Story by Gary Karp
I have a pet peeve about waiting for elevators.
On the very strong chance that someone will be on it when the door opens, I stay well back to allow them plenty of room. So it’s always surprising to me when someone stands right at the door after they press the button.
But here’s what really gets me: when the door opens, and someone is there, upon seeing me (at a comfortable distance leaving them plenty of room), they say:
For what??!! They have plenty of room to get by, so I don’t have to move. They have the right of way to get off before I get on, so they aren’t inconveniencing me in any way. Nothing to apologize for here, folks.
It happens in restaurants, too, when someone has to get up so I can get past them to my table. They say, “I’m sorry,” and I say, “What are you apologizing for?! I’m the one who’s disturbing YOU!” At least this always gets a laugh.
In fact, people apologize to me a lot, in many different settings. What’s going on here?
They certainly aren’t making a conscious choice to apologize. It happens too fast for it to be something they considered before speaking. It just spills out. Plus, it happens so often that it can only be some kind of innate, reflexive, automatic response.
To the fact that I’m sitting in a wheelchair.
Hearing “I’m sorry” to the fact of using my chair feels like pity. And I’m very uncomfortable with anyone pitying me simply because I can’t walk.
For many years after my T12 spinal cord injury in 1973, I would react to anyone expressing sympathy for my paralysis by immediately trying to ward it off. “It’s fine,” I’d say. “I have a very full life. I work, I drive, I travel, I play guitar. I have sex!”
Thanks, but no pity. (This, by the way, is the title of a very important book by Joseph Shapiro that you should read).
Over time, though, I came to understand these apologetic impulses in a new light. We’re wired to sympathize, to care about other’s pain and suffering, to reach out in a way that’s meant to acknowledge and affirm. There’s a part of this that deserves to be noted as a beautiful thing.
But there’s another piece I think is more meaningful—and harmful. They believe that disability is a horrible prospect, the last thing they would want for themselves. They think that true acceptance and adjustment is the exception that only the heroic few can achieve. So the natural response (from not knowing better) is apologetic sympathy.
That translates into a deeply ingrained bias that is preventing society from subscribing to at a radically changed view of disability that is in step with modern reality. Disability is something to which we adapt, rather than something that compromises our life forever. That blind spot translates into a political orientation that fails to invest in independence and possibility for people with disabilities. It denies people their lives.
I have my moment of bemusement at the elevator, and I make my joke at the restaurant, but ultimately I dearly, dearly want people to lose the “I’m sorry” reflex and just smile and say hello as we carry on with our respective daily business. I’ll feel a lot better when we live in a world that accepts disability as a norm and would not be in the least surprised that I have no need for any expression of sympathy for the fact that I wheel rather than walk through my life.
Gary Karp has used a wheelchair since falling out of a tree and injuring his spinal cord at T12 in 1973. He was 18 years old. Learn more at ModernDisability.com.