said something extraordinary about me.
That wasn’t the first time that happened. I tried telling a couple of other people and both of them saw the conversation in a way that it hadn’t been experienced. No matter how I tried to present the conversation as a conversation, the mention of the woman and her communication board, turned the conversation into an act of charity, an act of giving.
I was afraid of even writing it down here, ‘Are people going to think that I’m writing this so they think I’m presenting myself a man of great kindness who speaks with people who have communication devises?” So, I want that to be the point of this post. What is there about this particular conversation that turns a woman with dignity and humour and wit into an object of pity. Even from other disabled people?? Even from ‘US’?
I know that I could tell the same story and leave out the fact that she communicated through a communication board. But why would I, why should I? Do I need to sanitize herself of herself? Do I need to make her fit for presentation to the world? If that’s who she is, that’s who she is. She wasn’t ashamed of her board. Why should I suggest shame by eliminating it from my description of her and our conversation. It’s really just a freaking alphabet isn’t it?
It annoys me to see all these stories on the Internet, you know the ones, where people get all sorts of praise because they simply acted decently with someone with a disability. They become ‘Saint for a Day’ and they beam with divine light from pictures they take to memorialize their kindness. Disabled people do not exist in order for people to prove their humanity.
And a conversation with a woman on a bus is just a conversation with a woman on a bus.
It says nothing about me.
It says nothing about her.
You learn nothing about me.
You learn nothing about her.
It’s just a conversation, not an act of charity.
Damn, I await the day when the entrance of disability into a story doesn’t change it from a story into a parable. I await the day when the existence of a person with a disability in a story doesn’t make it always have a moral. I await the day when people with disabilities can be in a story without it saying a single, damn, thing about the story teller.