Yesterday, I had an unsettling experience with an old lady in a wheelchair (also known as “an elderly with a physical disability”).
I was at the mall by myself to buy groceries. As I was walking from one side of the mall to the other, at one point, the aforementioned old lady in a wheelchair was wheeling herself in the opposite direction. I was walking near the wall and there was some space between her and the wall, so I figured that I could squeeze pass her.
But as I was about to squeeze pass this space, the lady sped up her wheeling, ran her wheelchair into the wall in front of me to block my path, made a face at me (but thinking back, her face was in that horrible grimace the entire time), and pointed to the floor behind her back indicating for me to walk around her.
To an outside observer (who all turned to look because her running into the wooden wall – for construction – was loud enough for others in the vicinity to hear), it would seem like this situation had no effect on me: my steps didn’t skip a beat and when that happened, I agilely and quickly changed my path and navigated my way around her as I kept my eyes fixed in the distance as I was doing before (side note: I don’t make much eye contact with people when I walk around).
However, on the inside, I WAS PISSED OFF. The thoughts in my head were along the lines of, “What is her problem!? I wasn’t going to hit her as I was going to walk pass her! She’s already old and in a wheelchair, and now she wants to piss others off and make enemies? Are all old women in wheelchairs bitter?” This actually went on for awhile in my head. Notice that I used those externally salient features of the woman to judge her actions (“She’s a bitter old woman in a wheelchair.”)
Luckily, alternative thoughts came into my head after I had a chance to calm down a bit. Currently, I am helping to develop a Diversity Awareness Workshop for the staff at my university as part of a series of Inclusivity Workshops. Therefore, I’ve been reading a lot about assumptions, stereotyping, prejudice, attributional biases, and mindfulness. So I came up with an alternative explanation, “Maybe something similar has happened where someone wasn’t aware that the space between her and the wall was too narrow and he or she walked into this lady in the pass, and that has happened too many times so the lady got irritated.” (Side note: are there any alternative explanations to her behavior? Perhaps her husband died the day before? But from my end, she was pretty rude!)
So on both ends, we were making assumptions. (I can only assume that) She assumed I was an ignorant, young girl who didn’t even consider that I might potentially walk into her, and I assumed that she was a totally bitter bitch because of her circumstances. But by me being aware that there were assumptions and potentially inaccurate interpretation of the behavior and situation going on in addition to potential alternative explanations, it made me feel less angry about the situation. Also, at first, I noticed myself generalizing this behavior to everyone in a wheelchair (“I guess I’m supposed to walk at least 1 meter away from them!”) but because I caught myself in this process, I intend to ask my guy friend in a wheelchair what his thoughts are on the “minimum” distance people in wheelchairs need to navigate so that either a) I can be aware of it and follow those guidelines in the future or b) hear from him whether there is a minimum distance at all.
A little more awareness, communication, understanding, and less assumptions would benefit us all.