Before Urvi came into my life, I can honestly say that I didn’t realize the degree to which many individuals with disabilities are ignored, segregated, or discriminated against on any single day. With so many problems in the world, taking a look at how your neighbor is being treated may not be as sexy as fighting global poverty or ending world hunger, but the simple ways we act [and react] to individuals with disabilities can shape their self-image.
Of course, I still remember being able to walk. Not just walk, however, but walk with confidence, purpose, and determination. I felt unstoppable at some point and knew that nothing could come in my way. I never made enemies or got into a fight. Yet, just a few months later, as I’m attempting to maneuver Urvi in and out of the subway cars, I accidently touched a bystander’s foot with the rear wheel. I remember warning him and the others around me that I was about to back out of the subway car, but I guess it wasn’t enough. I think I can count on just one hand how many times I’ve been cursed at by a stranger. Being called a b!tch out loud left me paralyzed on the platform. Bystanders just stared at me for a brief second and then resumed their commute. As tears filled my eyes, I wanted to tell that person that I didn’t ask to be in this position and I’m sorry that I can’t walk, but he was already gone. I barely got my wheelchair a few weeks prior with no formal instructions or guidance on how to operate it. It’s terrifying boarding and leaving the train car. You have to get the timing just right, as not all conductors will wait for you to get on safely before the doors start closing in on you. Even worse, some people just don’t move out of the way when they see you or they jump right in front of you to get a spot in the train. But on that crowded platform, no one seemed to understand.
More recently, I was taking the bus to the gym, when a man sitting across the aisle a few feet in front of me decided to throw old newspapers and trash at me that he had in a plastic bag. I was on the phone when I noticed the items dropping at my feet. First I thought the man had dropped something, but as our eyes met, it was clear that he was deliberately flinging the items at me. I don’t know if he was drunk, deranged, racist, sexist, or otherwise. It didn’t matter what the reason was. I felt helpless in that moment. I had nowhere to go and had no idea if this man was a threat. No one on the bus said anything. It seemed like an eternity as this scenario played out, but it must have been only a few seconds before I couldn’t take it anymore. I screamed at him, “Sir, do you have a problem?” Surprisingly, he answered, “No.” I didn’t wait for an explanation and alerted the bus driver of his erratic behavior. The bus driver stopped the bus and made him pick up the trash, but didn’t kick him out. I felt a knot in my stomach form. Although, the bus was a few stops away from where I had to get off, it was the most uncomfortable few minutes of my life as the man just stared at me. Thankfully, the man didn’t follow me and I got out of the bus shaken, but okay.
Only once did someone stand up for me. During rush hour, I was unable to get to the spot in the car that is reserved for wheelchairs. People usually just crowd in that area and ignore me, so I park myself in a way that there is enough space for others to slip out without blocking any of the doors. As the train picked up more passengers and started filling up, a woman came behind me and started mumbling. I didn’t pay attention at first, but as she left the train a few minutes later, she turned back and screamed at me, “You should not be in the train; Wheelchairs should not be allowed on the train!” All eyes turned towards me, but I couldn’t muster the words to come up with a reply. An older man standing besides me, however, didn’t hesitate. He screamed back, “How can you say that? What if you were in the same position? You should be ashamed of yourself!” A million questions ran through my head that I had wished I screamed back at her; What about the other people occupying the train? Why don’t you scream at the people taking my spot? Why couldn’t you just go into another car or wait for the next train? But there I was in the train car frozen and humiliated. I’m not sure if the man who helped me that day heard me thank him as I struggled to speak.
Within the days following this incident, I kept on thinking of the man who stood up for me and how grateful I was. I don’t doubt that I am a strong woman, but it’s scary sometimes being at everyone else’s hip level, strapped in the bus, or stuck on the subway platform. I feel invisible some days, until something goes wrong, and then it’s most likely my fault. I tell my friends and family that when you are on a wheelchair, you attract the good, the bad, and the ugly. While I can’t control the challenges life throws at me on a daily basis, I want to implore you, the reader, to be the good in this world. Have the courage to stand up for someone in need, disabled or not. Even though I was shocked after the lady screamed me, for a moment, I felt empowered knowing that someone had my back. This one selfless act made it easier to wake up the next morning with the same courage to go out into the world again. So, would you stand up for me?