Here in The Village, most of the people, though older than me, have only relatively minor disabilities: the usual bad backs, hip replacements, aching bones, and the other physical annoyances usually found with old age. So far, I think I am the only person using a motorised wheelchair in The Village. Mostly, they are a friendly, welcoming bunch who take you pretty much at face value. A few, a very few, are briefly discomfited by the presence of a wheelchair.
Despite the generally welcoming and friendly atmosphere, a couple of slightly awkward moments have arisen.
We recently had a night time community dinner in the dining hall – roast chicken, veggies, dessert, all very nice. About 60 or 70 residents turned up, including me. A great time was had by all. At the end, several people volunteered to stay back and clear up. As they were bustling about, moving tables, picking up chairs, clearing up plates and cutlery, one of them turned to me and said, “I bet you wish you were able to get up and help too”.
There was no insult intended. Nor was it said in a patronising way. I believe he meant it as a way of showing his solidarity and support for my situation. Nevertheless, though well meant, it was arguably in bad taste to say this to someone in a wheelchair. How to respond? I must confess I was taken aback. So much so, that all I did was smile enigmatically and say nothing in reply. The guy meant well, so I decided not to treat it as a big deal.
Then, a week or so ago, something similar happened again. Because my apartment is right next to the Village bowling green, I watch games quite often and am becoming quite friendly with the bowlers, some of whom are my neighbours. During a recent game, one of the female bowlers, rather older than me, came up and said, “I bet you wish you were down there”, gesturing towards the other bowlers walking around the green. Again, I don’t think she was intending to be either insulting or patronising. I think she intended to show a measure of supportive and empathetic friendship.
Again, how to respond? However, this time – after my experience at the chicken dinner – I was not caught short. I thought furiously for a few seconds, then replied, “actually, I’m thoroughly enjoying just watching the game from up here”. She was quite pleased with that response and so a potentially awkward moment passed by with no ill effects.
It all goes to show that words, in isolation, are not the be-all and end-all. You always have to take into account tone, body language, and situation, when deciding how to treat and respond to language that, on its own, could be offensive. In these two examples, potentially patronising and offensive comments were made. But I thought the context largely removed the offence. The people concerned were trying to be supportive and show empathy. They did it awkwardly, but they intended to be friendly. I was willing to meet them half-way, and give them the benefit of the doubt.
On these two occasions, I think I made the right call.