Shrink on Wheels

Cartoon Image: Man drops coins into cup of man in a wheel chair, who is looking away. The word awkward is diagonal between the men.

The interaction of human beings has always fascinated me. It’s funny to watch the reactions of some people when they meet someone who’s disabled. Most of the time, people are normal, but there’s always a few that seem a little uneasy. Sometimes, it’s hard to get direct eye contact from them. Maybe they think, “I better not get too close, I might catch what he’s got.” Some are afraid if they asked a question, the person with a disability would answer in grunts and hand gestures while they stood there, dumbfounded, trying to figure out what the other person is saying. “Is this what you want? A bottle of water? A tissue? A chicken?”

There have been times where people feel pity for the person who is disabled. They talk to them in a soft whisper, “You’ll be okay. God loves you.” I’m glad folks tell me that. Who would’ve ever thought that God could love the disabled people of the world? I thought He only liked the lepers and the chubby lady who sings in church. I’ve had religious believers come up and pray over me. They’ve even tried to stand me up for a miraculous healing. When it doesn’t work, they claim my faith is weak. I disagree. I tell them I had the utmost faith that this “healing” wasn’t going to work. They don’t bother me. Bless their little hearts for caring. Besides, a guy like me can use all the prayers he can get.

I’ve noticed some people are scared to talk to the person who is disabled. Maybe they just don’t know what to say. Maybe they’re afraid they might offend the person. Maybe they think the person will blurt out something and spray slobber on them. I don’t know. It’s tough to say. Everybody’s different. One time I was on a date in a restaurant and the waitress took the order from my date, and then, without looking at me, asked her, “And what would he like?” My dating companion huffed, “I don’t know. Why don’t you ask him?” So she turned to me and politely asked, “And what can I get you?” I blurted a series of babbling moans and groans as drool dripped down my face. I know… it was wrong, but I just wanted to make a point.

On the flip side, there are those folks who won’t stop talking to you. Many times I’ve gone out to a bar to enjoy a beer and, I don’t know what is, but the wheelchair attracts the drunkest guy in the room. He staggers over and usually starts out with a “wannabe funny line,” referring to my wheelchair, something like, “What kind of mileage does that thing get?” Before I can give him that fake, insincere, forced chuckle, the lush is cracking up at his own joke and telling his friends what he just said. Then he has to rephrase it to me several times to make sure I get it. “Do you get better mileage in the city? When’s the last time you had it in for a check-up? You know you should take it in every 10,000 miles.” Yes, he’s laughing after each line. No, I’m not laughing. I’ve heard the routine over a hundred times. It’s lost its punch. And no, I don’t get better mileage in the city. I can tolerate these intoxicated buffoons. They usually feel sorry for me and buy my drinks. Who’s complaining?

Sometimes, people approach me and I guess they want to feel empathetic.

“I know what you’re going through,” they’ll say, “I had to spend some time in one of those wheelchairs.”

“Oh really,” I reply, “What happened to you?”

“Well, I had pretty bad infected ingrown toenail and was laid up for almost a week.”
I sympathetically nod, “Well it must’ve been hell on ya, buddy. Damn, I only broke my neck.” At least I can get a pedicure.

The old ladies are sweet.

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I think they feel the pain of the disabled. Whenever I talk to one, they pat me on the head like a dog. I usually jump out of my chair and start humping their leg. Maybe we don’t threaten them. They probably figure they could kick our ass if we tried to steal their money. When you’re in a wheelchair, people tend to park you around the one person who nobody wants to talk to; the gabby grandmother, the drunken uncle, or the annoying neighbor who always stops by unannounced. I guess the thinking is, “well, if you’re just going to be sitting there, you entertain the misfits.” Maybe the thought is that the disabled guy is lonely and this will be a treat for him. Yes, I am lonely, but no one ever parks me in front of the stripper. I get Uncle Ted telling me about government conspiracies and how the aliens scan us with blue ultraviolet light beams.

People react differently to a disabled person. Some are cold. Some are warm. Some will ignore the person. Some will go out of their way to do everything they can for the other person. “Can I get you anything? Do you need me to push you anywhere? How about a nice neck massage?” These folks are kind and wonderful. They help me to get back to my lazy roots where I’m most comfortable. I try not to take advantage of them, but let’s face it, who can turn down a neck massage? If I can help you to feel better about yourself, I’m there. We’re a team. Your hands and my neck. Sometimes folks want to be so helpful that they’ll come up and push my wheelchair up a hill and into a building. I appreciate their efforts. I never have the guts to tell them that I was going to go into the building across the street. So now, I have a longer wheel.

Others can be overly cautious. These apprehensive individuals are not exactly sure what to do. Should they offer you any assistance? Will they insult you if they ask if they can assist you? Is the word “assist” even okay to use? I have a lot of sympathy for these individuals. They certainly mean well. They want to do well, but I’m sure in the back of their minds they have a scary vision of some overly sensitive, irate, uppity disabled dude snapping, “Keep your grubby hands off of me! I can do it myself!!” Sadly, there are some of those “pissed-atthe- world” people out there. But my advice is, it never hurts to ask. Remember, if it comes to a “throw down” you got the upper hand. Just make sure to always try and get positioned behind the wheelchair. It’s where they’re most vulnerable to choke hold.

Sometimes people just don’t know how they should act around a disabled person. It’s understandable. We’re odd creatures. There was this one time when I came out of a Starbucks and I was just sitting there, enjoying the sun beating on my face, when a man walked by me and put a five dollar bill in my cup and said, “Keep your chin up, big guy.” I didn’t realize how pathetic I looked (I’ve got to learn to match my shirt with my pants.) Giving me money? How rude. I was flabbergasted, so I stayed out there the rest of the day and made two hundred bucks. Luckily, nobody asked me to sing a Blues song. All in all, it was a good payday.

Often times, people will view me as non-threatening, which means that I’m somebody they can open up to. They spill their life problems on me like I’m the “shrink on wheels.” Don’t get me wrong, I like a good juicy story, but I don’t really need to know that your husband dresses up in woman’s attire. I just can’t help you on that one—although you should take pictures for divorce court. I’m not licensed to give professional advice, but I typically do for my own enjoyment. But please remember, I have no power to absolve you from any sins. They usually tell me that I’m really easy to talk to—and I haven’t said a word. I’m trapped listening to their problems. A lot of times you can get away with quick sentences like, “I feel your pain, dawg.” Or, I’ll huff, “Men are so clueless.” My favorite is, “You go, girl.” I haven’t ruled out the possibility that it could also be the wheelchair. They understand I can’t escape quickly from their boring stories, so they know they have a captive audience. I’m always like, “Excuse me, I gotta go… Ummm… sheer the sheep… out in the barn… cause I was supposed to do that yesterday… or the sheep get mad at me and then… I have to… get the mileage checked on my wheelchair…. But you’ll be okay I promise… you go girl.”

You never know how an individual will react to the disabled. There have been times where people have yelled at me, called me names, and even spat on me—which is why I don’t spend Christmas with the family anymore. I joke. Hey, you’re alright. If there is an upside to being disabled, it is that I do see a lot of good in people. Many are kind, caring, folks offering assistance to me if I need it. Do I take advantage of that? You bet your sweet boots I do. I’m just in a wheelchair, not stupid… actually, not completely stupid. I deserve a break every now and then. Look at some of the people who I’ve had to put up with.


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by Jeff Charlebois

Cartoon Image of Jeff with a mic next to his book, "Life is a Funny Thing".

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