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  Roll Models and the Roiling of Normalcy

sketch of wheelchair

By K.D. Laird

Her name was Schwartz, Gertrude Schwartz. Or maybe it was Jennifer Logan. No, she was definitely a Gertrude. At least that's what I'd decided to tell my stepbrother one night, while we were playing with some old toys.

It was 1985 and we were really too old for the toys. We messed with them anyway because our respective parents were not ready to leave the relatives' house we were visiting. The little toys were plastic characters that came along with a two-story hospital set. All the characters were dressed either as patients or personnel. None of them had arms. There were little plastic doctors that had little stethoscopes around their necks and big lights on their forehead. Plastic nurses came equipped with the traditional, white hats, and their "bottoms" were flared out to depict a dress.

The other characters, all of them simple, were dressed in either one color or the other, mostly with the same head, though I don't recall any other dresses besides the nurses'. The people had no legs, to speak of, just one plastic tube so you could put them in various places in the hospital, like in the waiting room, or in a bed, even a wheelchair. I'd put Gertrude in a wheelchair, because that's the way I'd always seen her in school. As a matter of fact, the reason I didn't know her real name is because the wheelchair freaked me out.

I was a new student in a new area of town, and it was a new school. My stepdad decided it would be best if we "got the hell out" of South Houston before it turned into a really bad area of town, so he took a higher paying job on the north side of the nation's fourth largest metropolis. We moved from the city to an affluent suburban area after my last year of elementary school. The first four weeks of junior high, my mom and I got up at five a.m. every morning to make the hour and a half drive it would take to get me to school on time, since we were not moved in yet. The sudden change was a shock to say the least.

At the new school, even the dress code was different. Not any dress code the school enforced, but a social dress code the students enforced. I was told right away that people didn't wear socks with colored stripes. And they sure as hell didn't pull them up past their calves. All the so-called cool people were wearing ankle socks, with no colored stripes. It seems silly now that such a trivial thing held such importance. Yet for a sixth grader, socks are as important as the right brand of shoes, or the right color for a three-ring binder. That a cool three-ring binder and ankle socks have little to do with the personality of the boy (or girl) wearing them means less to a sixth grader than April 15.

In an attempt to look like everyone else, I helped push my financially-strapped family one step closer to a second bankruptcy by pleading with my mother for high-dollar clothes. I claimed if I didn't have the most expensive acid-washed jeans and high-top basketball shoes, I'd be harassed and forced to fight.

It had just been within the previous year that I had really started to get into trouble at school, which was probably brought on by the move. At one point, my mom had pulled me out of the public school and put me into a private school to try and put an early end to my budding delinquent habits. But when we moved north of town I was allowed to return to the public school system, probably because my mom believed I was her little angel, though I was a devil. I was running with a bad crowd, she would say. It wasn't my fault. She thought I was being influenced, but I was mischievous. I was setting new boundaries for life, testing the waters of independence, and talking back to adults on a regular basis.

The worst part about inspiring people is that they have to go and tell you about it.

Sixth grade at a new junior high proved to be a challenge. My first mistake was that I joined band, instantly becoming a band fag in the eyes of the majority of the school's student population, or so it seemed. I had to fight to show that I wasn't to be messed with. I would eventually form my own circle of friends in high school, but not without numerous trips to detention hall, the principal's office, in-school suspension, and, eventually, off-campus suspension to an "alternative" school my junior year. After all the trouble, sixth grade was still the worst.

That's the year I met "Gertrude." Gertrude was blonde, not very attractive, maybe five-foot-six, and I never knew what color her eyes were. I never got that close, and I never looked that long. She used a big metal chair, the kind some people with disabilities refer to now as the limousine of wheelchairs, yet I didn't know that at the time, of course. Another thing I didn't know is that she probably had cerebral palsy, because her legs and arms seemed to work, it was just that the muscles seemed too weak to support her body weight, not to mention her head, which would roll from one side to the other when changing directions. All I knew was that I didn't want to walk by her in the hall, and when I had to, when I couldn't avoid it, I walked as close to the wall as I could, away from Gertrude. It was the first time I'd ever seen anyone using a wheelchair. I would watch her from the corner of my eye, like she was some dangerous animal, and when she wasn't looking my way I would take an eyeful, looking her and the wheelchair over. I decided there wasn't anything scary about her or the wheelchair. It seemed that Gertrude and I passed each other a lot that year in the hall, both of us going it alone.

