A Kick in the Stomach (Written in 2011)
By Avery Olmstead
Several weeks ago, I needed to finish reading a book so that I could write a review for Eastern Area Agency on Aging. Since I have the attention span of a gnat, I decided that I would get out of my apartment and spend the afternoon in the park next door. After spending several hours in the park gazebo, I got ready to go home. Unfortunately, part of the joystick that I use to drive my electric wheelchair (I have Cerebral Palsy) fell off. It was a small piece of rubber that I could put back on very easily, but fell just beyond my reach. I thought, “It’s a nice day, I’m sure someone will come by soon.” Not exactly. I stayed for over an hour, keeping my eye out for anybody who was coming in my direction. Finally, a very kind gentleman came by and asked if I needed help. After he passed me the piece that fell off, he told me, “Seeing you makes me realize how lucky I am.” I have to be honest, I felt like someone had kicked me in the stomach. At the time though, I went on autopilot and said, “Actually, having a disability is more annoying than anything (which is basically true).”
On the way home, I started to think about why his comment had bothered me so much. It certainly was not the first time that sentiment had been expressed to me. I also believe he meant it as a “compliment.” I think what ultimately bothered me was the assumption that my life wasn’t as good as his because of my disability.
Life with a disability isn’t easy. Sometimes, I do wish that I could walk because it would make my life physically easier. It can be exhausting and incredibly frustrating, at times. However, anything physical that I have to deal with does not compare to a lot of the societal assumptions that are made about my disability. I have a Master’s degree. I’ve been in committed relationships. I have an apartment. I have a supportive family. I have great friends. I have a bookcase stacked with mystery novels and I love tv. Even though things could be better, I think my life is pretty good. I feel like where having a disability is rough is in being pointed at in public when I was a kid, like I was a zoo exhibit, or not being able to go everywhere I want to go because there might be stairs. Sometimes, I can’t hang out with my friends because I don’t have a way to get there. I’ve been denied the use of a bathroom. I’ve had wait staff ask my friends, “What would he like to order?” I’ve gone into job interviews where the sight of me sent the interviewer into panic mode. I’ve seen and experienced some really ugly things.
At the same time, I’ve also witnessed the kindness of others, the willingness to work towards change together. I’ve met some incredible people and had experiences that I never would have had as an able-bodied person. Having a disability isn’t the worst thing that’s ever happened to me but having barriers put in your path that can keep you from living your life is the much bigger problem, in my opinion.
If someone gave me a pill and said, “Take this and you’ll be able to walk,” I’d have to think about it. As I said earlier, on the one hand, it would make my life physically easier. On the other hand, having a disability has shaped me into the person that I am and I wouldn’t want to lose that. In some ways, that gentleman from the park is luckier than me and I truly don’t begrudge him that, but I’m lucky too.
Avery Olmstead lives in Old Town, Maine with his 13 year old Maine Coon cat (and owner), Max. Avery has 44 years of personal & professional experience in the disability field. He uses a wheelchair, due to Cerebral Palsy. He has a BS in Rehabilitation Services from the University of Maine at Farmington a post-graduate certificate as a Mental Health Rehabilitation Technician from the University of Southern Maine and an MLIS in Library & Information Science from the University of South Carolina at Columbia.
In 2014, Avery completed a 2.5 year stint working as an Academic Librarian for the Department of Disability and Human Development at the University of Illinois at Chicago where he researched, the research that has been created on the Americans with Disabilities Act. Currently, Avery is a Legislative Associate for Speaking Up for Us of Maine (www.sufumaine.org/blog). In addition, he is a Volunteer Consultant on a healthcare access & advocacy project for the Maine Developmental Disabilities Council.
If you would like to contact Avery, feel free to do so at: firstname.lastname@example.org