When I was in New York back in May, I found myself awkwardly standing in the hotel’s lobby while digging through my purse in a poor attempt to find the room key needed to get into the restroom. I was approached by a woman who asked to get in. She explained she was not a guest, but speaking at an event in the hotel. She was polite enough. Sure, lady. I will gladly let you in, let me just find my key.
As I was making my way through the depths of my bag, (I’m well aware, I am in desperate need of purse organization. I’m telling you, it’s not going to happen due to the exorbitant amount of prosthetic socks living there). My search provided a brief, anxiety filled, and perfectly timed moment of awkward silence. Just enough time for her to glance down and notice my prosthetic and my AFO.
As I finally, victoriously, pull out my key card, she placed her hand on my shoulder and proceeded to say,
“Oh, I didn’t realize. You poor thing”.
“Poor thing”. As if the physical contact from a stranger wasn’t enough. Admittedly, I desperately wanted to deny her access to the restroom. My own petty revenge. Instead, I awkwardly smiled, nodded, and let us both in while cement settled in my stomach. At that moment, I wasn’t sure how to feel or what to say. I did know that there was no way I was leaving the stall until she was gone and I was very thankful for an empty stomach. I spent the rest of the evening and most of the following day trying to decide how I felt about the comment. I was further sent into a weird brain place when a gentleman approached me the next morning and simply said, “You’re inspirational”.
Here’s the thing, I know that both of these comments came from a place that was anything but malicious. These individuals meant well, but each comment felt weird in different ways. ‘Weird’ is the best way to put it. Nice, but off? Somehow. If you’ve heard anything like this before, you may know what I’m trying to say.
Starting with the inspiration comment, I understand why someone may say this and believe it to be a positive comment. And it can be! But only with context. When my friends and family tell me I inspire them, there is positive meaning. However, my friends and family see a different side of me. They see my struggle, and how hard it is for me to get out of bed on some days. They also see me give every ounce of strength I have just to get through my day. A stranger doesn’t see that. A stranger just sees my disability, and their comment almost feels like a punch. In my head, I hear, “Good for you! You have a visible disability and you’re still in public!”. Again, logically I understand that the comment came from a place of kindness, and maybe this comment would have made your day if you were in my shoes. That was not my experience.
Then we have the crown jewel, ‘you poor thing’. I cannot emphasize enough how much I understand that the intent of this comment was compassion. That fact does not negate the belittling feelings that immediately settled in my gut when I heard the words. The comment made me feel 3 inches tall. Nothing hits like someone insinuating your disability makes you unfortunate in some way. My disability is a lot of things, and gives me a lot of emotions, but misfortune is not one of them. I make a daily effort to minimize the effect my disability has on my quality of life. Comments like this knock me back a few paces.
There is a benefit to hearing strangers vocalize being impressed or inspired by you. I’ve had a physical therapist approach me at Target to tell me she was impressed with my gait and someone in the check-out of Trader Joe’s tell me they loved the design on my socket. These comments made my day. The main point of this blog is mostly for me to complain about a moment that made me feel icky feelings. That is to say, when someone makes a comment to you about your disability or your prosthesis, your response is your own and valid. If the comment makes you smile, fantastic. If the comment makes you want to crawl under the covers, that’s okay too. However we react to others’ perception of our disability is valid. The most important opinion is your own.