I don't ever remember talking to my mom about it, but I did mention it to my stepbrother the night we played with the hospital people. Even a twelve-year-old mind couldn't miss the association of the plastic wheelchair and the crippled student I saw on a regular basis. I put "Gertrude" in the wheelchair and ran her off the second floor, drove a plastic ambulance over her, then put her back in the chair and pushed her at high speed into a wall. The little plastic Gertrude slammed into the wall and rolled out of the chair. We laughed. Little kids do that. They don't know exactly what they're laughing at, but it feels good so they laugh. It's a power trip. But I took it a step further.

I told my stepbrother it wasn't just play, that I had actually pushed a girl in a wheelchair into the wall, then ran away. It was a lie of course, something I had become fond of doing by then, which took years to overcome. Well, maybe I'll let one slip every once in a while, but not without good reason.

I told the story about Gertrude because I wanted to make my stepbrother laugh, and I succeeded, but at another's expense. I didn't know who she really was, and I never found out. I was cravenly enforcing the discriminating ideal of the "normal" body. Sometimes I would see her go by the window on the classroom door, just her head, hovering along, disappearing quickly from sight. All the cripples, whether temporary or permanent, got out of class about ten minutes earlier than the other students, I guess so they weren't trampled in the between-class stampede. For some reason, though, I'd frequently see Gertrude pushing along the corridors with the other students, despite her early release from class. I knew she had time to make it to class, so why was she roaming the halls? It's possible she just wanted to stroll, to see the people. Or maybe she wanted the people to see her. At least that's what I think now, some eighteen years later, ten years into permanent crippledom./p>

I hate to say it, but Gertrude was an inspiration. Aaaahhhh, the dreaded word! I refuse to inspire people. I go out of my way to avoid inspiring. And still it happens. I can't control what other people think, however hard I try. The worst part about inspiring people is that they have to go and tell you about it. Does anyone with a disability ever feel like they live up to the inspiration they give unwillingly to the nondisabled? How about if the person they inspire is also disabled?

As a wheelchair user, having paraplegia for one-third of my life, I've come to possess insight into Gertrude's world, or at least a glimpse of it. I, too, have seen children go out of their way to avoid me, while others pass me with care, deliberately not looking my way. But adults do the same thing. A few weeks ago I was at a convenient store, looking for my favorite flavored sport drink, when I noticed the reflection of a man standing behind me, getting an eyeful of me. I slowly held up my hand, keeping my back to the man, and shot the bird at the guy, then turned to look in his direction and smiled, so as not to start a fight. He smiled, too, didn't say anything, and I rolled off with the fruit punch. Just once, I wish ole Gertrude would have given me the finger for staring. Not only would I have deserved it, maybe I would have learned from it.

There was no stopping me, though, I've always been a people watcher. It's the curse of being human. Our eyes are drawn to the unusual, to the bizarre, and to the daring, as well as to the beautiful. After all, it's only been about a hundred years since the freak shows of carnivals were there to reaffirm our normalcy. Nowadays, it's the everyday Joe and Jane who are made to feel like freaks, when compared to the spectacle of the Miss America pageant or the athletes of professional sports. The normal body has become more and more exclusive, while all other body variations have more or less been ignored by a capitalist-driven society that benefits from the promotion of the so-called beautiful. When I was six, I got in trouble for staring at the hugest human I'd ever seen, sitting in the booth behind us in a restaurant. I still watch people, especially attractive women, though I try not to stare. Sometimes it's hard, but I can be a damn hypocrite like that.

