Frequently I run into people who have an idea of who I am long before they talk to me. Many think I am a poor guy down on his luck, a war veteran with a chip on his shoulder, or that I may be socially awkward. While I know they have never met me and likely have never even met anyone like me before, they tend to have ideas of who I am and what they will say to me.
They may get these ideas from TV shows or movies, which typically use able-bodied actors to portray disabled characters. I don’t fault the actors or even the writers for their unrealistic characters. They usually create the character to inspire people to overcome challenges or to warn them of the dangers of war, heavy machinery, drinking and driving etc. In movies, amputees are often victims of something, and their role is often to get people to think about how they would feel if an illness or accident took away part of their body.
My situation is a bit different. Not only am I not a victim of an accident, I live a normal life. I’m not in terrible pain, and I don’t have a tragic story that haunts me. When I run into random people that see me, I am usually just going about my day and living my life.
My greatest challenge is dealing with a wide range of reactions. Often people stare at me, ignore me, make comments, or ask me questions because they’re uncomfortable. Either they see something they can’t explain, and their mind immediately wants an answer, or they cover up their awkwardness with a random statement. To the ones who ask questions and want to listen, I explain my situation. To the ones who point or stare, I just wave at them and smile, letting them know, “I can see you.”
This past weekend, I ran into two separate families with two totally different reactions to me.
One family was walking into a store as I was rolling out on my skateboard with some clothes I had purchased. The parents just stepped to the side and otherwise ignored me. Their 8-year-old boy was another story. He was scared and pulled his mother in front of him as I went by, his eyes barely able to stay in his head. He didn’t say anything, but, as far as uncomfortable stares, this was pretty high on my list. I didn’t give it much thought, but I would say this is not the way I want people to react to me: one part ignoring me and the other part staring at me like I have horns growing out of my head.
The next family I encountered was much different. My two girls and I were at a giant pizza chain that has games and parties for the kids. While I was in line to get my beverage, a father and his two daughters were in front of me. From their appearances, I would have judged them as not very well-off and less than sophisticated. The 12-year-old girl was wearing short shorts and a cut off tee shirt, and her sister was dressed much the same. The father was in jeans and a shirt that had come untucked on one side. These were neither the type of people I would normally hang out with, nor the type I would normally talk with.
The father leaned over and asked in a polite voice, “What happened to your legs?”
Now, those of you with legs may not know this, but this is a very common question for me. Rarely do I encounter a person that asks me how I’m doing today or if I saw that game on TV last night. No, this is by far the number one question I get, and it is asked within a few seconds of someone seeing me.
Being who I am, I have heard this question a million different ways: What happened to your legs? What happened to you? Are you okay? Did you lose your legs in… Iraq, a train wreck, a car accident, a lion attack, a bread slicer?
The obvious problem with asking this question is, if I was in a horrific accident, they are actually asking me to tell them about it. Let’s just say this is not how people should greet a total stranger.
No matter how the question is asked, I usually say, “Nothing happened.” This little dose of reality tends to shock them into thinking either I am crazy or that I am trying to be funny. While I’m sure it is a little of both, it is the most honest answer I can give them. I then elaborate and say that I was born without legs and that I am not in any pain. I add that I have prosthetic legs at home, but I don’t usually wear them on the weekends when I’m out with my kids. I use a skateboard because it is just much faster and easier for me to get where I need to go, and I have a wheelchair, too.
Most people just say, “Oh, okay” and walk away, but this family was a bit different.
After I told him my short spiel about being born this way, the man turned to his kids and said with great enthusiasm, “Hey girls, this guy is riding a skateboard! Isn’t that cool?” The daughters said, “Yeah, that is cool!” They then extended their fists to me and said, “Fist bump!”
This truly took me by surprise. I had completely misjudged them. I expected this would be just a normal show-and-tell during which they would interrogate me more than my own doctor. But this was unexpected, this was special to me. I liked being celebrated for what I was doing rather than the way I looked. They were amazed – not ignoring me or fearing me like the other family. And, for this, I was really excited.
I understand that I am different, and I understand that people are curious. And I know that part of my life’s purpose is to educate people and encourage their curiosity.
Don’t get the wrong impression. It’s not that I don’t want people asking me questions. I would simply prefer they get to know me better and recognize me as a man, a father, a fiancé, a poet, someone who loves to cook, a world traveler, a skateboard-rider… not just a guy without legs.