Disabled vs. Differently-abled

For years I’ve heard the term differently-abled used instead of disabled to describe a person with a major physical affliction. And to be truthful, I always thought it was more of that PC crap we are supposed to politely parrot while in front of groups of people. While I may have some small sympathy for some PC stuff, this particular term always struck me as non-sense. I guess my attitude could be summed up as, if you’re in a damn wheel chair, then by God at least be realistic about your affliction.

Well, I discovered the other night, completely by accident, that I was wrong. Let me tell you how.

I ride the bus to and from work a lot. Most of you who read this, have some idea that this is the case. The bus lends one to interact much more with their fellow commuters, and I must say I enjoy the experience much more than riding home in my own little sterile cubicle called a car.

Thursday evening was no different. I worked a long day (10 hours) and was coming home late. Later than normal. I chatted with a nice young girl while waiting for the bus. The bus was late, and as usually the case when it is late to this stop, it was packed full of people. The girl and I were still having a conversation, so we got on, and stopped only a little ways in. Normally I sit down all the way to the back of the bus, especially when I have my skateboard (which I did not on this particular evening), but because the bus was crammed full or people, the actual walk-way to the back was too full to even try. So we leaned into the others there, and continued to talk.

For those of you who have not ridden a Metro Bus in LA, the front most seats are transverse seats, meaning they run the length of the bus. After a few of these seats, the seats turn crosswise, and become the usual seats you’ve seen on almost every bus. The front transverse seats serve two purposes; they make it easier for the elderly and handicapped to get off and on the bus, and they can be easily moved aside to make room for a wheelchair.

Well on this night, there happened to be a wheelchair on the bus, with a young lady seated in it. Since the bus was packed, the young lady from the bus stop and I ended up having our conversation almost right on top of the girl in the wheelchair. after a few stops, the conversation was starting to get comments from others on the bus. This is part and parcel of having a conversation in a public situation like a bus. It is one of the few places I know of, where public input is more normal for all but the most private of conversations. So it wasn’t a surprise when others joined in. What was a surprise was when the girl in the wheelchair joined in. She was so sharp, and so interesting, that I ended up talking to her more than anyone else.

The found out the girl in the chair (although to be fair, she would probably prefer the term woman, I just use the term girl to denote she was young enough to be my daughter) was named Jane, and it turned out Jane and I are practically next-door neighbors. She’s an old hand on the bus, so we quickly started talking about other topics. I soon found out that Jane was working on her PhD in Ecology (which I in artfully mistook for Econ. at one point), was bright, vivacious, funny, sad, and just plain good company. Though I road with her on two buses, and one train, including all the elevators and such one need use with a chair (which I normally eschew) I never once got the feeling she was sorry for herself, or thought of herself as anything different than “abled.”

And in every real sense she was just as able as myself. Sure she couldn’t ride a skateboard  (most people cannot ride a skateboard), but she could motor in that chair of hers like you could not believe. She was calm and confident with it, maneuvering it around with a kind of sloppy grace, exactly like the way a buddy of mine (Clark) drives his car.

She never talked about herself negatively, which is rare for any girl. I never once got the feeling that she hung around with the disabled kids. In fact, with the exception of one story about someone she knew, she never once brought up other disabled people. What she did do was tell story after story of roommates, and friends, cooking meals, eating with her hands, living in an apartment, until I got the impression she lived her life very much like every able person lives their lives, just a little lower, and a heck of a lot faster.

When we got off the train, I asked her a few questions about her chair. She proudly spun it around, and showed me some of it features. Later when we were walking back from the last bus, she moved so fast, that my normally fast walk was far too slow to keep up. The entire block I got the distinct impression she was having to wait for the slow kid to catch up!

When she talked, she was very animated, using her whole body at times, craning her neck, twisting her arms, the whole works. I assume this had something to do with her affliction, but I also noticed that at times she would, in mid conversation, use one arm to hold down the other because it was moving too much. She never called attentions to this, nor apologized, or was in any way self-effacing or embarrassed about her motion. Good for her. In fact, I spent the better part of an hour and  a half talking with her, and she never once mentioned why she was in her chair, which is one of the first things most people will tell you.

By the time we parted I was a bit awestruck. Here was a girl who was equal to anyone you could mention, and she knew it. You might not know it, until you started talking with her, but once you did, boy it wasn’t hard to figure out. She was in every was just as able as you and I. The few ways she differs were obviously unimportant in the grand scheme of things, very much like a person with glasses doesn’t think they are disabled because they have to wear corrective lenses. She is not disabled, as she is just as able as you or I. She is just differently abled.

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