Anyway, I started thinking about Gertrude after I nearly passed out at a buddy's house. The buddy wasn't actually there. His seventeen-year-old brother and I were waiting for him to get back from the store, playing a video game to pass the time. I don't know if it was the Mexican schwag or the dizzying video game screen, but I suddenly felt very light-headed. I've only passed out a couple of times in my life, both after becoming paralyzed. Each time the symptoms have resembled dysreflexia, but I'd been told paras don't have to worry about dysreflexia. I guess, that is, not unless you abuse your body to the point of dehydration from drinking too many beers, and other things.

My player on the screen died and I put down the controller, explaining to my opponent that I didn't feel well. I really felt like I needed to lie down, though I didn't tell him that. I wanted to be tough, I wanted to appear normal, and besides, I'd had these "near-passing-out" feelings before. It would be a mind-numbing ride, but I'd always seen it through to the other side. Still, I excused myself and went to the truck to lay back in the driver's seat and rest until I could make it home without killing me or someone else, or getting pulled over. As I was leaving the apartment, I said something to the brother I've regretted all night: "I apologize for any weirdness this may have caused." Weirdness. Yes, I actually said that.

People who use wheelchairs are always trying to make the nondisabled people around them feel comfortable, because we detect their uneasiness like a guard dog senses fear.

Why was I apologizing? Because my body was not cooperating? That's no reason to apologize. I don't have any more control over the malfunctioning parts of my body than Gertrude had over hers. People who use wheelchairs are always trying to make the nondisabled people around them feel comfortable, because we detect their uneasiness like a guard dog senses fear.

My buddy's brother remained silent through the whole scene, offering to get the door when I made my graceless exit. What kind of a perception had I left with him? I live in a small, isolated town, as isolated as things can be in a world with the world wide web. As far as I know, I am one of three active wheelchair users in a town of six thousand. I try to leave an impression on people that makes them think outside of the box, so to speak. I defy, deny, and decry stereotypes. I can't help what other people think of me, but I sure as hell give them something to think about.

At first glance, I'm tattooed white trash. On first encounter, I'm well-spoken, slightly educated, and even somewhat affable, unless you get me talking about the unequal distribution of money in this country. My philosophy on staring (coming from a semi-reformed starer) is "look and learn," but I don't allow gawking to pass without a physical or verbal reply. Moreover, I try to do as much as I can for myself and remain as independent as possible, yet not turn down help when it's needed. I grew up in the house of a Marine, a Vietnam vet from Tennessee, who had very definite ideas of what it took to be a man. Maybe it's the redneck in me, but I don't like to appear weak. That's why I didn't want to say anything when I first started feeling light-headed at my friend's place, though I was sure at one point I was headed for the floor.

Gertrude wasn't weak. She didn't hide in the classroom between classes to stay out of view. She roamed the halls where she and her wheelchair could be seen, despite the fact that scared little boys would avoid her and cross the hall to pass her. I remember seeing a Black student mock Gertrude one day in the hall, while a gathering crowd looked on. She defiantly stated, in her baffling voice, "Don't make fun of me," and the crowd laughed. I probably laughed, too.

I didn't see Gertrude as a person, I saw her as the Other, an exotic. Cripples are not flawed; we're bent on self-determination. In other words, don't tell us what we can do until we show you what we can do. After using a wheelchair as a primary source of mobility for a decade, I find my enemy to be society's perception of disability, rather than the physical impairment itself. One by one I will attempt to shed, dislocate, and expose our culture's myths of disability, using myself as a starting point, and the misused toys of a long-lost youth will become the tools used to build a future. People seem to forget that disability is a natural, normal part of life. And as more than one disability activist has noted, everyone becomes disabled, whether through accident, disease, or the imminent process of aging. And, of course, lest we forget, memento mori: remember you must die. Death remains the ultimate disabler.

Gertrude, if you're still out there, two things: first, what comes around goes around, eh? Second, thanks for roaming the halls and sticking to your guns. You gave at least one future gimp food for thought, even if it was almost two decades later.

Posted August 18, 2004

K.D. Laird is a graduate student at Sul Ross State University in Alpine, Texas.

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