No big dealWhen I took the bus to work in Astoria a few weeks ago, the first person I saw when I boarded was a woman in a high-tech wheel chair.
No big deal, you say. Sitting in the first seat behind her, I saw a now familiar accoutrement of a wheel chair user - a colorful bag, that probably held myriad personal items that we able-bodied carry in pockets or purse. I couldn't tell the source of the woman's disability, perhaps a major stroke.
At the end of the day, she was waiting to take the return trip to the Peninsula. During the few extra minutes it took the driver to secure her wheelchair on the bus, I heard a little grumbling about "now we'll be late" from a fellow rider. Again, not surprising.
Sometimes I encounter people who remind me of the Buddhist tenet of the "bodhisattva," a highly evolved soul who, rather than attaining nirvana, returns to this life to assist in the spiritual evolution of mankind. The bodhisattva is often described as a passive teacher, one who through his or her difficult life, gives us the opportunity to learn compassion and become more spiritually attuned.
I thought of this when I saw the woman on the bus and when I finally got around to viewing "The Elephant Man," a movie about John Merrick, a 19th century man so disfigured by an unknown disease that he was displayed in a carnival sideshow as one of the "freaks."
The point of "Elephant Man" was that inside a horribly misshapen body lived a gentle soul with an erudite mind - a challenge to the prejudices at all levels of his society. Merrick moved his surgeon-rescuer from scientific curiosity to self-awareness and compassion. For all we knew, our fellow traveler, like John Merrick, had a spectacular intellect and a caring heart ... but we couldn't tell because no one attempted conversation.
I was also reminded of my friend Ed Roberts and how far we've all come ... and how far we have yet to go. Ed had had polio when he was 14, but completed high school class work with an A average ... but couldn't get a diploma because he hadn't taken required PE classes. It took an embarrassed school board to finally give him the piece of paper. By the time I met Ed in his late 20's, he was a grad student at the Universtiy of California at Berkley.
In spite of his intellectual attainments, Ed could go nowhere without an attendant. Ed couldn't move any part of his body below the neck except a bit of one hand - "just enough to flip you the bird," he'd laugh. When I met Ed back in 1965, there were no electric wheelchairs you could operate with the flip of a toggle switch. There weren't even curb cuts that would allow a wheelchair or baby carriage to pass easily.
Eventually, Ed's little hand movement was enough to operate an advanced wheelchair, specially designed to meet his needs. Over time, that little movement, getting curb cuts and ramps in a few crucial locations on the Cal campus, became a university-wide, then city-wide, then state-wide, then national movement.
Now, most of the time in most places, people with disabilities are able to get around. It's partly due to their perseverance, partly due to their demand for specialized equipment, but it's also because through their efforts, we've come to accept the fact that people with disabilities have talents and energy to contribute and we might as well make it easier for them to do so.
My friend Ed Roberts, with his humor, smarts and unrelenting activism, became a hero of the disability rights movement. He was one of the first recipients of a MacArthur Fellowship and used the money to help launch the World Institute for Disability, which works to prevent disability through polio immunizations and other programs. Ed was the first disabled person to direct the California Department of Rehabilitation, managing 3,000 employees who in the past had at times been patronizing and insensitive to the desire for independent living among people with disabilities. Obviously, Ed with his severe disability achieved things most of us never do.
So, when I see a supposedly routine event, a woman in a wheelchair on a bus, I think, no this isn't routine, it's just as thrilling as Rosa Parks on her bus. And, maybe, just maybe, I'm in the presence of an advanced soul who is willing to weather not only the hardship of her disability but the social reaction that comes with it.
Victoria Stoppiello is a free lance writer from Ilwaco, where even there she is reminded of her friend, Ed Roberts, every time she sees a curb cut.